A day in the life of a Bangladesh village

Published October 13, 2006

(Part three of a series published in the Times Oct. 31, 1993)

It is a village like thousands of others: a cluster of huts lost on a flat plain, but the center of the universe for the 90 families who live here. We have come here for a day to see how a few of them live. Shamsul Huda and Ashrafunnisa Khatun are a husband-and-wife team of researchers from Dhaka who live in Rampura and collect sociological data on how some Rampura families cope with poverty and the stresses it brings. They took us around the village and introduced us to its people.

Here are scenes and conversations from our brief encounter. Who are you?

Little, flat-chested girls wearing only nose rings and oversized drawers fastened with string follow us around, carrying younger siblings on their hips. A boy sits on a palm frond and his friends drag it, treating him to a bumpy ride. Goats dart about bleating agitatedly.

The village is dotted with jackfruit trees whose pendulous fruit bulges off the trunks like large tumors. The villagers who raise these trees are incongruously skinny.

The women and children follow us everywhere. They pour silently into the homes we visit or stare from the outside, blocking the sunlight in the door and windows.

They have questions, too. Who are we? What do we want? Are we missionaries trying to make some Christians on the sly? Are we aid workers giving food or clothes to the homes we visit, leaving the other villagers out?

Why do we want to know about life in their village? Anyone with money migrates to the excitement of city life. Sansan and Suratan

Sansan leans against the wall of her hut and considers her age. "I think I must be 25 years old," she says. Her neighbors, who have crowded inside, burst into peals of laughter.

"I think she's about 50 or so," says Sansan's sister Suratan. The neighbors offer opinions. Why, Sansan had six children, of whom three died, and the eldest is a grown-up daughter who was married some years ago. Now, the daughter, Khorki, is back living with her mother. Khorki's in-laws sent her back with her infant son because Sansan couldn't pay them the 4,000 taka ($100) dowry she promised.

Sansan becomes quiet. Everybody always tells her she is a little stupid in the head. A widow like her should be humble, and now she has embarrassed herself before half the village.

Her hut is a smooth, brown rectangle of mud. A few clothes hang from rafters and pegs. There is an aluminum jug, and a faded photo of a woman standing stiffly. A shelf running along a wall is decorated with empty glass bottles, matchboxes and red battery cells.

The batteries are used, discarded by Sansan's son-in-law, who lives in Dhaka and owns a radio. Sansan is too poor to have one. The batteries are pretty and add a nice, modern touch to her hut. There are 90 households in the village, and only five are prosperous enough to own radios.

Sansan and Suratan stand quietly, with downcast eyes. But don't feel sorry for them. They are strong women who have borne many sadnesses. And although they both mouth the village credo that women should be meek and housebound and that only bad women are seen in public places like markets, both sisters havebroken these rules.

Suratan was the first woman in the village to work outside her home. She became a bread vendor, later inspiring other women to follow.

Sansan was the first woman in the village to get her tubes tied, during the 1974 famine. "I thought I was committing a sin. The other women (of the village) were calling me bad names. But I thought, I'm doing this to feed my family. Allah will forgive me."

Perhaps He didn't. When Sansan was away for a few days getting a tubal ligation in a nearby town, her infant son died.

The cleric said that was divine punishment. He had always insisted that birth control was evil, a vain effort to work against Allah's wishes. When the villagers said they couldn't provide for any more children than they had, he had an answer. "When a child is born, Allah fills the mother's breasts with milk. Allah creates life, and He will take care of it."

Sansan got $1.50 and a white cotton sari, which she sold. Her husband didn't stand in her way. A few years later, he got a vasectomy. Even the government puts a higher price on men. It gave her husband a cash incentive three times bigger, and a piece of cloth.

Sansan has been outside the village, to Dhaka, once. The others envy her that, even though the experience hasn't left the slightest trace of worldliness on her.

"So awesome!" she says. "Big, BIG roads. Tall buildings. And so many cars and people everywhere. I never imagined a place could be so big." She can count to 40

Anwara is in her 30s, but she says she is old. What is old? And when did she become old? "After you have a child, you become old," she says. And when you can work no longer, you become really old.

Anwara got married when she was in her middle teens, and had her first child a few years later.

She is an entrepreneur, one of the few women of this village who defies the belief that good women should stay at home. She doesn't care what people say. She only watches out that her four children never whine that they are hungry. She sells bread, cooking oil and soap, small amounts of them, from door to door. She hasn't been very far outside the village. She can count only up to 40. She hasn't seen the need to know more. She makes a few taka here and there and gets by. A bank for women

Sansan, Suratan and Anwara have all belonged to the Grameen Bank, a village bank that makes small loans of about $50 to poor women and has become a Third World success story.

There are practically no defaulters. Women, the most vulnerable but overlooked of villagers, are transformed into entrepreneurs. The Grameen Bank convinced lenders of something unimaginable: Women are more bankable than men. This small transfer of economic power to women has transformed them. As earners of money and owners of property, however small, they have a larger voice in domestic affairs. They become decision makers rather than silent obeyers. Husbands are less likely to abandon or divorce them.

And, taught from childhood that women are dependent and dull-witted, this chauvinistic society has learned from the bank's success that women are as able as men and can even surpass them.

However, in Rampura, the Grameen Bank hasn't been doing very well. People are so poor that most women have sunk their capital into food for their families rather than businesses. Still, participating in the bank has given all these women pride and a certain self-assured air.

At the time they joined the bank, many could not read or write, or even sign their own names. Bank officials taught them how.

To become members, they had to learn to stand tall, look bank officials and visitors in the eye and salute them. It may seem military-like to an outsider, but this rigid rule sneakily gives women a new freedom in the disguise of a drill. Most rural women cast their eyes down and hide their faces behind veils when they see strangers. They are tongue-tied. Years of submissiveness make them cower instantly. The bank's salute subtly made them unlearn this.

