Rechasing Norms

 Published in: The Daily Star on January 31, 2018
Rechasing Norms

Garments Workers Photo: Munir uz Zaman/AFP

Somehow, we are not reacting fast enough. Somehow complacency is setting in.

With every setback that we face, with every major slap that we receive on our face, we crawl back, secure our own space, and say: “Not my problem. I have too much on my own platter.”

One of my most favourite poems, Yeats’ Second Coming, comes to my mind today, which refers to everything falling apart and the ones with the deadliest and most passionate intensity continuing to dictate terms. What is it about powerful spaces that corrupt the conscience? Why are we all falling short of vision and unwilling to invest into making changes around us?

While we look at our own selves and wonder what we have done so far has just not been enough even to last our own lifetime, we also wonder about the gradual erosion of our values and dreams. We may not have only compromised our morals, but have also forgotten to dream and to have a vision. That’s why while we “ahh’ed” and “oh’ed” throughout our lives, transgressions have continued to happen and progress has been halted.

On January 21, an online version of a daily newspaper posted a video of a man wearing white pants and brown jacket dragging a woman by her hair and hitting her with a sandal. There were people standing all around them, videoing the scene and yet no one confronted the man; none questioned him and the atrocity went unchallenged. The person trying to digitally capture the moment had, for sure, felt that something was going wrong there, but did not have the courage to correct the wrong. The audience there must have felt curiosity but had fallen short of empathy. Let’s just include all of us in the audience. In spirit, we were all there. That scene is a specific representation of a collective failure of the conscience of our times. And worst is, this is not the only example.

According to Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), there have been 749 rapes, 97 attempts to rape, 39 deaths after rape, and 11 committed suicide after rape in Bangladesh between January and November 2017. Out of this, 53 raped were under six years of age, 132 between the ages of 7-12, 170 between 13-18, 25 in the age range of 19-24, 13 in the range of 25-30 and 14 in the 30+ age range. These statistics evoke fear.

Meanwhile, there’s the other side of reality that moves on and gives us hope. Female empowerment, through the readymade garment sector, continues to be the driving force of the economy. But it is also on our shoulders to take their empowerment to the next level. We must also notice that there is an entire generation of silent, struggling women putting in at least 20 years of their lives in the readymade garment industry who could have done more. After 20 years of service, if they don’t wish to put in more hours behind the sewing machines, then where do these women go? If we challenge our complicit selves and indulge in vision, maybe we could find a way of helping them redesign their future path but also brand Bangladesh in the process through portraying women who toil in our factories. Thus, I propose two ideas to work with.

QR branding

We have often wondered if the stories in Bangladesh could be better packaged and if we could just find a way of telling our stories better.

I have always said that we could brand Bangladesh way better than how we go about it now. Let’s imagine telling the stories of the women in the most creative manner to the rest of the world while the world would read and raise their glasses in their honour.

Well, how do we share the tales of the millions of women who work for us?

The process may also incentivise the workers to be more efficient. The most efficient worker could be rewarded with the opportunity of being filmed. The short clip may cover the worker and her story. The story may be shared through a QR code, which could give the conscious consumer a chance to watch the story of his/her apparel being stitched in a factory that is situated thousands of miles away from him/her.

For every style being produced in our factories, we could film the top performer, even with our basic phones for about 20 seconds, and link it to a QR code. This QR code would be printed in a sateen label on the garment that we produce. This label wouldn’t cost us more than 8-10 cents a dozen. Tell me, what could be more relevant or apt than sharing the stories of millions of women engaged in the industry?

A new line of entrepreneurs

These women working in our factories could all turn into entrepreneurs once they retire. Joining a garment factory at the age of 18 and continuing up to 38 may be a usual scene. But what about beyond these 20 years? Life could very well re-begin then. We could get these women together post-retirement and ask them if they are interested to set up a production line along with other women in the model of a cooperative. We could also arrange the finance for them and claim an equity in their company, at our end. Just imagine, a separate production line, attached to our own floor spaces, filled with women who have just retired or their nominees turning into entrepreneurs, backed by us and our collateral and giving us stakes in the company.

Injustices continue to happen all over the world but have seldom halted progress. Showcasing success stories in the best possible manner is on our shoulders. I shared these two proposals risking being labelled as a utopian. But that’s exactly what has gone wrong with where we live. We have stopped dreaming. A level of comfort today has crippled our imagination and expectations both. And quite unfortunately, we are giving in to being just who we are. A lack of creative vision continues to paralyse us and stops us from yearning for more. This must come to a full halt as we must creatively pine to change the stories around us. The deadliest curse on a nation can be nothing but the state of lame acceptance. Creative juices must flow; changes must happen; and we must come to a full bloom. A new normative expectation must be formed and new behavioural rules must set in.

A new normal Waste Land can’t be our choice of landscape. We were born to be forever new, “forever panting, forever young.”

Image Courtesy: Munir uz Zaman/AFP