issue 225 - November 1991
The control of girls
From storing seeds to serving dinner, Rahima Khatun’s
work with rice betrays her inferior status as a woman.
Shahidul Alam visits her home in rural Bangladesh.
The winding track leads to a clearing where four cows and a calf are munching contentedly at their feeding troughs. It is the second week of June, the first month of the rainy season, and the air is sweet and humid with the smell of jackfruit.
For Rahima Khatun it is a quiet period. The frenzy of work that accompanies harvesting time for either rice or jute, the two crops the family cultivate, is pleasantly several months away. Yet her work still starts well before sunrise. She has already swept the mud floors and the courtyard, fed the children and the animals, spread out the cow dung to dry and washed up.
‘There is no end to a woman’s work,’ she smiles, ‘We could work all day, even all night and we’d still not finish.’
Rahima was married 12 years ago when she was about 15. She and her husband, Yar Hussain, have two sons and a daughter, Shumi, who is five. Rahima is dressed in a plain cotton shari with an ornate border and wears a small nakphul (literally, a nose flower) and silver earrings. The soles of her green flip-flops are thin with use.
Behind her is the bamboo partition which divides the house into two rooms, one for Rahima and her family, the other for her father-in-law, who owns the homestead. The thatched house has mud floors and outer walls made of tin. At the other end of the courtyard is a tubewell and a jackfruit tree laden with hoary fruit. Off to the side is a room for storing rice – and for steeping it, one of Rahima’s own duties.
‘Rice has been cultivated since the creation of humanity,’ she says. ‘Our elders say it used to be easier to grow in the olden days because you didn’t need fertilizers and you didn’t get sores (from chemicals) if you walked through the wet rice fields. All you had to do was to plant the seeds.
‘Even though women do not cultivate the rice,’ she goes on, ‘there is always a lot to do. Men don’t always appreciate the work that women do.
‘Sometimes my husband asks me what I do all day. And if he asks me to do something extra I’ll have to do that too. At this time of year I can sit and talk, but I couldn’t if it was harvesting time.’
During harvest, her father-in-law and her husband cut the rice. But everything that happens thereafter is the responsibility of women: preparing the earth for threshing by covering it with mud and cow dung; hand threshing; drying the straw for cattle food; winnowing; parboiling, steeping and drying the rice for storage and then milling to remove the husk. And they are responsible for safe storage, especially of the seed stock.
‘We shall have to do this work all our lives, we women. We don’t have help at home. Still, the men can’t make it without us and they know it really.
‘Today I protested, and said if my husband didn’t get the rice husked in the large mill in Kamalpur I wouldn’t cook. It is expensive to go to the mill of course, and you have to think of saving costs, but I am just one person, so I can only do so much with the dheki (hand mill). If there are two people it doesn’t take so long to husk rice – if you start at six in the morning you can finish a fair portion by nine.
‘After that it doesn’t take long to cook. We eat rice and dal (pulses) and whatever vegetables we have – egg plants (aubergine) and cabbage. This year, though, we have grown very little in the yard and we will need to buy some vegetables. The men were angry about that.
‘We usually also sell some rice. At the moment it fetches 250 taka ($7) per maund (about 40 kilos) and it will go up to 320 taka ($9) per maund by November or December. If we wait for a month or so the price will go up by another 10 to 20 taka. Of course the traders make a profit. We make a profit, they make a profit: that is how we all live.’
The traders come to the house to buy rice, and her father-in-law also takes some to the market. They also sell at wholesale rate to poorer people in the village.
Rahima does not go to the market herself. She is scared of walking around on her own and does not even go to visit her father’s house unescorted. ‘We were brought up like this, never allowed to go anywhere. It wasn’t considered proper. Those who are qualified (city women) can go. It is not right for village women to wander around.
‘Besides, going to the market is a man’s job. Men won’t do our jobs. Some women do work in the fields and dig earth but they are poor people. I wouldn’t want to do it. I wouldn’t be caught dead digging earth.’
Although Rahima does not go to the fields herself she knows all about rice. ‘There are many types of rice, almost as many as names as there are names of people. We grow mainly Irri (a high-yielding hybrid type) and Paijam, Aush and Aman (local varieties),’ she says, pointing to the containers of seed grains.
