Breaking stereotypes

Photo by Koustubh Dhar Wrick

The female rickshaw-puller in Bangladesh tells Ahmed Shatil Alam why she was forced to take this profession

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It may have been another sorrowful story of a pregnant woman from rural Bangladesh – in the third month of her pregnancy besides already having a child of four years – who was devastated and clueless after being abandoned by her husband. In most cases in Bangladesh, the story may have ended with the pregnant woman dying or the new baby being abandoned on the street or near a dustbin, as the mother is likely not to have the financial means to raise the child.

Although, there is no data about how many pregnant women have died or been mentally and emotionally hurt by their husbands every year in Bangladesh,  reports of abandoned babies still make the headlines on dailies rather frequently.

Usually, the problem intensifies for such women, when her parents and family members decline to provide her shelter along with her children into their family, due to poverty. But, Jesmine Akhter Fatema, a Chittagong based-mother of three sons, has managed to steer the popular narratives of this story.  Fatema has survived by becoming a rickshaw-puller.

Fatema, who has been already acknowledged as the first ever female rickshaw puller in Bangladesh, was abandoned by her husband when she was pregnant with her two younger twin sons. Her husband married another woman leaving her and the three children to fend for themselves. ‘…he left me but Allah blessed me with twin boys and gave me a path to become independent,’ she says.

The poor pregnant woman went to her father’s house and gave birth to her twin sons there. Along with her newborn babies, she was living under miserable circumstances in small shanties of Muradnagar upazila of Comilla district.

‘As mother of two newborns, I often slept unfed as my father- the only earner in a large family of six along with three grand children, was a rickshaw puller and could not bear all of our food expenses,’ she recalls. Then, after feeding her twin sons breast milk for six months, she went to Chittagong to find a job and in the process, help her family. ‘During this time, I left my three children with my father,’ she says.

In Chittagong, Fatema initially worked as a housemaid for Taka 1,000 per month. ‘It was really a difficult job for me as I was not happy financially and mentally,’ she says. At the time, she was living at one of her uncle’s house, the only relative of Fatima at the port-city, who was also a rickshaw-puller by profession. Her uncle had a broken rickshaw. ‘That rickshaw caught my attention.  I asked my uncle to teach me how to pull a rickshaw,’ she says.

She learnt the technique of rickshaw pulling within a few days. But she hesitated to ply on the streets as all rickshaw-pullers on the streets across the country were males.

‘But I had to give it a shot, so one day I came out on the street pulling the rickshaw,’ says Fatema.

‘I had no other option as rickshaw-pullers make more than domestic helps in Bangladesh,’ she says. And this is how, Fatema, the first ever female rickshaw puller in Bangladesh, broke all stereotypes on what women can or cannot do by plying on the streets of port-city few years back.

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Initially, she was accompanied by a helper, who was also a poor little boy. She used to share 40 per cent of each fare with the boy. ‘Rickshaws are heavy and someone with a sturdy build can manage these. The poor boy initially helped me out,’ she says. Later, she began to pull a motor riven rickshaw and thus the little boy stopped working with her.

‘Initially, there were some complications as some passengers refused to get on her rickshaw. Other taunted me saying this is a man’s job,’ says Fatema. ‘Other passengers tried to discourage me by talking about religious norms while another group of passengers tried to pay me fares much lower than the fares they would pay to male pullers.

‘Although I maintain good relations with my brothers, even they had mocked me for this profession. After my father’s death, my brothers have been looking after my three sons,’ she says. At the moment, her eldest son is about sit his SSC exam next year while the twins are studying at a local school in Muradnagar in Comilla.

Fatema is content with her job as it allows her to earn around Taka 500 daily. ‘But I have to take painkillers at the end of the day due to severe pain in my back, leg, hands and other parts of the body,’ she says. She shares that she pulls her rickshaw from 7:00am till 6:00pm daily.

In order to help her, a Chittagong based facebook activist group from Chittagong donated her a rickshaw last year. Unfortunately it was stolen a few months back.

While talking to New Age Xtra, the brave woman urged the government and financially well-off members of the society to help her start a shop or buy a rickshaw- which can help her in the future. At the moment, she has only one dream: to give her children higher education. ‘My fight is only for my children…once they get proper education my struggle will come to an end,’ she says.