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Renegotiating patriarchy: Gender, agency and the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’

DSA Council member, Naila Kabeer is Professor of Gender and Development at the Department of International Development and a Faculty Associate of the International Inequalities Institute at LSE. She talks to us about her forthcoming book, Renegotiating patriarchy: Gender, agency and the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’ which will be published by LSE Press in mid-2024 as an open-access title.

Originally from Bangladesh, Naila has what she calls a ‘living relationship’ with the country; she has done much research there and goes back whenever opportunities allow, which is at least once a year. The fact that her new book provides a kind of contemporary history of Bangladesh should not be a surprise. Her long-standing association with the country has given her the perspective to look at the development progress Bangladesh has made since its independence in 1971. Her history of research in that country began not long after.

Although the Bengal delta, where Bangladesh is located, was once considered the ‘bread-basket of India’, it has a long history of wealth extraction by foreign powers that left it one of the poorest countries in the world at the time of its independence. It was also one of the most densely populated countries in the world, it had a poorly performing state and an extreme form of patriarchy. Dismissed as an ‘international basket case’ by the US administration, its future looked grim.

Yet a few decades into independence the country began to report remarkable progress on the social front. Its high rates of fertility which had previously appeared resistant to all forms of change started to decline rapidly accompanied by improvements in health, nutrition, education. Even more unexpected was that gender inequalities in these various indicators also started to decline.

But what particularly caught Naila’s eye were changes in indicators of the strong culture of son preference that prevails across much of South Asia. In neighboring India where fertility rates were also declining, the decline had been accompanied by rising ratios of boys to girls at birth because parents were seeking to reconcile their desire for smaller families with their persisting preference for sons by resorting to female-selective abortions.

In Bangladesh, by contrast, not only was there no evidence of such practices so that sex ratios at birth remained ‘normal’ but girls were now more likely to survive than boys, a break from past patterns but common in much of the world. To Naila, this apparent revaluation of daughters seemed to signal a radical shift in patriarchal structures. It became the starting point for her research.

The Bangladesh paradox

The ‘Bangladesh Paradox’ in the title of Naila’s book refers to the phenomenon of a country that was able to perform unusually well on social development and gender equality while still being extremely poor and marked by poor quality governance. There have been a number of books and publications that seek to explain this phenomenon, but they have largely been top-down in their focus, with the main focus on powerful actors in government, markets and civil society and the actions they have taken. Naila’s book takes a more bottom-up approach: how do ordinary men and women respond to changes in their circumstances, including changes engineered by policy efforts, and how do these responses in turn shape the development trajectory of the country.

Naila does not dismiss the existing body of explanations that have focused on powerful actors – government, donors, corporations and civil society organisation – but feels that they tell only part of the story. These actors may have a great deal of influence in setting the parameters which expand or circumscribe people’s actions on the ground, but it is how people interpret and act on these parameters that makes change happen. “You can pass all the policies you want but unless the people who those policies are aimed at respond to your efforts, very little is going to happen,” she said.

The book takes a mixed methods approach, pulling together insights from qualitative and ethnographic studies that have been carried out since the 1970s to the present time and weaving them together with findings reported by national statistics and quantitative research. This includes research that Naila has herself carried out over the years.

“I began my PhD research in 1979 in a village in Faridpur district, a village that epitomised the poverty and patriarchy that was typical of the rest of the country at that time’ she describes. “At the end of the book, I report what I found when I returned in 2010. In 1979, parents spoke of the need for large numbers of children, but particularly large numbers of sons. When I went back, the economy had changed, people were more prosperous, children were going to school and parents now spoke of the need to have fewer children so they could look after them better.” Furthermore, most had changed their views about daughters.

What is at the heart of her account is the role of women’s agency. It was, she found, the motivations and actions of women in Bangladesh, many from some of its poorest households, that drove a great deal of the change. The book provides a rich and detailed analysis of how these women negotiate with a patriarchy that was often described as non-negotiable. They seized the opportunities opened by the changing policy architecture to push back on some of the most oppressive aspects of patriarchy and constraints that these imposed on their life chances and the life chances of their daughters.

It provides insights into some of the different strategies that women used to get around opposition from their husbands, their families and their communities, strategies which allowed them to achieve their goals without jeopardizing their place in society and relationships that they had reason to value – although a few did opt for open confrontation. “I would certainly not want to imply that patriarchy has been vanquished in Bangladesh. Gender inequalities still persist as they do in so many parts of the world but when we look back to how things were in the 1970s, there is much to celebrate.”