Rahima thinks about what rice means to her – aside from hard work. ‘Rice is everything – whether we sell it or save it. From rice powder we make cakes, puffed rice, flattened rice, semolina. Rice water is used for starching clothes and feeding cattle. If anyone is sick then we sell rice for ready cash (to buy medicines).’
Rahima doesn’t want her children to work on the land. She would like her daughter Shumi to have some schooling, something she missed herself. But she is conservative – perhaps reflecting male attitudes – about the effects of education on girls, and doesn’t think her daughter should be as well educated as her sons.
‘Primary school is enough – you cannot control girls if they learn too much.’ On the other hand, she doesn’t want Shumi to be married off too young. ‘But marriage is a matter of luck. If a good offer came along we couldn’t say no, could we? Daughters aren’t things you can keep at home.’
Attitudes are, however, changing in other respects. For instance, she and her husband do not want more children, and have some trouble coping with the ones that they have. ‘The more heads the more worries that’s what we’ll tell our children. My parents didn’t understand. My father says God gave and he will provide.’
She feels quite fortunate. Her father-in-law is good to her. She apparently has few yearnings. While she knows women like her work harder than men, she does not openly question gender roles or the power relationships between men and women. She accepts her lot, as she does when she talks about money: ‘We women never handle money ourselves, it’s true. If the men notice, then they may buy something we need, or else we ask.’
Hussain, her husband, does not interfere with the children’s education and she is pretty much in charge of the home. But her own clear notions about how much food is due to each member of the family say a great deal about her own status.
‘You feed each person as is appropriate. Obviously my father-in-law gets most, then my husband, and then my daughter because she is the youngest,’ she says, smiling at Shumi. ‘It doesn’t matter if there is none left for me. But my husband and father-in-law keep some for me and ask if I have enough.’
Given this kind of dependence on male good will, something Rahima says that might seem trite in other circumstances takes on a whole new meaning: ‘It is difficult to get by,’ she says, ‘if there is no love in the family.’
Shahidul Alam is a writer and photographer with Drik Third World Picture Library in Dhaka .
Shotguns and weddings
Pinching plants and growing them in your own backyard is not new - the British smuggled young rubber trees out of Brazil and cultivated them in Kew Gardens before transplanting them fruitfully and lucratively to plantations in Malaysia.
And sometimes it wasn’t just the botanists who did the dirty work. As the first US Ambassador to Europe, Thomas Jefferson was naturally keen to hasten his country’s reconstruction after the Revolution. And he was particularly anxious about the ravaged rice fields of the Carolinas, despoilt by the British so that not even seed rice was left.
On a visit to Italy in 1787, Jefferson noted with envy the rich rice fields of Piedmont. Turning a blind eye to Italian law, he made off with a few sacks of grain, breaking the Italian monopoly and revitalizing US agriculture.
If there was an element of arrogance in his behaviour, this is not altogether surprising. In the US, rice cultivation had been built on some of the worst character traits with the use of African slaves as labour.
The philosopher Nietzche’s prejudice led him to suggest there was a link between rice-eating and opium addiction while French gourmet Brillat-Savarin warned that eating rice made people soft and cowardly as he maintained the Indians were.
Perhaps because of these prejudices, in the West rice was treated as food for infants or invalids. Until the late nineteenth century few cookery books carried anything other than dessert recipes for rice.
But other people recognized the value of a food that not only sustains over one and a half billion people today, but also nourishes their sophisticated cultures. The eighteenth-century philosopher Montesquieu, for example, noted that rice growing induces hard work and co-operative virtues.
Certainly wet-rice cultivation requires hard work – the heavy labour of constructing fields, terraces and irrigation systems on the one hand; and on the other bending all day to transplant seedlings and weed in the waterlogged earth, all the time avoiding leeches and snakes.
Culturally too, rice is important in the traditions and thinking of the countries where it has been grown for centuries. Almost universally it represents fecundity, and in some Hindu marriage ceremonies the couple is showered with rice grains – a custom that spread to the West in the form of confetti.
Rice is increasingly popular in the West although it’s often eaten as a breakfast cereal. Puffed Rice burst onto the US market early this century with the slogan ‘Shot from Guns’ – alluding to the way the rice grains had been exploded to make them expand. And at the New York World’s Fair in 1965 a wife-and-husband circus team were shot out of a cannon to give the Puffed Rice publicity a bang.