Deconstructing cardboard man: antagonists, allies and advocates in the quest for women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh

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Ondekova, Marcela
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University College Cork
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This study explores Muslim masculinities in Bangladesh and their positioning towards women’s economic empowerment (WEE), with a particular focus on employment in low-income communities. The research is framed by a specific context of increasing women’s labour participation – a shared objective of the current Government of Bangladesh and the local and international development community. The study introduces a masculinity continuum containing three masculinity markers – Antagonists, Allies and Advocates – to facilitate the exploration and understanding of differences in men’s views, attitudes and practices with respect to WEE. Mixed methods, including focus groups, peer-to-peer survey, life-history narrations, gender analysis, interviews, Delphi method and observation, were used to analyse the linkages between WEE and masculinities in the selected context. The study found that WEE was a multidimensional phenomenon in low-income communities. However, Antagonist and Ally men overlooked psychological and social benefits of economic inclusion for women. In addition, the indigenous perceptions of WEE, particularly by men, mainly focused on the fulfilment of practical needs and overlooked structural inequalities that perpetuate women’s inequalities. Low-income women largely desired progressive masculinities embodied by Advocate men that could facilitate WEE. While resisting changes undermining men’s patriarchal control over women, Antagonist and Ally men supported women’s access to decent employment under certain conditions. In addition, although Ally men, who appeared to represent the majority of men, were reluctant to give up their patriarchal privilege in the privacy of their household, they supported women’s increased roles in public domains. Advocate men demonstrated some residual patriarchal attitudes and practices, but these were marginal in their masculinities. Moreover, working on women’s equality with men was a source of optimism and joy for Advocates. Lack of women’s safety was amongst the main obstacles highlighted to restrict women’s mobility and access to employment outside their communities, although in the discourse by Antagonist and Ally men, women’s increased mobility and new opportunities were strongly correlated with their fear of a working independent woman. This fueled the attempts to retraditionalise women, who had accessed new roles in society. Antagonist and, to some extent, Ally men demonstrated a high prevalence of gender stereotypes about women’s and men’s roles based on biological essentialism and conservative cultural/Islamic norms. This included primary breadwinner as a persistent mainstream masculinity norm. On the other hand, Advocates, and to some extent Ally men, were engaged in more emotionally rewarding relationships with their wives and children, than men with Antagonist masculinities. Husbands and fathers with Advocate masculinities demonstrated a higher involvement in household and care work, rewarded by their spouses. The Islamic faith was not found to be a conclusive factor in driving or resisting patriarchal masculinities, although less religious men appeared more progressive with respect to WEE. Disability was linked with heightened emasculation caused by the erosion of the male primary breadwinner role, but this appeared to be the case only when other salient factors were at play. An emasculated disabled husband was a factor in a higher risk of violence against low-income women working outside their communities. Whereas Antagonists appeared to constitute a substantial part of society, the dominance of Ally masculinities creates a unique opportunity to engage with men on transformative WEE. The research contributes to the formulation of a men’s empowerment framework, which can assist development actors in increasing men’s support to women’s equal economic rights in Bangladesh and potentially elsewhere. The current Government policies, which are largely supportive of women’s economic inclusion, contribute to an enabling environment for such efforts. Two specific approaches can support mobilisation of Antagonist and Ally men: marital togetherness and the concept of peaceful household (hooks, 1984, 1998; Ahmed, 2008, 2014) and the egalitarian gender relations within Islam (Kabasacal Arat and Hasan, 2017; Musawah, 2018; Nazneen, 2018), supported by partnerships with those religious authorities that share common interests with development actors, such as fighting violence against women and girls. Ultimately, the study challenges the narrative of oppressive Muslim men, who resist normalisation of Bangladeshi women in the economy. It validates the existence of diversity of masculinities and their embodiments in studied practice, while including men in women’s struggle for equality and social progress. The study concludes that non-static and nuanced understanding of masculinities can encourage useful empowerment strategies in development practice that can result in the improvement of lives of many women and men.
Bangladesh , Masculinities , Women's economic empowerment
Ondekova, M. 2021. Deconstructing cardboard man: antagonists, allies and advocates in the quest for women’s economic empowerment in Bangladesh. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.