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The best books on Rural Women in the Developing World

recommended by Khushi Kabir

The Bangladeshi campaigner for lifting women out of poverty says village life has been wrongly idealised. It is not a harmonious whole, with the elders looking after the interests of all the villagers alike

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Tell me about Jhagrapur: Poor Peasants and Women in a Village in Bangladesh by Jenneke Arens and Jos Van Beurden.

When this book was published in 1977, it was one of the first in-depth accounts of the lives of rural women in Bangladesh. The authors are Dutch anthropologists who lived in Jhagrapur village for an extended period.

Prior to its publication, there was the misconceived notion of a rural-urban divide. It was assumed that the village was a harmonious whole, and that the village leadership looked after the interests of the villagers and tried to create an egalitarian balance. Class differences amongst villagers were assumed not to exist, and it was considered unfeasible and unnecessary for women to be organised separately. Class and gender divides were not clearly articulated, but this book helped to rectify that.

Has life for rural women changed over the years?

Yes, and definitely for the better. Literacy levels have greatly improved due to targeted government policies and NGO interventions. Girls are completing secondary school studies at the same rates as boys, but tertiary education remains a big frontier. Many parents are worried about sending their daughters to live in university accommodation, as there are concerns about their safety.

Men in rural communities are also now helping with household chores. Up until the late 1970s, men feared being ridiculed within the village if they did so. Now men are saying that they do help – perhaps not every day, but when needed – for example, if their wife attends a meeting in the evening. The fear of ridicule has disintegrated because we have worked to create an alternative social system, where men feel more comfortable in having an equal role. And women are feeling stronger also.

However, there is still a lot that needs to be done. A total change in mindset regarding women is required – both at policy level and within the home. Improved literacy rates, for example, mean nothing unless there is a change of psyche. Plain and simple patriarchy still exists in many forms.

In rural areas it is absolutely impossible for a woman to decide to stay single. She would be considered ‘easy prey’. If for any reason a woman never marries, she must fade into the background in order to be accepted. A married or widowed woman can be much more feisty, but an unmarried woman is considered a stigma.

After working with a community for a year or so, we conduct joint training sessions with men and women. At this point the women are much more articulate – for the men, it may be the first time they are hearing that their behaviour is not appreciated. It’s amazing, on the whole, how men are willing to change.

Reversed Realities: Gender Hierarchies in Development Thought by Naila Kabeer.

When this book was published 15 years ago, development programmes were mostly generated with an inbuilt male, urban, educated elite bias. Kabeer exposes this very effectively.

Has that changed?

It’s been questioned. It’s changed in the sense that there are many people challenging the ideas put forth, but, by and large, development programmes are very much donor-driven. In the context of family planning, for example, many decisions are made without the consent of the people they are supposed to support.

And, whilst it’s very good that there are Millennium Development Goals that focus on gender equality, whether by reducing maternal mortality rates or improving women’s access to livelihoods, my criticism is that such goals are target-orientated rather than process-orientated. To me, what is more important is to ask who is responsible for change and who is in control? And what will happen once the target date passes?

Kabeer also discusses population control and argues that women must play a greater role in policy-making. ‘Population control’ first became a buzz word in the 1970s. There was a huge thrust during that time to promote it – there were advertisements about where to buy contraceptives and healthcare workers were set targets to provide family planning services to a certain number of couples. However, sometimes coercive methods were used as a result of those targets – many women were forced to use injectible contraceptives or other methods that had not been tried and tested. This happened not only in South Asia but in many other countries, including Scotland.

The Bangladesh government was very dependent on external aid for population control in rural areas. However, when Reagan’s conservative administration was elected in the United States in 1981, US government said it would stop funding population-control programmes in Bangladesh unless abortion was made totally illegal. Abortions that are carried out within the first eight weeks of pregnancy have always been available under the Bangladesh government’s family planning programme, though the service is known as ‘menstrual regulation’. Because abortion wasn’t made illegal, the funding of services in Bangladesh was greatly reduced, and many women had abortions carried out by untrained women in the village. Needless to say, many deaths from septicaemia and other preventable illnesses occurred.

The availability of family planning services remains inadequate, particularly in rural areas. But, with new health population policies being discussed, it’s likely that awareness-raising programmes will be strengthened once more. In my view, awareness is as important as the contraceptives themselves.

Let’s turn to Agunmukhar Meye by Nurjahan Bose.

