– By Seema Amin
The hair strands of time, were they highlighted, would strike a striking look in 2009.
A few vermilion slashes down the back of the head (for a mutiny-cum-massacre), some gray-tinted purples (inaugural stones in buildings) and ….an almost imperceptible greenish-blue for the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius; the Mauritian incident, that is, buried in the general darkness of that year…
The Mumbai bombs gregariously exploded in 2008; one of the recovered traces of the ‘terrorists’ was a forged passport purportedly belonging to a Mauritian. The slight of build, coral-bejeweled State of Mauritius alleged that it was the passport of a Bangladeshi migrant labourer with footprints leading to the EPZs, where migrant labour, composed largely of women from China and Bangladesh, constitutes the majority of workers. One hungry (or should we say ‘weak’) state accused another. ..
Ramola Ramtohul, in ‘The influence of state patriarchy and sexual politics on contract labour migration policy in Mauritius,’ (2010) notes that were it not for then Foreign Minister Dipu Moni’s pleading with the state, the latter’s decision to deport all Bangladeshi male workers from its Export Processing Zones (EPZs) would have been official policy following the 2008 Mumbai blast; she argues that the state’s patriarchal stance in deporting men, rather than women, reveals not only that such potential threats work to further weaken the power of migrant labour in the EPZs but that the unwritten codes of the new international strategy of labour demasculinizes male migrant labourers as part of the processes of feminization in global commodity chains. The attempt to establish oneself as a legitimate citizen, through marriage, and possibly having terrorist links, is termed an illegitimate attempt at ‘regaining masculinity’, where the very qualities of submissiveness, invisibility, informality and vulnerability constitute the (gendered) preference for ‘nimble hands.’ In Bangladesh, these ‘low-skilled’ young women almost never move from ‘operator’ to ‘helper’, much the less, supervisor—reserved for men.
The tale of Bangladeshi men in Mauritius has a few unlikely things to say about intersection of what can be called eroding paternalism and global feminization. The EPZs are constituted of a feminized work force where neither the state nor the suppliers or buyers provide the paternalistic values of protection, i.e. given in more traditional gender structures or in feudal paternalistic relations. Initially, a preference was given to female workers in the textile EPZs(as the industry grew through the MFA–Multi-Fibre-Agreement–and European duty-free access, much like Bangladesh earlier); a decade later, as globalization and the end of the MFA accelerated the race to the bottom, they imported higher numbers of male and female workers from China and India. Ramtohul describes the ‘demasculinization’ of the men as an effect of the high level of state and employer control over the migrant workers, including the the threat of deportation in the case of trade unionism, rendering them (as) powerless (as women are meant to be). Even as the threat of deportation is dangled over men based on ‘illegitimate’ activities, Ramtohul shows how the ‘illegal’ activities of female migrant labour, prostitution, is completely ignored: “The sex trade appears to be treated as a private issue over which officials prefer to remain quiet, as long as it does not hinder the performance of the workers at work. This suits both the employers and the state.” Thus ‘feminization’ seems to constitute a zone of infra-darkness, women accelerate the race to not just the ‘bottom’ in terms of wages; they take us into a more controlled, shrouded realm. To exercise agency becomes ‘masculine’ and thus the rules of ‘legitimacy’ are gendered.
The need for more and more vulnerable workers and the conditions of hard work where overtime is the rule rather than the exception have led to a highly feminized workforce in Bangladesh as well. The threat of deportation does not exist here, but one of the justifications for not taking away GSP or destroying the industry for its famous statistics does include the hidden threat of laid-off workers descending into the ‘blacker’ market, i.e. prostitution. Unlike the Maurituan girls who made some extra cash, the girls rarely choose another job outside the garments trade (it is, first of all, all-consuming); they live or die with it; and we all know what kind of death has merged with the atrocity of survival….
The garments industry in Bangladesh, composed of largely rural migrants, is often cited as a more empowering, if low-skilled, over-worked alternative to other ‘feminine’ alternatives, simply for the independence that free-wage labour provides. We don’t have to quote Marx on free wage labour to sense the irony in such a process of empowerment where feminization–with its corollaries of unprotesting and thus exhilaratingly cheap labour based on informal contracts with unwritten rights–and globalization are the twin processes that even allow such ‘empowerment’ to unfold.
But the atmosphere in the ‘90s was eerily hopeful. In 2001 Naila Kabeer quoted the Director of the Labour Department of Bangladesh saying, “I believe that the ‘culture of compliance’ is far ahead in the garment manufacturing sector and changes in the RMG sector are dramatic compared to other sectors.” Discussing ‘Resources, Rights and the Politics of Accountability,’ she echoes the sentiments from a national workshop: “The women workers in the Bangladesh garment industry have had more public attention to their rights than any group of workers in the entire history of the country.”
The atrocity of exhibition? 2009. One hungry (or should we say ‘weak’) state accused another. ..
‘Shob kichu bhua.’ Sumaya.
She is hungry, but she can’t eat. She eats, but the tumor blocking her nose, bloating and bursting through her eyes, takes a shot at grinding her down its root canal first. Dark there, unreal, like some impossible Rana Plaza.
