Threads Among Women

RECIPIENT OF 2015 UNDERGRADUATE STUDENT ESSAY PRIZE FROM NATIONAL WOMEN'S AND GENDER STUDIES ASSOCIATION

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On the morning of April 24th, 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed with thousands of workers inside. The collapse occurred the day after large cracks had appeared on the walls of the eight-story building which housed garment factories that employed mostly young women to manufacture clothing for brands, including Canada’s Joe Fresh. With 1,100 lives lost and thousands injured, this event has been called one of the world’s worst industrial accidents, but it is certainly not the first of its kind (Burke). This disaster received plenty of media exposure over the days following the event as global consumers watched rescuers and family members of the workers trapped inside dig through the rubble and apparel to find survivors.

Contemporary global capitalism is dependent on the exploitation of the lives, bodies, and identities of women in “developing countries” such as Bangladesh. Contemporary global capitalism thus produces the structures of power enacted in the experiences of the women most directly impacted by this event, and at work in its media coverage. A transnational feminist approach to this event must be employed to reveal the gendered, everyday micro-politics of garment workers and “read up the ladder of privilege” toward the macroeconomic social policies that impact them (Mohanty, “Revisited”, 511). Utilizing Chandra Mohanty’s concepts of the one-third/two-thirds worlds, as well as theories formed by other feminist scholars, a relationship between the media representations of two sets of agents becomes apparent: women in the two-thirds world bear the brunt of globalization while the garment industry seeks to satisfy the consumers of the one-third world who purchase the product of their gendered labour.  North American media reports of the Rana Plaza factory collapse failed to address the systematic challenges at play in the lives of the women and girls of the two-thirds world and the gendered structures of capitalism and globalization which allow for events like these to continue to happen.  By utilizing Mohanty’s concept of the one-third/two-thirds world in the analysis of this event, possible sites for resistance or oppositional reading to mainstream media texts become more visible.

In “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” Mohanty argues that when structures are defined as “under developed” or “developing” and women are placed within them, an image of the “third world difference” is produced: the constant, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses the women in these countries (Mohanty, “Under”, 321). When she later revisits this work, Mohanty chooses to replace the terminology of “third world” with the terms one-third/ two-thirds world. These categories were developed in order to focus on social majority and minority based on quality of life rather than geography. Mohanty explains how the terms “western” or “first/third worlds” hold political and descriptive value in a world that assimilates multiculturalism and difference though commodification and consumption (Mohanty, “Revisited”, 506).  As the collapsed factory and those affected by it are geographically located in Bangladesh, and the consumers of Joe Fresh and this particular media coverage are located in Canada, the terms one-third/two-thirds world are effective in the analysis of this situation; that is, as structures of capitalism and globalization function by taking advantage of the differences in standard of living in the “global village”. As evidence of this, Mohanty points to the declining power of self-governance among poorer nations such as Bangladesh, and the rising significance of transnational institutions such as the World Trade Operation, and for profit corporations which have taken place as some of the world’s largest economies (Mohanty, “Revisited”, 508). These capitalist economies and their power have no geographical borders, and as such there is need for a borderless, geographically unbound analysis of their workings. The Bangladeshi garment industry grew immensely after the 2008 North American recession. Under the pressure to keep prices low and maintain profits, many manufacturers closed their factories and outsourced labour to four million Bangladeshi workers, most of whom are young women who act as the “backbone of the national economy and the transnational supply chain” (Chowdhury).               

In "Doubling Discourses and The Veiled Other: Mediations of race and gender in Canadian media”, Yasmin Jiwani explores the logics on which racism is based: self-purification, resulting in elimination of a perceived threat; assimilation, which entails the destruction of culture; and subordination, which justifies the physical exploitation of others as sources of cheap labour. Media representations of ethnic groups often support these logics, weaving the fabric of which subsequent actions are constructed, thus perpetrating a symbolic and discursive violence (61).  The stories told of the garment collapse by news sources such as The Globe and Mail and The CBC illustrate the collapse as a tragic disaster, in which many workers lost their lives. The media represents the victims simply as garment workers, while little or no detail is given to the human characteristics of the victims; their culture, working conditions, living standards or even demographic profile, glossing over the fact that the majority of the fatalities were young women. Jiwani argues that through the selection and creation of particular representations, the media legitimizes certain actions, and privileges and credits particular ideologies and interlocutors (64). The construction of the women killed in the collapse as anonymous labourers subordinates them, thus legitimizing their exploitation.  The ahistorical oppression of these labourers as described by Mohanty is thereby reproduced and naturalized.

