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Ghost Shadows: Women and Finance

Photo source: Sam Sherrat / Flickr

The Sun descended in all its glory, spreading its tentacles of saffron across the pitch-black blanket. My parents and I set out from home on foot and headed towards a popular café in the neighbourhood for coffee and cheesecake. Upon reaching, we proceeded to place our orders. Despite our repeated attempts at garnering attention – first with the usual “Excuse me” and then with the harsher knock on the glass slab over the counter – the waiters did not look up from their unsolved crossword puzzles. As voices of men floated in the air, the waiters looked straight past us at a few male customers and processed their orders attentively and enthusiastically. Our orders were similarly processed soon after, albeit when Abbu (father) was placing them. Ammu (mother) and I gazed at our ghost-shadows. We existed but were not recognized as the decision-makers.

In another instance, after closing the sale of a bag to me, the cashier returned the change, winking at his colleagues and insinuating victory over the ‘weaker’ sex. As I counted the notes one by one, holding them under the white fluorescent light to identify their authenticity or lack of it, his eyes protruded against a pallid face in an unblinking stare. He had already reached for the cash-drawer by the time I stopped counting and found that he had handed me a lesser amount of money in change. This is a recurring scenario in every woman’s life – we are neglected as finance-controllers, we are faced with attempts of cheating as we handle money, we are given less than what is our due share of financial property, we are not trusted with money.

The origin of this problem can be traced back to the way a child is culturally socialized. “A man can lead his life without a woman, but a woman needs a man throughout her life” – a holy chant that a girl in Bangladesh customarily grows up with and one that I hear frequently to this day. One of the needs of a woman that a man is entrusted to fulfil is economic support. This is also the need that forces a woman to remain in an abusive relationship. Young girls are taught to rely first on the father (or the next closest male kin) and then on the husband or son. As a result, children are conditioned to believe that earning and making major purchase decisions are best left to a man.

I did not have a bank account till I was 22 last year. I would see Ammu with outstretched hands, asking Abbu for money to make even the basic of purchases, such as soaps and toothbrushes. Ammu and I would break down all the expenses to Abbu who would then decide which of those were “valid, worthy, and necessary.” This was when Abbu himself did not accompany us to shop and pay for goods and services on behalf of us. The problem is further compounded when the men in a family are pushed towards well-paid jobs and academic disciplines involving mathematics, finance, and technology, whereas the women are held back from doing the same: a flicker of ambition in her eyes and she is deemed a threat to family values. For 18 long years, I believed this to be the right path. I did not seek work and studied only half-heartedly.

Last year, Women and Child Development Ministry of India proposed a law that would mandate husbands to ‘pay’ a monthly salary to their wives for doing daily household chores. The amount will be tax-exempt and predetermined by the government. The amount is estimated to be around 10-20% of the man’s monthly salary that is to be deposited in his wife’s bank account. While the policy was lauded – by feminist lawmakers and homemakers alike – for being sensitive to the economic deprivation faced by housewives, I felt a key issue – apart from the social implications of the policy (trivializing a marital relationship to a kind of employment contract) – was still dangling in the air: rights of a woman to her own source of earning and to control over finance. The woman is still fully-dependent on someone else to bear her expenses. She is not being motivated to be economically self-sufficient and to exercise a significant control over her spending and saving decisions.

Religion plays a crucial role in the socialization process. In 2011, the Bangladeshi government approved the National Women Development Policy (NWDP), three years after it was proposed by the caretaker regime. The policy included provisions for the equal participation of women in employment, wealth, and education. More specifically, it granted women full control over earnings and inherited property. This was met with strong protests – once after the proposal in 2008 and again after approval in 2011 – by religious hardliners who misconstrued the policy as one granting equal inheritance rights (in Islamic traditions, a woman is entitled to half of her brother’s share even if she is the one who spends on the household) and branded it as an anti-Islam propaganda. In Hindu traditions, a woman has limited rights to inheritance. In practice, divisions of inheritance are generally administered by male relatives and scholars.

