Recently, the imam of a mosque in Kushtia was arrested for issuing a fatwa banning women from working on farms. Along with the imam, five mosque officials were also charged for attempting to prevent women working in the fields in the western town of Kumarkhali.
Astonishingly, the perspective of the imam is shared by many others even today. This kind of mindset or outlook usually arises out of a patriarchal social structure, which assumes that men are born to hold leadership roles while women perform household chores only.
Islam, although extensively misunderstood, actually allows and encourages a woman to use her potential to benefit herself and the society as a whole. In fact, it is clearly stated in the Holy Quran that whatever a woman earns is rightfully hers, which would mean that a woman cannot be confined indoors against her will; rather, she can work and have a career that pays.
In Verse 23 of the Surah Qasas, two women, the daughters of Prophet Shuaib (AS) are mentioned. These exemplary ladies of Islam led their lives as shepherds, a job that would be physically demanding even for 21st century women. Through Surah Qasas, we can take the lesson that it is permissible for women to leave their homes to earn a living. A confirmation of this view in Islam can be obtained by studying the life of Khadijah (RA), wife of the Prophet Mohammad (Pbuh) who lived as an independent and renowned businesswoman of Makkah at the time.
History, in such ways, has left for us enough evidence to believe and understand that it is indeed permissible for women in Islam to work. Some cultural practices, however, continue to teach the contrary.
Segregation at home
In fact, discriminatory gender roles and stereotypes are, to some extent, practised in every home. It is more likely that the daughter is asked to help around with household chores and to hone such skills so that she, too, may grow up to be a “proper” future wife and mother.
The son is hardly ever reminded about learning his responsibilities as a future husband.
No son is taught to do household chores to be able to assist his future wife, while a daughter is told to play hostess and help set the dinner table. Boys get the privilege of not having to even lift a finger to help with the household chores, while a daughter is asked to make her own bed, and the mother waits eagerly for her son to wake up so that she can tidy up the room for him.
Such cultural practices and role stereotypes have many adverse affects.
It teaches the boys of this generation to be over-dependent on their spouses. It portrays the idea that boys are meant for the outer world and girls belong indoors.
The gender division of labour displayed within the textbooks divulged a strong prevalence of female stereotypes. Women were portrayed in a narrow range of occupational roles -- mostly seen engaged in household work
Our Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) did not only do his own chores like sewing his garment, milking goat, and serving himself -- but would also serve his wives and help them around with household work.
It is high time that we change this mindset and teach men that roles in a healthy family are not gender specific, and they need to be shared equally among members.
What do the books say?
The sad reality is that we also see gender divide rife in textbooks for children, demonstrating just how deep rooted the problem of stereotyping is.
We are moulding our children into believing that certain roles are only appropriate for a certain gender. This is a grave concern in Bangladesh that needs to be addressed.
According to UNESCO’s Global Education Monitoring Report, which highlights the gender stereotypes in children’s textbooks in Bangladesh and other Asian countries (including Malaysia, India, and more), this has indeed become an alarming issue and needs to be addressed. The report scrutinises the contents of Bengali and English language secondary school textbooks in secular schools, recognised madrasas as well as unrecognised madrasas. Gender stereotypes were examined in terms of exclusion and misrepresentation of a particular gender in the textbook.
The gender division of labour displayed within the textbooks divulged a strong prevalence of female stereotypes. Women were portrayed in a narrow range of occupational roles -- mostly seen engaged in household work. They rarely appeared as leading characters.
Distressing pro-male bias
On the other hand, occupational roles associated with power and prestige (eg king, professor, landlord) were represented by males. Only 15% of all the characters in the textbooks, used in unrecognised madrasas, were represented by females.
While in secular textbooks, two thirds of all the characters were depicted by males.
To recapitulate the findings of the report, all Bangladeshi school textbooks -- whether based on a secular or religious curriculum -- depicted a pro-male bias.
The same scenario can also be seen in Indian text books. The report mentions that in six mathematics books used in primary schools, men dominated activities representing commercial, occupational, and marketing situations; while not a single woman was portrayed as an executive, engineer, shopkeeper, or a merchant.
Thus, the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report highlights that it is of paramount importance for us to revise textbook content and encourage children to question gender stereotypes that are pervasive in our society.
We are in need of a stronger political leadership and support from civil society to eliminate gender bias existing in any form.
Tahsin Noor Salim is a Researcher in Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs, BILIA.