And she tells me, ‘Waking up darkness, going to sleep darkness… everything looks the same. Kotha bolte khub iche kore…’ Yes, the ability to bear monotony– that was her ‘skill’, the monotony that now is the fruit of her labour. PG Hospital. Have a Look. It’s the Elephant Man. (And I can promise you, you would wish you were blind).
There has been no health research on how the garments industry has gradually, over time, eroded the strength and immunity of teenagers who began their gender-empowered career young, at fourteen perhaps like Sumaya, who is too thin, too weak, to support an operation to alleviate even an hour’s itch from the tumor bursting through her skin that cannot hold the stretched, dangling eye (indescribable, without morphine).
Even if the PM and all the foreign and domestic funds in the world were channeled somehow, magically, to her, she has already been so ‘feminized’, so ‘nimble,’ such an exemplary example of push-pull and supply and demand, that the process begun could never be reversed; damage done; poshai hojom, kaj kothom. But let’s get back to patriarchy, all that intangible subversion of dignity; how does it work when capital becomes the mid-wife, between the Man and the fruit.
Shob bhua. Two graves for one person. Can’t Match DNA.
It’s International Woman’s Day soon and hundreds– or should I say –billions of women’s rights’ NGOs and activists affiliated with OBR (One Billion Rising) or not will, umm…. RISE.
Sumaya will try to sleep.
Naomi Klein wrote in ‘Patriarchy gets Funky’ (2001) on how the culture industries made identity politics and diversity a mantra of global capital. She quotes cultural critic Richard Goldstein, “This revolution…turned out to be the savior of late capitalism.”
Pedagogy of the Oppressed. A handful of definitions. Sumaya, were you a student of mine, I would have asked you to teach me:
Patriarchy/Peri-ousia– Ousia in ancient Greek refers to one’s being or essence. Peri-ousia is that which surrounds one’s essential being and thus defines “who” one “is.” Patriarchy can be seen as a system of male domination in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality or a system which developed along with the development of private property and state power. Or, it can be seen as both system and discourse.
Discourse— a regulated set of statements which combine with others in predictable ways. Foucault says: ‘We must conceive of discourse as a violence which we do to things, or in any case as a practice which we impose upon them; and it is in this practice that the events of discourse find the principle of their regularity.”
Then I would have told her, run after these words, kill them if you can. Burn them alive. In your body, the body arrested. In the body, the body bearing. In the body, the body unbearable.
She does not know how hysterical we get over Rights, she wants to eat ice cream and see again. She has decided my hands are softer than Shobuj’s; I don’t tell her no, mine are not nimble hands; don’t scold Shobuj, he loves you as though you were the last thing he would ever see with both eyes still able to shut and open.
Was it like a root canal, Rana Plaza? Well, what’s fire like anyway? Metaphors and similes were lost to Saydia when she tried to relay her experiences to me. Now that Sumaya has become an installation carved into her own skull, such literary devices seem unnecessary. Yes, the poets keep poetically describing the sky. And what exactly does your sky look like, Bangladesh? Looks like Boi Mela, February. Mela? Kothai Mela, Sumaya is almost excited, an excitement that wants to ‘see’ vicariously what else submerges us while she floats in the slow sure nausea of a malignant ‘pregnancy’ ‘without a due date.
Yeah, Boi Mela. You know, fun and games, books. Saris and panjabis. Very poetic poetry, poetically recited through reciting voices in recorded tapes, broken record invoking the beauty of our mother tongue… Well the language laboring between us in PG seems to be of another world; beyond Bangla. It’s all very otherworldly down there, in PG, cave-like; she yearns to speak but our tongues are gone.
There were men diseased who looked like lepers in New Market when I was a child. They’re not quite there anymore. I had hoped that along with ‘progressive’, ‘empowering,’ birth control and the garments industry they would have disappeared too, vodoo. Now I see that you Sumaya are the laboratory of the new leprosies. You’ve been kept in the dark, all winter they prepared for the celebrations of our liberated language, but you remained locked in ‘discourse’: ‘ultra poor,’ ‘ultra vulnerable,’ ‘slave-like conditions.’
Freed slave Sojourner Truth famously said, Ain’t I Woman? In the 1851 Womens Rights Convention in Ohio:
“And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?”
Sojourner, how would you compensate that indomitable arm? They’ve been trying to work out some formula for the compensation of an arm or leg, head… Slavery must have easily measured up the pieces of your body, your teeth…It’s just so hyped, the hyperbole of ‘slavery=garments industry or slavery= women’s oppression.’ There is no heroism in Sojourner’s voice when she cries out ‘none but Jesus heard me!’ The echo there resounds because a deaf world is no world worthy of man or woman. Glorifying the strength of women is as equally patriarchal as denigrating their fortitude.
Given the immeasurable cause and effect of her affliction, it is difficult to conceive ‘compensation’ for Sumaya. But she seems to know everything about what Alice Walker connotes as strength when she advises: ‘Be Nobody’s Darling.’ Sumaya ain’t anyone’s darling.
Visitors to Sumaya like me whisper some recent news:
Hey you know Delwar’s in jail.
Good. His wife too…
Yes, she was culpable too, no? (Though the practice of marrying to avoid culpability is not unknown here).
Yeah. You know, ‘The Law.’ We made it bend a little towards the scales of justice. Justice, does that word have a ring, Sumaya?
There is nothing I know or want in this world to beautify the horror you live,
I only want it to end.