A month ago, a sermon recorded on video and released on Facebook and Youtube caused nationwide outrage in Bangladesh. In it, the 93-year old preacher alludes to women as a source of temptation like “tamarinds and even worse.” He cast aspersions on the chastity of women working in garments industry, a sector that is the backbone of Bangladeshi economy and that employs mostly women. He admonishes parents to avoid educating girls beyond Grades 4-5. As the video unfolded, my vision became hazy as my eyes welled up with tears. My hair stood on end and my cheeks felt unusually hot. I cringed and let out a gasp of disgust every now and then. The last time I felt this way was when I had watched a documentary on sexual abuse of children. His unabashed language and prehistoric views left me sexually-bullied. I witnessed the strangulation of women’s right to economic emancipation. Radical clerics who held similar views were largely ignored by the masses, but what makes this man especially dangerous and prominent is his substantial political and social power. He is the principal of a Madrasa, the head of Qawmi Madrasa Education Board, the leader of an extremist fringe group that opposes the NWDP and education policy, and an active political campaigner that shows allegiance to the mainstream opposition party – all these in Bangladesh.

Weeks before Eid-ul-Fitr, I went to a local bank to collect and deposit the stipend I had received from World Pulse. Stepping into the establishment, I felt I was thrust into a foreign terrain. Like sporadic bursts of blue and green in the arid desert, women – both as employees and as customers – made an insignificant composition of the total population there. Heads turned and stares lingered as I made myself comfortable on a revolving-chair at the bank premises. In this same bank, the mandatory official forms and other formal communication materials started with “Dear Sir” (without any reference to “Madam”) – a subtle indication of how women have been pushed to the backdrop of the banking scene.

Furthermore, women entrepreneurship is not well-received in Bangladesh. According to the Economic Census (2001-2003), women own approximately 3% of all enterprises. The businesses are concentrated mainly in traditional sectors, namely agriculture, beauty and fashion, handicrafts, and fast food. Various research studies in the past 5 years reveal women’s low access to bank loans and other institutional funds due to, for instance, prolonged loan-processing time. The poor, socially-marginalized women face the most brunt due to assumed lack of creditworthiness on double counts – first for being poor and then for being women. While government and NGOs are offering special women economic development programs and micro-credit schemes to redress the situation, a more conscious effort at the grassroots level is required.

Ever since I could differentiate equality from inequality, I realized economic freedom as a powerful means of empowering women. While it is not demeaning to receive financial support from family members (in fact, it is a defining principle of family values in Bangladesh to share resources), I want women to be on the giving end as well. Not cowering due to social expectations, I joined Finance classes just a year before graduation. Disproving misconceptions, I ranked the 4th highest in Corporate Finance (a concentration elective) course examination. Currently earning, I also make it a habit to pay the bill fully or at least partially when accompanied by a man at a restaurant. It reflects my willingness and ability to take charge of things, distributing the power dynamics fairly within a relationship.

Ammu beams with joy as I buy her a pair of earrings. She knows neither of us has to answer to a supreme male figure. She knows she would not have imagined this during the 1960s. She knows she will not depend on others for basic expenses as she is set to establish her own retail business that uplifts the economic status of other women in remote and marginalized communities by delivering their artistic creations to the flourishing urban markets.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Photo source: Shamsuddin Ahmed / IRIN

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Comments

Y's picture

Congratulations to you and

Congratulations to you and your mother for being in the forefront of breaking the mold to which you were expected to conform.

Y

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Ms. Yvette,

Thank you so much for your kind words!
I hope you are well.

Warmly,
Monica

bitani's picture

very nice

this is a very well focused piece and i like the narrow angle you started from before giving us more background info. Your writing is so thorough and i couldn't but read the piece until the end.

It's good to know about the policy in India; I loved it! :) (F)

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Bitani,

Thank you so much for your kind words! I am glad you found my article engaging enough to read till the end.

Regarding the policy in India, it is a good step towards identifying the economic problems faced by a woman, but not good enough in solving them. In my article, I mention that I do not really support the policy because:
1) it trivializes the marital relationship into a sort of employment contract; and
2) it does not empower the woman to have her own source of earnings and does not grant a significant control over her earnings

That particular paragraph is re-produced below:

|| Last year, Women and Child Development Ministry of India proposed a law that would mandate husbands to ‘pay’ a monthly salary to their wives for doing daily household chores. The amount will be tax-exempt and predetermined by the government. The amount is estimated to be around 10-20% of the man’s monthly salary that is to be deposited in his wife’s bank account. While the policy was lauded – by feminist lawmakers and homemakers alike – for being sensitive to the economic deprivation faced by housewives, I felt a key issue – apart from the social implications of the policy (trivializing a marital relationship to a kind of employment contract) – was still dangling in the air: rights of a woman to her own source of earning and to control over finance. The woman is still fully-dependent on someone else to bear her expenses. She is not being motivated to be economically self-sufficient and to exercise a significant control over her spending and saving decisions. ||

How is the situation in Lebanon? How different or similar is it?