Jason Burke, journalist for The Guardian, and the Fifth Estate’s documentary, both make clear attempts towards an ethnographic investigation into the lives of those effected by Rana Plaza’s collapse, however, their attempts still represent the victims as underdeveloped and less than dynamic characters. Burke focuses his investigation on a particular housing complex in a suburb of Dhaka to gain perspective on how the collapse affected families and individuals there. He describes victims Bonma, 20 years of age, and Tanzia, 18, as “serious pious girls who said their prayers and worked hard” and makes mention of Bonma’s upcoming marriage, which was arranged by her parents (Burke).  The portrait of these young women communicates them as homogenized others, and privileges an epistemology that understands Muslim women as victims, confined and repressed by their culture independent of the global capitalist context which shaped the labour conditions which took their lives (Jiwani, 68).

The CBC’s investigative program The Fifth Estate takes a critical approach to investigating the health, safety and labour standards of the Bangladeshi garment industry, and attempts to track the complex supply chain of garments produced for Joe Fresh and Walmart Canada. The documentary takes particular interest in telling the story of Aruti, a teenaged girl who worked in the Rana Plaza Factory. She tells the film crew of her experiences: “when I was little I thought I would grow up, go to school and have a job, but I couldn’t do it because I am poor and have to work to eat” (Made in Bangladesh). These stories shed little light on the gendered structures of globalization that oppress individuals like Aruti, Bonma and Tanzia, but they do pull at the heart strings of viewers and further reify the image of the “average third world woman”. These narratives work to further underline  a one dimensional character that leads an essentially truncated life based on her gender and her being from the third world: poor, uneducated, tradition bound, domestic, and victimized (Mohanty, “Under” 320). On the other hand, women of the western or one-thirds world are self-represented as modern, educated, complex and autonomous. When developing the figure of two-thirds world women working in wage labour, Mohanty employs Michelle Rosaldo’s term of “ourselves undressed” (“Under” 321). The flagrant irony is that these women are, in literal terms, the ones dressing us.

In Elora Halim Chowdhury’s critique of the Rana factory collapse as a form of violence against women, she notes that feminists in the one-thirds world describe the suffering of women in the two-thirds world as result of patriarchal oppressions, and have often suggested that this patriarchy can be resisted by economic ventures that create prospects for self-reliance. Chowdhury suggests that the collapse of the Rana Plaza shatters the idealistic image of this “self-reliant third world woman worker” (Chowdhury).  This idealistic image places the locus of responsibility for ending the disempowerment of women in the two-thirds world squarely within the hands of these very women; the proliferation of this image defers critical action by the women of the one-third world who are empowered by this inequitable relationship.

The disregard for the lives of these workers is also evident in the Bangladeshi government’s decision not to accept external assistance in the recovery effort in order to preserve their image of self-reliance in the eyes of the global community (Chowdhury). This resulted in community and family members of the victims taking on the responsibility for the greatest share of the recovery efforts while workers remained trapped for days in the collapse. Ramuni shares her story of being trapped for three days under two corpses: when she was finally pulled out of the rubble she had lost her mother, who also worked at the factory, and the use of one of her legs. She stated that she has received some monetary compensation from the government, but is still waiting to be compensated from Canadian company Loblaws, for whom she sewed garments for twelve hours a day, seven days a week (Made in Bangladesh).  Media representations of two-thirds world labour do not address the issues of the responsibility of the one-third world to these labourers.

            Feminist observers of global restructuring have pointed out that discourses of globalization are highly gendered, and that the relations of domination required for global restructuring could not be sustained without gendered symbolism and metaphors, which serve to naturalize hierarchies at work in this structure (Marchand and Runyan, 12). Marchand and Runyan analyze contemporary global capitalism’s tendency to favour the market over the state, the global over the local, and consumers over citizens. In doing so they bring light to the way in which within each of these cases, the latter is constructed as feminine and the former masculine (13).  This analysis asserts that women are constructed as the preferred labourers for certain feminized industries such as garment manufacturing. These jobs are generally characterized by low wages, minimal regulation, few benefits, and filled by women due to their perception as being better suited to perform repetitive tasks and less likely to organize in resistance (Marchand and Runyan, 16).  

The stories told about the Rana Plaza factory collapse are set to invoke feelings of sympathy and empathy for those impacted by the event, not dissimilar to the portrayals and emotions evoked by stories of natural disasters where many lives are lost. Mainstream North American media reports on the collapse fail to offer up a guilty party, or possible consumer resistance to the structures at work in this disaster. In fact, Loblaws, owner of Joe Fresh, was even praised by media and workers’ rights advocates for its immediate confession of involvement in with the factory (Strauss). Joe Fresh’s creative director, Joe Mimran addressed the media by expressing his own feelings of empathy when referring to the factory collapse as “quite a tragic event, it’s something that has touched all of our hearts, and it’s been a very difficult week for everyone.” (Made in Bangladesh)

Mimran’s statement and its reception in mainstream North American media illustrates the lack of responsibility afforded to global capitalism’s profit earners, who are pardoned of guilt on account of the complexity and lack of transparency that these very profit earners have created through their supply chains. When faced with the question of what concerned Canadians are to do in order prevent another disaster such as the one in Bangladesh, it seems the answer often given by media is anything other than to stop consuming from these sources. Even in the conclusion of a seemingly unbiased and critical investigation such as “Made in Bangladesh” we are still reminded that these garment factory jobs are pulling millions of women out of poverty, therefore a boycott of Bangladeshi made clothing may not be the answer. The solution also does not seem to lie in the voluntary policing and auditing promised by corporations in light of the disaster. There is a blatant need for new regulations and policies formed by pressure from governments, NGOs, activists and consumers; this need must be effectively voiced and represented in the mainstream media of the one third world.