The members also learned to recite a list of the bank's principles - which sounds like a personal declaration of independence of sorts when chanted by the women.

"We will bring prosperity to our households! We won't live in a broken-down house. We'll repair it, and if possible, we'll build a new one!" The rest of the list makes members pledge, among other things, to educate their children, plant trees, dig wells for drinking water, and to refuse to give or take dowry for weddings (this principle is routinely ignored).

Such a manifesto should make any village more livable, but at first, the bank found it hard to establish itself in Rampura. The cleric and the landowners of the area warned the women not to be led astray. How could modest women mingle with strange men and make eye contact with them?

But the bank diplomatically appointed a landowner's wife as one of its officials, and there was no more grumbling about its evil influence. Some of the women also bought rickshaws that they leased out, and once they started bringing home money, their husbands held their tongues. $2.50 and a hunger for sons

A woman isn't worth much. When Bulbuli's husband fell deathly sick 12 years ago, she raised money for medicine by selling the only things of value she possessed. She sold her two fruit-laden mango trees for $10 each. That still wasn't enough. So she got her tubes tied for $2.50.

She had a child already, a daughter. But a daughter, like herself, had little value. She wanted sons. Everybody wants sons. But one day, Bulbuli wiped her tears and killed this hunger for sons.

A government official scouting her village made her an offer she couldn't resist. For $2.50 and a sari, Bulbuli agreed to become a statistic in the government's family planning campaign.

Her husband died despite the medicines she bought, and Bulbuli became an outcast because, in the parlance of the village, she had "got her stomach cut out." She was not quite a woman, and not quite a man.

Neighbors stopped talking to her. The cleric railed at her for foolishly going against God's design. "He said Allah took away my husband to punish me for this sin." He warned other women in the village not to get sterilized or they would be refused the traditional Islamic burial rites - and thus be unable to enter paradise.

"I didn't want to get (sterilized)," Bulbuli recalls. "But I had no choice. My husband was dying, and the people who were moving their mouths to curse me didn't offer any help. I had to do it." Besides, she had her husband's consent.

Now, sterilization and other kinds of birth control are commonly practiced in the village, and nobody criticizes her. Bulbuli remarried a few years after her husband died. She wed Jalil, a simpleton whose first wife tricked him into getting a vasectomy and then took the cash reward he got and ran off with her lover. Bulbuli has stayed with him all these years. It isn't respectable for a woman to be single. Besides, she says, he doesn't beat her.

Bulbuli flails her arms and drives out two beady-eyed chickens who have sneaked into her hut, pecking around hopefully for a few stray grains of rice. They scurry out with squawks of outrage.

Bulbuli's 13-year-old daughter, Safiya, is bold and independent. She can't read or write because she never went to school. Her mother taught her what she thought would really help her daughter: how to husk rice, how to cook, to bargain for a good deal.

Safiya is brave enough to go unescorted to the market a mile away and buy betel nuts she can resell in her village. Most women stay within the compound of their homes. Public places like markets are for men, and only women who are loose or desperate are seen there.

But Safiya is of marriageable age now, and Bulbuli wants to find a good, hardworking boy who will earn enough so Safiya can be a contented, house-bound wife.

Lately, she has been filled with regret that she never had sons. "If I had a son, he could take care of me," Bulbuli says. She sits on the ground, chatting as she braids Safiya's oiled hair.

"Safiya does a lot of work. She cleans the floor, goes to market, tends the goats, helps with everything. If I had a boy, I don't think he'd do as much. But he would stay with me. Safiya does a boy's work, but it's time for her to leave."

In Bangladesh, as in the rest of Asia, people believe that a girl belongs to the family she marries into, but a boy cares for his parents and continues their lineage.

When strangers meet, they don't ask of each other, "How many children do you have?" They ask, "How many sons?"

Bulbuli doesn't think being poor yet independent is a good idea. "I don't like going to the market or sending Safiya, but what can I do? My husband is so simple. He gets cheated every time, so we just don't send him."

Wouldn't Bulbuli earn more money if she set up a stall at the market itself instead of selling small amounts to her neighbors? She looks incredulous at such an idea. "Women can't go to market," she says emphatically, repeating it as though it is a lesson she has learned by rote. "How can they? It just isn't done." The village and the world

Bangladeshi villagers see floods every year. But they don't call this annual waterlogging a flood. To them, it is just borsha or rain. A catastrophic flood is a bonna, which destroys homes and washes away families. But the bonna comes only once in 20 or 40 years. The flood fives years ago was the first time the adults of Rampura recall having to evacuate.

How does a village under water look? The villagers consider the question. "We don't know," says Shaukat Ali, a youth. "No one was here. We left on the seventh day. But we saw it from afar. It looks beautiful. So calm." "But it is scary when it starts," Suratan says. Snakes come crawling inside the huts. Baskets and brooms and piles of fodder float around. "We took our cows and chickens with us when we went to the main road," she says. The goats and calves were too clumsy and panicked, and got left behind. "When we came back, every house had fallen down. We lost everything."

For many of the village women, that was the first time they ventured as far as the main road. They have little idea of what lies beyond that road.

I ask the villagers how many lands there are in the world outside Bangladesh. They are silent.

Just Bangladesh, Sansan says.

A moment later, Suratan jumps in. "What about India? India is another country."

The women can't name any more, and the men smile assuredly. The men are supposed to know more. After all, they get to go to school. They can afford wristwatches. For the women, there are only four times in a day to be aware of: morning, afternoon, evening and night.

Badshah Mian, who can read and write, says there are four countries in the world. Bangladesh. India. China. And America. He looks around to see if anyone else can outdo that. They all nod in agreement.