Warmly,
Monica

olutosin's picture

Thanks my darling sister!!!

Thank you so much for expressing our minds....You took ever word from my mouth and you pen it here. Thanks again.

Olutosin Oladosu Adebowale
Founder/Project Coordinator
Star of Hope Transformation Centre
512 Road
F Close
Festac Town
Lagos-Nigeria

https:

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Olutosin,

You're welcome for I intend to write on issues that matter to all of us! Thank you to you too for your encouraging words!

Warmly,
Monica

I felt like you are speaking on my behalf when you narrated the story of the male waitresses. We used to be perceived as ghost shadows but now and because of your raising up the issue we are visible.

Thanks and congratulations for writing up this.

Yosra Akasha, Sudan

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Yosra,

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to leave a comment! I am touched by your confidence in me.

Warmly,
Monica

Nadz's picture

I love your story

It is very calm, i get this feeling that you are looking at this injustice from a new place. As if you have located it in its rightful place and you will no longer be ruled by it. I think that is true liberation, one that comes from the inside. I wish you look, I know anyone who stands in your way will be knocked down.

Life is just for living

Monica09's picture

Solution as important as the problems

Dear Nadz,

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

Maybe it is the effect of VOF training that my articles are turning out to be solution-oriented instead of being a problem-identifier piece only.

Finding and acting upon solutions is truly liberating.

In friendship,
Monica

UpasanaC's picture

So Courageous and happy

Such a lovely life you have. You have the courage to stand for yourself and your rights. You have a long way to go in life and congrats for your certifications too.I pray to god that you rise as a shining star.

Cheers to Life

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Upasana,

Thank you so much for your kind words. They do mean a lot to me.

In friendship,
Monica

pelamutunzi's picture

true true i agree

i agree with you in how women have to fight for financial recognition. paying a salary to your wives is like nepotism. it amounts almost to lobola(dowry) paying which makes men abuse women because they take you like property.

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.
regards
pela

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Pela,

Thank you for taking the time to read and to leave a comment.

I agree. Paying salary to a spouse for household chores is not only demeaning to the person, but also demeaning the value of raising a family and looking after the house willingly for personal and social satisfaction (not for money). I hope both dowry and paying salary to wife are banned.

In friendship,
Monica

Iryna's picture

Beautiful article

I agree with Pelamutunzi, financial dependence is much deeper than just the money issue. Everything in our world is tied to money. Feeling dependent on men because of money makes women dependent on men in general. Money is a social instrument so women have access to the society only after a man approves. This is humiliation and must be changed.

Monica, you are very lucky that you have a chance which your mother didn't have, to feel independency. I understand that in the beginning you can face with sarcastic sights, but with the time, and I believe very soon, this will change because of you and women like you.

Very beautiful article, Monica, congrats!

Warm greetings,
Iryna

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Iryna,

Thank you so much for your confidence in me. Your words give me courage. I really do hope that through me, others are able to benefit for good causes.

Warmly,
Monica

Sarah Whitten-Grigsby's picture

Excellent, Monica!

Dear Monica,

You've done an excellent job illustration the sort of dis-empowerment to which women are subjected and which women feel when deprived of any sort of financial independence, or even financial recognition.

So true that to have one's own money, and certainly to have the authority and respect to make independent financial decisions, is a tremendous source of empowerment.

I will never ceased to be amazed at the utter backwardness of the thinking of some men like the 93 year-old preacher whose appalling, public comments about women you describe. Sickening! And let us hope he didn't use "God" and/or religion as an excuse to demean women...?

Thank you for all the work and thought you put into this eye-opening piece, and for the very creative and compelling words and phrases you use to tell the story.

I wish you ongoing success in using your Voice to make positive changes for your countrywomen.

Respectfully,

Sarah

Monica09's picture

Preacher's other comments on women

Dear Sarah,

You will be even more surprised if you look at his other comments. Rough translation of his speech available here: http://unsbd.com/english/?p=978

He did use God/religion as an excuse, but if you look carefully, throughout his speech, he alludes to only a few religious texts, some of which are even contentious by the standards of a contemporary Muslim. He mostly uses his own interpretations of things. I feel figures like him and education that he provides are the ones behind the perverseness of men in society. What else can you say when he implies that a man must be impotent if he does not feel lustful towards women or does not ogle at women?