            Mohanty brings light to how contemporary global economic and political processes authorize a discursive colonization on the lives and struggles of marginalized women, and these processes have become more brutal, exacerbating economic, racial, and gendered. Contemporary global capitalism thus needs to be demystified, re-examined, and theorized though a transnational feminist lens (“Revisited” 509).  She addresses the need for feminist theory to expose what is left out in the production of knowledge about globalization and its reliance on racist, patriarchal and heterosexist relations of rule (“Revisited” 510). In contrast to un-gendered and deracialized anti-globalization efforts, the experiences of particular communities of women and girls should be centered within discourse when analyzing effects of globalization and developing anti-capitalist resistance (“Revisited” 514). 

Mahmood also calls for a shift in transnational feminist scholarship. She addresses feminist theories’ tendency to focus on explaining and locating agency and resistance, sometimes at the expense of understanding the workings of power at work in limiting this agency (555). When attempting to understand these oppressive structures it is necessary to understand freedom as relative, we must rethink the concept of individual autonomy in light of issues such as globalization, and expand our understanding of women’s oppression and exploitation beyond the lens of male violence to one of structural violence and encourage an analytic of connectivity as the root of solidarity (Chowdhury).  The fiction of the “self-reliant third world woman worker” problematized by Chowdhury emphasizes agency, for instance, yet ignores the power relations that necessitate resistance.

Mohanty suggests that use of her feminist solidarity model as framework for feminist theorizing assumes both distance and proximity to analyze the directionality of power. Feminist solidarity looks for threads of connection and distance among the marginalized and the privileged, between local and global dimensions, and allows for an assembly of agency and resistance across borders of nation and culture (“Revisited” 522). This foundation of solidarity is not supported by news media’s report on events such as the Rana Plaza collapse, as it is difficult to find these connective links with a biased and underdeveloped representation of women who have lost their lives.

The concept of resistance to the structures that permit events such as the Rana Plaza factory collapse to occur seems to be an intangible one. The dominant portrayal of global capitalism as a natural and compelling phenomenon leads to feelings of disempowerment, and thus unravels basis for resistance (Marchand and Runyan, 19).  Marchand and Runyan suggest that when trying to counteract the negative impacts of global restructuring; consumers, businesses, and organizations need to engage in intentional awareness of how their local concerns are related to the macro processes of global restructuring, and reflect upon how their activities may affect or influence these processes (21).

            Mamhood turns to Judith Butler’s work for her suggestion of the possibility of agency within structures of power, and that the reiterative structure, or naturalization of norms, serves not only to build a system of power: it also provides the means for its destabilization (558). This theory suggests that the machine of global capitalism could be deconstructed by utilizing its own designs. If capital globalization wishes to illustrate women of the one-third world as tenacious consumers whom it exists to satisfy with fast fashion apparel, the women of the one-third world must accept this reality and locate themselves within the supply chain of their consumption, and accept their culpability for the reality that this produces in the lives of their two-thirds world counterparts.

 

Works Cited

Burke, Jason. "Bangladesh factory collapse leaves trail of shattered lives." Guardian 6 06 2013, n. pag. Web. 17 Mar. 2014

Chowdhury, Elora Halim. "Violence Against Women: We Need a Transnational Analytic of Care." Tikkun. 29.1 (2014): 9-13. Web. 17 Mar. 2014

Jiwani, Yasmin. "Doubling Discourses and the Veiled Other: Mediations of Race and Gender in Canadian Media." States of Race, Critical Race Feminism for the 21st Century (2010): 59-86. Web. 16 Mar. 2014

Made In Bangladesh. CBC, The Fifth Estate, 2013

Mahmood, Saba. "The Subject of Freedom from The Politics of Piety." Feminist Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. (2005): 553-562. Print.

Marchand, Marianne H., and Anne Sisson Runyan. "Feminist sightings of global restructuring: conceptualizations and reconceptualizations." Trans. Array Gender and Global Restructuring: Sightings, Sites and Resistances. New York: Routledge, 2000. 1-23. Web. 10 Mar. 2014.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses” Trans. Array Feminist Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill 2005. 319-327. Print.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. ""Under Western Eyes" Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles ." Signs. 28.2 (2003): 499-535. Web. 16 Mar. 2014

Strauss, Marina. "Canada's Joe Fresh among brands made in collapsed Bangladesh building." Globe and Mail 24 04 2013, n. page. Web. 14 Mar. 2014