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New Left Review I/168, March-April 1988


Naila Kabeer

Subordination and Struggle: Women in Bangladesh

Bangladesh belongs to what has been described as a belt of ‘classic patriarchy’ [1] The phrase is taken from Deniz Kandiyotti, ‘Bargaining with Patriarchy’, in Gender and Society (forthcoming, September, 1988). which stretches from northern Africa across the Middle East to the northern plains of the Indian sub-continent. [*] This article has drawn heavily on conversations, arguments and encounters with women who are active in various capacities in the women’s movement in Bangladesh. I would like to thank in particular Rokeya Rahman Kabeer, from Saptagram Nari Svanirvar Parishad, Khushi Kahir of Nijera Kori, Rubi Ghuznavi and Shireen Huq of Naripokkho. My thanks also to Meghna Guhathakurtha of Nari Shongoti and Maleka Begum of Mahila Parishad. Obviously, they will not all agree with my interpretation of women’s struggles in Bangladesh, but by their example, their ideas and their commitment they have all contributed in different ways to the analysis contained in this article. The social structures in this belt are characterized by their institutionalization of extremely restrictive codes of behaviour for women. They stand in marked contrast to the societies of south India and much of Southeast Asia whose institutions and practices permit a more egalitarian system of gender relations. [2] For a summary of the main elements that comprise these contrasting models of kinship and gender relations within the context of the Indian sub-continent, see Tim Dyson and Mick Moore, ‘On Kinship Structure, Female Autonomy and Demographic Behaviour’, in Population and Development Review, 9 (1) p. 35–60. In as much as both Muslim and non-Muslim societies are encompassed within this belt, Islam is only partially implicated in their extreme forms of female subordination. What the societies have in common are the practice of rigid gender segregation, specific forms of family and kinship and a powerful ideology linking family honour to female virtue. Men are entrusted with safeguarding family honour through their control over female members; they are backed by complex social arrangements which ensure the protection—and dependence—of women.

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