The struggle for women’s rights and freedom in Bangladesh isn’t exactly a story of flowers and rainbows. Since the British period, men and women alike have dedicated their lives to the empowerment of women in this region, and it can be safely said that we have come a long way in that regard. However, women’s rights in Bangladesh are far from established – there are many major and minor factors working directly and indirectly towards the repression of the female population.
Normalizing gender roles in advertisements
A husband calls home and tells his wife that his entire office staff is coming home for dinner the next day. So, the wife, who is not so good at cooking, uses a special brand’s Halim mix, and her cooking becomes gourmet, all thanks to its ‘special blend of spices’.
In another household, the son keeps bringing over his many friends without asking his mother, and so the mother cooks a special brand’s instant noodles to keep her guests happy.
In a third household, a husband complains that his wife’s hands have become very rough from washing all the clothes by hand, and so she uses a special brand’s detergent powder, and her hands become smooth to the touch again, all thanks to its ‘special formula’.
This is the usual image seen in the advertisements found in Bangladesh, where about 4 out of 5 advertisements of household products (spice mixes, detergents, household appliances, etc.) portray the women in a role of servitude and the household activities of cooking, cleaning, picking up the groceries, and keeping the men of the house happy. On the other hand, the men are almost always portrayed as the breadwinner of the family.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a woman working in the house and a man working outside, but when this image is repeatedly portrayed by the mass media as the picture of what an ‘ideal’ family should look like, it reinforces the traditional gender roles – the idea of which kind of work ‘suits’ a woman and which suits a man – in the minds of the audience. These stereotypes influence the ideology of both men and women as to what kind of work they should strive to do, and when this mindset gets burrowed into the mind of a man or a woman, it harms the overall progress of women’s empowerment in the long run.
Turning women into products
Perhaps the most popular and influential branch of media not only in Bangladesh, but in most South Asian countries is Bollywood. And along with its popularity, Bollywood brings a lot of harmful messages when it comes to the treatment of women – including but not limited to the overt sexualization and objectification of women in their ‘item songs’. Indian actor Amir Khan talks about this in his show Satyamev Jayate (Season 3, Episode 6), where he shows the audience a documentary on the portrayal of women in Bollywood films. The documentary points out that Bollywood films teach young audience members, especially young males, the following things:
Forcefully touching or kissing a girl will make her like you more.
Degrading a girl’s character based on her dress makes you look witty and smart.
It is heroic and ‘macho’ to keep pursing a girl even after she says ‘no’.
Almost every child in Bangladesh grows up with a certain amount of exposure to Bollywood, and as a result, they get exposed to these harmful messages that come with it. The portrayal of things like sexual harassment and eve-teasing as normal or even heroic and ‘manly’ actions seep deep into a young audience member’s mind and kept unchecked, creates potential eve-teasers, harassers, or even rapists. The senseless objectified and sexual display of women like products to intentionally appeal to the perverted side of a young male audience sends the message that women are nothing but objects for the gratification of men. This casual and unchecked degradation of women also has its negative effects on girls. When an actress like Kareena Kapoor, who many young girls might see as a role model, appears in an item song singing “I am a Tandoori chicken, relish me with alcohol,” it cannot possibly have a positive effect on the audience’s mind about the position of a girl. These things potentially teach a girl that it is socially accepted for a boy to treat her like an object, to harass her and tease her, and the boy will face no consequences for his actions. It gives way to the notion that being assaulted is a girl’s own fault, being the Tandoori chicken that she is, and she should try to hide it from society instead of exposing the perpetrator.
Bangladeshi local films and songs are not devoid of these elements either. Songs like ‘Chumki Cholechhe Eka Pothe’ directly teaches boys that it is okay to follow a girl walking alone. The Bangla ‘B-grade’ films released in the early 2000s, mainly containing actors like Dipjol, Moyuri, Jhumka, Shakib Khan, Mehdi, Munmun and others were filled with degrading and objectifying content, lacking any real story or plot. Although some films of that period like ‘Bostir Rani Suriya’, ‘Bachao’, and ‘Majhir Chhele Barrister’, had positive plots like a girl’s fight against her rapists, a police officer’s fight against corruption, and a poor man’s rise to prosperity, the producers of the films filled them with sexual content to appeal to the young male audience and gain quick commercial success.
Treatment of women in media industry
Shanta Maria, a prominent radio journalist working in Bangladesh who has been kind enough to speak to me, has shed light on the ways in which the women of this country’s media are treated. She said, “The number of women in television media is more compared to newspapers. Fresher women are hired and put in front of the camera because it is thought that women have more glamour and physical appeal. This is a patriarchal point of view.”
Here, objectification comes into play once more. Women, instead of being hired for their qualifications, are hired as show-pieces in front of the camera in order to appeal to the male audience, but rarely do they make it to the senior policy-making positions.
Shanta Maria also spoke about the media’s reluctance to work with older, more senior women. She says, “In Bangladesh’s media, whenever a woman reaches the age of 40, 50, or 60, instead of being more empowered, she is discarded. They are removed from the media.”
Women also have to face factors like sexual harassment and favoritism by their male colleagues in more senior positions. Shanta Maria says that the issue of harassment was not so prevalent in the world of print media, but it has increased with the advent of electronic media. She says in this regard, “We, the women who used to work in the newspaper could not even imagine that girls would ever be harassed. However, now we are seeing this all the time in electronic media.”
Even though the number of women working in the media sector has increased in the past few years, a very small number of them can last in the field, and the rest are forced to give up and quit. When asked about this, Shanta Maria spoke about her personal experience - “I started directly working in the newspaper industry in ’97…. Many girls took the job, and only four of us have lasted in the field. Why did the rest go away? Firstly, there is the uncertainty of a newspaper job. Secondly, whenever people are terminated, the women are terminated first…. It is thought that women work as a hobby, while the men work to sustain their families…. They cannot last due to the unfavorable conditions.” She added that most senior women of a higher age find it nearly impossible to find work in other media houses after being terminated from one, owing to the preference of freshers when it comes to women.
Lastly, while Shanta Maria told me that there have been improvements regarding the treatment of women in the media, she also said that various seminars and workshops must be held to raise awareness among those at the policy-making levels in order to bring forth real change.
To conclude, this article does not, in any way, try to deny the progress that the media of this country has made regarding women’s rights. The changes are appearing, and they are visible. However, they are not nearly enough. In this day and age, it is very difficult for an individual to tune out mass media for even ten minutes. As a result, the mass media’s messages have a huge influence on a person’s ideology. It is incumbent on the people who run the media to keep this power of influence in mind and use it responsibly, to build the psyche of our nation in a progressive and inclusive way, so that we can take baby-steps towards a future where women are not sidelined, and are seen for their true qualifications.
Rahee Nayab Oyshi works at Bangladesh Post