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Living Independent in Dhaka city

Date Added: January 27, 2009 05:17:47 AM

For women, living single in Dhaka city is one of the most difficult experiences they say, when it comes to finding an accommodation.

And though the problem of finding a suitable residence is common for both single men and women, the social position of women makes it more difficult for them to live alone in the city. The options most single women in the metropolis are left with are either renting apartments with roommates or finding women’s hostels.

The city over the last decade has secured its social position at par with most developed economies across the world with women’s participation leading the progress in literacy and various fields of work. But in a mixed society of conservatives and forward minded, independent women coming to Dhaka for work or study are often refused accommodation, defeated by some extreme conservative ideologies by some apartment owners.

Neda Shakiba, a university student who lives by herself in a flat in the city says, ‘owners do not want to rent their flats to single women. I used to live in another flat before, from where I was asked to vacate because I stayed alone. The owner said that people “talk” about me and they did not want to hear that anymore.’ Neda comes from a city outside Dhaka. Her parents had rented the flat for her, but when the owners realised that Neda was to live there alone, they threw her out fearing society’s irrational comments.

Sultana Kamal, executive director of Ain O Salish Kendra, identifies two major challenges faced by women living by themselves. ‘There is the practical problem – landlords are hesitant to provide accommodation to women without a male counterpart,’ she explains. ‘Society has a basic tendency to label these women as vulnerable, weak and not careful about their physical protection.’ She adds, ‘it reflects our patriarchal outlook. The other problem is that society views these women as easily approachable and easily accessible and this leads to their harassment.’ Not much of legal support is available from the law enforcement when it is sought by the women during an incident, she regretfully says.

The notion of women living alone in Dhaka is still widely unacceptable, though times have improved. Neda says, ‘before I started living alone, I used to share a flat with eight other girls in Banani where our neighbours used to think we were disowned by our parents and were of lower standards, rejected by society because we were “not of good character”. Even the guards used to talk to us very disrespectfully.’ It appears that in an attempt to educate herself and gain financial stability, a woman is made to choose between her ‘image’ in society and her future. This is one consideration that discourages many girls from moving away from their families to come and pursue a good education or establish a solid career in Dhaka. ‘No one has the right to evaluate a girl’s character. The state and society should create a safe environment to ensure free mobility for women,’ says Ayesha Khanom, president of Mahila Parishad.

While the prospect of living independently may seem more attractive, this is rarely the case. ‘My landlord does not feel the need to fix my air-conditioning, change the bulb lights or repair the plumbing since I live alone,’ shares Neda. As a result, only one of the two bathrooms in the small flat she occupies is fully functional. Despite not having a superintendent monitoring her hours, having experienced the trouble of finding accommodation, Neda has to think twice about her lifestyle that would not raise eyebrows in the neighbourhood. ‘I used to be involved in social outings before, but I realised that returning home late raised questions in the community.’ She has also had to check on the number of visits her friends made to her.

‘I try to keep the security guards happy by donating clothes and paying tips once in a while. My house help is my brand ambassador, clearing rumours against me. If my guards complain to my landlord, I may have to walk out of the house.’

In order to save themselves from social degradation, and live up to society’s definition of how women should lead their lives, many forgo their education and careers. ‘Social consciousness needs to be raised. Women should come forward and set examples and solidarity,’ muses Sultana Kamal. Their morale must not be let down. ‘Women have every right to live by themselves. The government can ensure legal provision against landlords and form rules against sex discrimination where a woman’s job or accommodation is not assessed by her sex.’

Another option for single women is to live in hostels. Dhaka’s women’s hostels are the abode of hundreds of girls who come from different parts of the country, and they are not without their own drawbacks. ‘Your things get stolen, your stuff gets shared by others without your consent and you can also fall prey to your room-mates’ jealousy,’ says a 22-year-old former resident of a private women’s hostel in Dhanmondi claiming these to be the commonest problems that one has to deal with no matter how good or bad a hostel is.

Zuri, a 24-year-old inhabitant of a government-owned hostel in Nilkhet, criticises the management. ‘The food is not cooked with sufficient spices and looks unappealing. They use too much palm oil, and the rice is often too soft. We often find bugs in the daal,’ she remarks. When the girls protest in the canteen, the matron assures them that the hygiene and quality will improve, but the effects are never consistent. Water shortages are another major issue. The girls are informed beforehand when water will be available and it becomes their responsibility to save up as much as they can in pails and bottles. ‘Many a time we find the fan or light not working in our rooms,’ she says. Formalities require them to hand in applications which result in nothing. ‘They tell us to manage on our own, and we end up paying for the repairs,’ she says. Boarders of ten rooms share two grimy bathrooms and the lights of one are out of order. ‘We have to make do in the dark,’ she sighs.

The hostel owners are more concerned about earning money than ensuring good services for its boarders, say some independent women. A private hostel called Rupali at Indira Road makes about Tk 9,000 for just one room with three boarders in it. Sometimes the amount can rise up to Tk 15,000 or even more as they try to fit new boarders into the rooms that are already occupied. One disappointed boarder says, ‘the room I was placed in was for three people. A few days back the authority informed us that two more people would move in with us and we tried to protest but they asked us to leave if we do not  agree. I pay Tk 3,500 per month and I do not think I receive the kind of service I deserve.’ Ayesha Khanom feels there is no justification for this type of exploitation. ‘This profit-making tendency is a chronic disease of Bangladeshi society. It is linked to the lack of accountability,’ she expounds.

The quality of service in most hostels are poor be it Rupali or anywhere else, says one resident of Rupali who has earlier lived with similar troubles in another hostel at Farmgate.

 Eve teasing is another social problem faced by many women who live on their own. ‘When I come and stand on my balcony at night I often have to witness one of my male neighbours indulging in explicit sexual innuendos directed towards me,’ shares an appalled Neda, totally uncomfortable about the situation. Some of the authorities too are involved in harassing independent women with similar unpleasant behaviour.

The owner’s son of a Dhanmondi hostel sought every opportunity to pry into girls’ private affairs which made the girls very uncomfortable but there was hardly anything they could do about it, a former resident reports. ‘The rule at the Banani flat I shared with eight other girls was that no men were allowed in the room. Ironically, the owner himself stayed a lot of the hours inside the house,’ says Neda, half-smilingly.

In order to discourage such activities, Ayesha Khanom prescribes a ‘multidimensional, collective approach,’ where change needs to begin with families and continue in the educational system. She believes ‘young men’s participation in women’s movements is essential to change the feudal attitudes and patriarchal mindsets.’

There are exceptions. Batikrom is a private hostel in Mohammadpur which actually devotes itself to helping women living alone through their services. They do not allow more students than their capacity and maintain a healthy and homely environment inside the hostels. Itee, one boarder of the hostel likes the place so much that she is not thinking of moving to any other place at the moment. She says, ‘Hostel life is fun. I love the freedom. It is not like we are exploiting our liberty, because we have to abide by the hostel rules which put us under a controlled environment, yet this lifestyle teaches us to live independently.’

   More than a double bind

   * For one room shared by three women, a hostel charges from Tk 9,000 to Tk 15,000 or more

   * Hostels are home to hundreds of girls from all over the country

   * Landlords are unwilling to take in single female tenants

   * Eve teasing and gossip in the building are common occurrences

   * Most women living alone must return home before nightfall, restrict visitors and maintain conservative clothing

   * Women not only end up paying more rent but also must tip security guards and accept lack of regular maintenance - from plumbing to electricity - while hostel inhabitants must accept theft as a regular phenomenon

Auother: Sharmin Chowdhury and Tamara Zaman, New Age


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