In the 1980s, when I was growing up in Dhaka, hijab -wearing women were a rare breed in Bangladesh. Even the number of women wearing the burqa was minimal. But nowadays, out on the city streets for a walk, virtually half of Bangladesh’s women appear to have adopted the veil. All sorts of Islamic veils are visible - abaya, niqab, chador, khimar, burqa and, of course, the hijab.
Until some years ago, the trend of Bengali women wearing the hijab was pervasive among adults. Now it has reached youngsters, pre-teens and even pre-school-going girls. There are also an increasing number of ultra-conservative Muslim women, who cloak every inch of their bodies in black. They hide their hands and feet in gloves and socks.
The phenomenon of women taking the Arabic veil, especially adoption of the hijab, started to appear in the early 1990s. The minds of Bangladeshi Muslims have heavily transformed over the last decades; they have grown more conservative, more religious—no one denies that.
An astonishing fact is that it is largely the middle-class women who have morphed their traditional, Bengali way of dressing. But the attire of working class women has scarcely changed. The nascent hijab revolution had little effect on them.
There are a few garment factories in Mirpur in north Dhaka. Every morning, the neighbouring streets are swarming with the garment girls going to work. It is such a spectacular scene to behold. For ten minutes, everything in the neighbourhood gets eclipsed by the rising tide of hundreds of girls hurrying towards the factory buildings.
Whenever I run into the flow of these women walking on the streets, I try to see whether any of them is wearing the hijab, or whether someone has wrapped a scarf over her nose and mouth like a niqab. Curiously, never have I spotted any. Not a single girl. Some cover their heads with ornas in a U-shaped drape. Orna is a length of cloth covering the head and chest, which is very traditional.
I asked an acquaintance, who owns three garment factories, whether he had ever noticed any girl with an Islamic headscarf on his factory floors. He immediately responded: ‘no’.
Bangladesh’s ready-made garments (RMG) industry is the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner. After China, in 2018, Bangladesh is the second largest apparel exporter in the global market. In fiscal 2017, the country’s export earnings from the apparel sector were $34.83 billion or over 80% of Bangladesh’s total exports.
Since the mid-1980s, garment manufacturing factories began to boom in Bangladesh. Once the poor country of South Asia, Bangladesh is now on the brink of getting on the list of the developing countries by 2021. More than two million female workers are working in this industry, which makes up 60 per cent of the total RMG labour force.
Why are these young women in the Bangladeshi garments sector not tempted by the hijab? Or in black niqab or chador?
The answer is quite simple. In a country where the weather is hot and humid, these disadvantaged working-class women work roughly 12 hours on harsh factory floors. How would these manual workers survive such harsh long hours if they wore extra body covering clothes? They would suffer heat strokes.
For the first time in Bangladesh’s history, women have become a massive work force driving the economy. These women have been vilified and anathematised by Islamist groups who brand them as ‘ruined girls’. But the devout forget that behind the prosperity of today’s Bangladesh, these women play a tectonic role.
Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamist organization, was formed in 2010, in opposition to a Bangladesh government initiative to give women equal rights of inheritance. On May 5, 2013, the Islamist group organized a protest where thousands of supporters gathered at Motijheel, the commercial district in Dhaka. They placed 13 demands before the government, including a ban on men and women mixing freely in public.
This segregation would cost these women their earnings as the restrictions would limit their free right of movement, and would eventually cripple the country’s economy.
Conservative Muslims forget that Bangladesh is not Saudi Arabia. We do not have the oil money to keep our women at home, to cook and take care of children.
Like the vast female labour force in the garments manufacturing sector, working-class women in Bangladesh are engaged in a wide variety of jobs. They work alongside men as day labourers, street sweepers and even as street vendors.
They do not bother about keeping purdah (veil). The actuality is they cannot. The manual work they do leaves them with no choice to indulge that religious delight. Also, since their lives are plagued with problems in this life, like difficulties in making ends meet and with no time for themselves, they cannot afford to think much about the afterlife. Work, home and sleep are their options for survival.
The same survival theory applies to the lives of the country’s disadvantaged garment workers. The majority of these women hail from villages and poor families. Though their work is described as a kind of women’s empowerment, the unpalatable reality is that they are overworked and underpaid.
Wearing the hijab or maintaining Islamic veils has become a symbol of fashion, faith and modesty for a certain class in society. It is definitely not a practice among young working women who are the driving force in Bangladesh’s garment industry.
(The author, a Bangladeshi writer,is finishing his debut novel. He can be contacted at email@example.com)