I’ve always admired Nurjahan Bose, but it wasn’t until I read her book last year that I realised she has an incredible life story. Although she’s feisty, she’s not a showy person, nor very well-known. She’s not a leader of a particular organisation, but she’s taken part in every street-based movement and she’s well respected by activists.

Bose was born in a village in Bhola, southern Bangladesh. She writes about how she was perceived by the village community as being different because she wanted to study and make her own choices. After completing her secondary school studies, she went off to Washington and obtained a masters in social welfare from a Catholic university. Although a Muslim, she married a non-Muslim, a very well-known economist called Swadesh Ranjan Bose,who had to flee Bangladesh in 1975 following a military coup.

Bose doesn’t write about patriarchy explicitly, nor in analytical terms, but in describing her story, which includes accounts of incest in the village and sexual harassment from a Catholic priest, she brings out every aspect of patriarchy, whether globally, nationally or at village level. But she is a fighter and always overcame it.

Bose returned to Bangladesh when her late husband developed Parkinson’s, and she later began working in her village to improve the lives of the women.

This book ought to be translated to English, though it must be the right translation.

A Quiet Violence: View from a Bangladesh Village by Betsy Hartmann and James K Boyce. 

This book was written by two Americans, both of whom spoke Bangla and spent nine months living in a village. It describes in detail the nature of exploitation that the rural poor face, by describing individual characters and using their own words. It’s also very good at addressing the issue of landlessness. Whilst this book is more focused on class issues rather than patriarchy, it has a great deal of relevance for those wishing to better understand the specifics of life in a village as a woman.

Over the years I have found that fighting patriarchy is much more difficult than addressing issues of class. When it’s the latter, the ‘enemy’ are the other and the harm is arguably more visible – whether it’s land grabbers trying to prevent you from accessing resources, or siphoning off funds. It’s not your husband, brother or whatever that you have to fight against. And no one wants to fight all the time with the people they live with.

That said, I find it much easier to work with issues of gender amongst the rural peasantry, including the men, than with the urban elite. The male urban elite are much more resistant to change – perhaps because they think they have more to lose.

Your final choice is Surja Dighal Bari (The Ominous House), made into a film by Masihuddin Shaker and Shaik Niamat Ali.

Yes, this popular novel by Abu Ishaq was first published in 1955. The film was released in 1979. There are very few films that can project the story as well as a book, but this one does – it won several international awards. It’s just been re-released with subtitles.

It’s set in rural Bengal at the time of the famine in 1942 and 1943, which killed four million people.

The main character, Zaigun, is a single Muslim woman with two children from previous marriages. She was terribly poor so she moved to the city during the famine, but she found life there even more difficult. So she returned to the village and tried to make a life for herself. During the famine, the British passed a law making it illegal for rice to be moved from one district to another. She and a group of women travelled by train to other districts to buy rice and then they transported it and sold it illegally to earn money. She was caught once.

Zaigun faces great difficulty as a single woman who does not conform to the traditions and norms dictated by the village, which includes the use of religious sanctions against her.

The Ominous House wasn’t allowed to be shown in movie halls for more than a week. Commercial distributors here try to prove that good films do not sell, because they are making such awful films. So the directors, Masihuddin Shaker and Shaik Niamat Ali, had to fight for it to be shown. At the time of its release, I was working in a rural area but I came to Dhaka just to see it. I remember in one cinema hall, the whole film crew stood in front of the ticket counter arguing with the ticket sellers, who were telling customers that no tickets were available.

It was one of the first films to receive government support, which is the reason why it appeared in cinema halls. The directors sold everything they owned to make the film, and never made another.

When it was re-released last month, my daughter and I watched it together. Now that I’m older I’m more aware and conscious, and I often have a different impression of the films I once enjoyed. But I have to say that this one has stood the test of time.

October 18, 2010

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Khushi Kabir

Khushi Kabir

Khushi Kabir has been working to improve the lives of the rural poor in Bangladesh for almost 40 years. Since 1980 she has acted as head of Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), an NGO which promotes self-reliance through mobilisation and rejects the concept of micro-credit. She is also a longstanding member of SANGAT, the South Asian Feminist Network.

Khushi Kabir

Khushi Kabir

Khushi Kabir has been working to improve the lives of the rural poor in Bangladesh for almost 40 years. Since 1980 she has acted as head of Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), an NGO which promotes self-reliance through mobilisation and rejects the concept of micro-credit. She is also a longstanding member of SANGAT, the South Asian Feminist Network.