Lessons for development studies

Development studies is a discipline that is preoccupied with social change. Naila’s book provides a novel account of how positive changes can happen where one is least expecting them. There are a number of lessons she carries away from the experience. One is the importance of history. Every change in society has a history – the past does not determine the present but it influences it in expected and unexpected ways. The fact that she was writing about unexpected processes of change meant that history was particularly important. What was it about the country’s past that allowed this to happen.? It also made the book a journey of discovery, a story whose end she did not know till she had written it. There were different pieces of research that seemed to offer clues but it took her quite a while to work out what they were telling her.

She knew she needed a strong theoretical framework that would accommodate evidence of both continuity and change, structure and agency, the past and present, if she was going to piece these different fragments together and work out where they belonged: “It was an iterative process, going back and forth in time because I realised that something that was very clear in the later years had already been reported in earlier studies but almost as an aside. In other words, we caught glimpses of unusual behaviour in the 1970s and 1980s of people expressing views that went against the norms but no one realized at the time that these were actually seeds of change that were going to blossom later into quite radical shifts in how people lived their lives and what they thought was possible.”

Naila was also struck by the extent to which women’s own personal histories and experiences gave them the motivation to seek change. “They did not want their daughters to relive the same restricted destiny that they had been forced to live,” explains Naila. “The world had changed a lot since 1971, it had opened up a lot, with NGOs, new laws, television, social media and cinema, and these women could see that there were many different ways of living their lives that did not contradict their identities as Bengali Muslim woman. So they chose to find their own ways.”

Naila has been an advocate of the use of mixed methods and the process of writing the book strengthened her position. She does not believe she would have gained the insights she gained without such an approach: “I firmly believe that it is important to understand people’s histories, experiences and values because these are key drivers for their motivations and their motivations are drivers of larger change. But subjective accounts are partial accounts. People do not always question the structures of oppression in which they find themselves, they are not aware of alternatives and they are not often in a position to step back and reflect on the unanticipated consequences of their action. As researchers, we have to take account of the larger picture as well as the smaller one.”

“I value quantitative analysis because it provides some idea of the magnitude of change what we are talking about – was it limited to a few people in a few places or was it more genera? It also helps us ‘triangulate’ what we learn from qualitative research – and if the two contradict each other, they encourage us to investigate why.” She cites a lot of quantitative studies in her books because she believes it increases confidence in her qualitative findings. Equally she believes that the quantitative findings she reports are enriched and understood better through the qualitative interpretations she is able to draw on.

The book also taught her social norms don’t change because a policy maker wants them to. They change when there is already receptivity to change among significant numbers of people and what they need are the resources that will help them change. Many believed that fertility rates in Bangladesh in the 1970s were so deeply rooted in its traditions that nothing could make a difference. But they didn’t actually talk to women where they would have found significant numbers would welcome some means of birth control to rescue them from the endless cycle of births that gave rise to the country’s high levels of maternal mortality. Once it was recognized that women held the key to lower fertility and programmes were designed to reach them, Bangladesh saw one of the most rapid fertility transitions in demographic history.

When policies go against the grain of what continues to be taken for granted, policy makers have to be prepared for the long haul, for mobilising resources at the level of discourse and popular culture, of material incentives and perhaps demonstrating what is possible in practical ways. The fact that Bangladesh has had women in leadership positions for most of the last three decades may not have led to large numbers of women entering politics but the fact of it was evoked by ordinary people in her study as evidence of women’s capabilities and a reason why parents were more willing to invest in daughters than they had been in the past. Acceptance of certain policies, including daughters’ education reflected this new way of thinking. More generally, the book draws out the interconnections between the different mechanisms – synergies, sequences, feedback loops, spillover effects – that came together to explain the pace of change in Bangladesh.

Tips for authors

Naila’s top tip for someone writing their first book is to write what you care about. “It has to be something that’s going to keep you going because writing a book is a very solitary and often time-consuming exercise.” Working out your research questions in a fairly succinct way is also important though based on her own experience, they do not necessarily have to be clear at the outset. Her own research questions crystallised as she read her way through the literature: what was the role that women played in driving the changes associated with the Bangladesh paradox? And what were the strategies that women used to renegotiate patriarchy to bring about changes that very often challenged patriarchy?

She also suggests that at the end of each chapter, ask yourself: what was this chapter about? And how did it contribute to the questions I am trying to answer. And, of course, remember to share your answers with your reader, so that they also find it easier to understand how what they just read fits into the overall story.

Renegotiating patriarchy: Gender, agency and the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’ will be published within the next few months by LSE Press and as it will be open-access, it can be downloaded for free by anyone with a computer, anywhere in the world.

Follow the DSA social media channels to find out when the book is launched.