Sweatshops for Women’s Lib

Normally when you think of women working in garment factories, women’s lib doesn’t typically come to mind. While sweat shops aren’t synonymous with social progress, hear me out.

Talking with a Bangladeshi woman who spent twenty years helping to lead the very strong women’s movement here, I got a new perspective on the garment industry.

According to her, the garment factories coming in did more for the women’s movement than anything else could have. It gave women a reason to get out of the house. Along with getting out of the house, they also gained their freedom.

She said that the introduction of garment factories made the most difference for the poorest women. When the factories first came in, there was pressure for women to stay in the home. For those women who were extremely poor or supporting their families without the help of a spouse, it was easier for them to negotiate around this. They simply told those who were against their working, that if they provided food for their family then they would be happy to stay at home. When this wasn’t possible, they were then given the freedom to go to work.

However, for those women in the middle and upper class it was harder to gain their rights. For these women there was no excuse to leave the house when their husband’s were providing more than enough for the household.

My contact here told me that when she went door to door to recruit for the women’s movement, these were also the hardest groups to engage in the movement. They were content in their families and didn’t want to upset the balance by getting involved. She said that for these women they had to use the tactic of convincing them of the need to be an advocate for others to progress.

The Afghans I’m with noted how odd it was for them to see women, particularly Muslim women, moving about freeing in the streets without concern for their safety and so forth.

I was told that back in the early days there was a rape and murder of a woman who had gone to the police for help getting home. There was major backlash in the community and pressure was put on society to establish safe passage for women to and from the factories. By this point the families had begun to depend on this income and needed to support the women to have this elevated quality of life. Now there are very harsh penalties for rape, including the death penalty. The social pressure is also strong to leave women alone.

When I asked about the conditions or wages, I was told that while it wasn’t a great deal of money, it made a significant difference in the economic status of their families. More importantly it has made a great difference in their freedoms as women. I was told that in the beginning they made sure not to make a big fuss about the wages that were being offered. They gave it time for the industry to become settled and dependent on their labor before they asked for more. Now they are beginning to make strides in getting better wages and working conditions.

While it might be a far stretch from the historical perspective of boycotting sweat shops, it does bring to light another side of the story. I’m so impressed with were Bangladesh’s attitude towards women. So be it if that includes the thousands of women that can be seen headed to the factories in bright and colorful clothing each morning.



1 Comment

  1. barbara on July 7, 2008 at 12:32 am

    This is very interesting. The use of micro loans for women is also very helpful on an individual basis while the factory work has helped an entire generation.

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