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to leave such lovely words for me!

Warmly,
Monica

Zoepiliafas's picture

Thank you

Thank you for your piece. I too was raised in a household in which my father was in control of the finances. My mother did not truly have a say in how money was spent. As a result, my father often spent money on his own personal pleasure while she had to scrounge to find money to buy undergarments and clothes for herself.

I knew that this was not okay as a young girl but also was buying into the idea that men were better at math and finances - even better at taking out the garbage. :) It took until I was in my 20's to break this stereotype down in myself. I have since managed massive budgets for the federal government.

It sounds as if your society is set up to promote the thinking that women are not capable of making these sorts of judgement. The gentleman that you spoke of in the media, purporting the prehistoric viewpoint of women, is contributing to this. Do you see any men standing up against this type of rhetoric?

What ways can the women and men in your country provide a different perspective from this man and get the proper attention?

Thank you and you will be in my thoughts!

Zoe Piliafas

Voices of Our Future Community Manager
World Pulse

Monica09's picture

Interesting!

Dear Zoe,

I am so glad that my article struck a chord with your own experiences. You said you managed to break the stereotype in your 20's. How did you do that? Could you give us a glimpse? It could inspire a lot of us.

Professor Muhammad Yunus, a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, has tried to encourage many women towards economic freedom and entrepreneurship by giving them micro-loans to start their businesses. While its effect on poverty (whether micro-loans reduced poverty or not) is still debatable, research studies confirm that this economic freedom reduced domestic violence against women. Other development practitioners, such as Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC, are training women so that they are able to earn their own livelihood. For example, training women how to drive. On a more grassroots or "relatable" level, take the example of my uncle who allows full freedom to his wife to pursue her hobbies and to have her own financial independence and decision-making ability. His daughter, i.e. my cousin is also studying in a field pertaining to finances. All of these are very encouraging.

Another important point that needs to be mentioned is that women must have the liberty to decide how to use her hard-earned money. For examples, sometimes men force their wives/daughters to earn and then snatch their earnings for alcohol or substance abuse. Currently, there are no real-time mechanisms in Bangladesh to ensure this, apart from the anti-domestic violence campaigns.

The approach that I personally favour is this: People with significant influence AND the right mission and vision must advocate for human rights. For example, TV actors and musicians exert significant control over the perceptions of general people. It would be great if each one of them began to use their power to talk about these issues. It does not need to be big. A simple TV campaign or even a workshop can go a long way in propagating a different perspective. The preacher used this same technique. He used his influence to deliver a speech and mislead many young men. I think media AND media personalities can be extremely powerful. India for example is catching up on this approach. Popular celebrities are actively endorsing or even running their own campaigns. For example: https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMard

Aptly indicated by Harvard Business Review, a person should really make it his/her mission to become influential and achieve one/all of the following:
1. Making the world more beautiful.
2. Making the world more fun.
3. Making the world more efficient and smart.

Let me know about your ideas on how we can deliver a different perspective to the masses!

Warmly,
Monica

Maura Bogue's picture

Great article

This is an interesting piece with a unique angle on women's financial hardships, and you describe your personal feelings and experiences well. A thought: You state that women own approximately 3 percent of all enterprises and have a hard time getting loans. Would it be possible to mention whether Grameen Bank has influenced people's view on women and money in the the country?

Monica09's picture

About Grameen Bank and microcredit

Dear Ms. Maura,

As mentioned in response to a previous comment by Zoe:
"Professor Muhammad Yunus, a 2006 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of Grameen Bank, has tried to encourage many women towards economic freedom and entrepreneurship by giving them micro-loans to start their businesses. While its effect on poverty (whether micro-loans reduced poverty or not) is still debatable, research studies confirm that this economic freedom reduced domestic violence against women."

HOWEVER (and a big however), the current political climate in Bangladesh is averse to micro-credit and Grameen Bank in particular. Coupled with fraudulent micro-credit institutions, this has slowed down the impact of micro-loans on women empowerment.

While the number of women earning and making financial decisions is increasing, the number is still not significant enough for the society at large to accept and be normal about a woman spending her own money and paying the bill.

Regards,
Monica

Leigh Cuen's picture

Beautiful

What a lovely opening line. Great job with this article.

Leigh Cuen, @La__Cuen
Like Leigh on Facebook

Monica09's picture

Thank you!

Dear Leigh,

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and to leave a comment!

Congratulations on your work too!

In friendship,
Monica

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