Necessity proves to be the mother of inclusion

The Power to Choose
October 17, 2003

It is a commonly acknowledged "fact" that Bangladeshi women in Britain have very low rates of economic activity. While there are many factors that may explain this, there are few studies that really tease out the different elements.

In The Power to Choose , Naila Kabeer demonstrates how a comparative study based on qualitative interviews can provide powerful insights into the range of factors that influences women's employment patterns.

Kabeer compares Bangladeshi women in Dhaka taking jobs in garment factories (in spite of some resistance from men) with Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets doing machine work at home. Different levels of control over earnings were associated with each form of employment.

Kabeer demonstrates the inadequacies of simple, universal explanations from a structural (constraints) or individualistic (choice) perspective.

Instead, she takes us through the historical reasons for migration to either London or Dhaka, the cultural background of the women and their families and the different levels of economic capital of the two groups.

While both groups of women were subject to norms of purdah (the practice of secluding women from public observation) and male authority, women in Dhaka needed to work to support their families or to educate their children and were thus prepared to withstand disapproval from family or husband. Having done so, they found a power within the household that they had not experienced before.

Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets, although having left their home country, found themselves in a tight-knit community where pressure to conform was stronger than for the Dhaka women, many of whom had migrated to the city from various parts of Bangladesh. In Tower Hamlets, although poverty was widespread, children's schooling was free and basics were met by the social-security system - thus the imperative for paid work was less.

The differences in the labour markets in Dhaka and Tower Hamlets also meant that in Dhaka women's employment was not a threat to men's jobs while in Tower Hamlets it was. This may also have contributed to men's resistance to their wives' employment in Tower Hamlets.

Unlike the Dhaka respondents, the Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets did not find that their earnings increased their power in the home. In some cases, husbands handled the exchange of work and money and the women did not even see their earnings.

Despite the sweatshop nature of the work in Dhaka, women were gaining both independence and inclusion in the labour market. By contrast, the Bangladeshi women in Tower Hamlets remained outside the formal labour market.

This carefully argued and thought-provoking study is also a very good read. It is of relevance to a broad range of social sciences but will also be of interest well beyond the discipline.

Angela Dale is professor of quantitative social research, University of Manchester.

The Power to Choose: Bangladeshi Woman and Labour Market Decisions in London and Dhaka

Author - Naila Kabeer
Publisher - Verso
Pages - 464
Price - £20.00 and £15.00
ISBN - 1 85984 804 4 and 206 2

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