Wednesday, 10 June 2015 00:00

Standing tall

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Photo Credit: Quamrul Abedin

A Dhaka Tribune article by Farhana Urmee

Where does happiness come from? Day labourers live hand to mouth, but I met one of them who felt empowered by earning for her family.

Women are coming out of their homes in droves - from all ages, from all classes, educated or uneducated, from urban or village homes. Of course, we have a long list of problems in our patriarchal society, and women still face discrimination.
Yet, engaging in work that is paid can bring her esteem and empowerment, and gives her the freedom from being enslaved by the traditional role for women. Work is her liberty.

Driving, Miss Khatun
Aklima Khatun is an unsual sight on Dhaka streets: a female chauffer.

She is also the ever-smiling woman. She smiles when she steers the wheel. She smiles because of the power she has gained through her work. Her smile conveys her happiness at having a job, after having been an impoverished divorcee and single mother at the age of 20.

“My life has changed after I found this work.”

Regarding people’s response to seeing her behind the wheel, Aklima says: “I clearly see appreciation in the eyes of female passers-by. The men do stare at me sceptically, with distrust or disregard, but that look makes me feel that yes, I am doing something that has not really been done, and I feel uplifted.”

How did she come to choose this unusual line of work, rather than working in the RMG sector like so many other young women in her position?

Luck and an enterprising spirit.

After her divorce, Aklima went to live with her sister in Goforgaon, Mymensingh. She was helpless, scared, and felt like a burden to her family. As an uneducated and unskilled women, she did not have the courage to come to Dhaka all alone to try to find a job.

Her sister happened to live next door to a Brac-funded school, which found her and began to offer her skills training and counselling. They helped her move to Dhaka, where she took a five-month training course at their driving school. It took two tries to get her driver’s license, but she stuck with it. And she passed the exam, they helped get her a job.

She now works for another working woman in the city, who wants to help women like her become self reliant.

Aklima feels fortunate to have had Brac’s support. Where once she couldn’t even talk to strangers, she is now a self-assured woman, who holds her car keys in her hand all the time, as if in a perpetual state of readiness to drive.

She takes pride in taking on a job that is mostly done by men.

“During the training programme, one day I drove to my home village in a training car. From their faces I could see that I was setting an example for other girls in my village, whereas before I had been living as a poor abandoned wife,” she beams.

A healthy mission
Gulshan Ara, another tough but smiling woman, has 10 years experience in her field. She works as a health visitor and service promoter for Surjer Hashi Chinhito Clinic in Dhaka.

Health visitors travel from place to place to convey healthcare information such as on birth control, prenatal care, child vaccinations. They also counsel people to encourage healthy behavioural changes.

“As a child, I always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but I could not make it. Still, I made my dream come true by serving people in a different way. I hope to raise my daughter with a good education, and perhaps she can become doctor one day,” Gulshan says.

She smiles because it helps her with the uphill job of motivating people who are mostly illiterate with a number of health problems, asking them to adopt new habits. She has to be friendly even in the face of their negative reactions, and display on understanding of their apprehensions.

The work is not without challenges.

“I really feel good about my job, even though it comes with a number of physical hazards that I have to cope with.” says Gulshan, who walks in sun and rain, trudging through muddy roads in bare feet to get to her destination. She often needs to deal with local goons to enter certain localities.

“I see people are listening to me and trusting me simply because I am female,” Gulshan says, since it allows her access to people’s homes despite being a stranger.
“I know some women face problems at their work, but in some professions, it helps being a woman.”

Constructing her own reality
Construction worker Johura’s weather beaten face does not fail to smile while speaking about her job. She did not seem to feel like a victim, but rather takes pleasure at the sight of her children playing nearby while she works.

I found Johura at a construction site in Bashundhara neighbourhood, loading construction materials into a cane basket and carrying them to the other site workers. She also breaks bricks.

She and her husband eat together. He is also a construction worker, often at the same site, so they take their breaks together. She had surprisingly few complaints about difficulties at her workplace, other than occasional disagreements on late wage payments with the contractor.

Regarding eve-teasing, Johura says: “Just let someone come here to harass us. All the women working here at the site will teach him a lesson.”

She hopes to give her three children an education, and continue her work as long she is physically capable. At the end of the day when she gets her wage; she goes back to her abode with a smile.

Her just desserts
Sheema Akter is a 21-year-old university student who sells ice cream at Bashundhara City.

She took the job to help her father during a family financial crisis by earning her own income. Although the hard times have now passed, Sheema continues to work, in addition to studying at Eden College, where she is majoring in psychology.

Sheema is a pretty girl, and she attracts both negative and positive attention from customers. She says some people buy from her and express support for her, but others make suggestive comments. She just ignores the lewd behaviour. “I simply give them a polite smile and hand them their ice-cream.”

Sheema is proud of her work, which is letting her become financially independent, and fills her with self-esteem. 

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