Adivasi Girls in the Capital City Dhaka

 

By Philip Gain

 

Dashami Mree (20), a Mandi (Garo) girl from Modhupur, has chosen to become a professional beautician. Currently she works at Shahi’s Beauty Parlor at Salimullah Road in Mohammadpur area. A Mandi family from Chunia,  a Mandi village in the Modhupur forests, owns the beauty parlor that it bought from a Bengali owner more than five years ago. The parlor is small but nicely decorated with big glasses and a row of front-line Bombay film actresses above the head. Dashami and half a dozen Mandi girls just fit in there. Dashami, compelled to leave her village due to her parents’ inability to meet her school expenses, finds her job as a beautician quite comfortable.

 

  Dashami and three other Mandi girls working at the same parlor, live with the Mandi family that owns it. They live close to the parlor. They buy groceries themselves, cook meals for the whole family, eat together and socialize with the nearby Mandi families on a regular basis. This makes their social life vibrant and full of fun.

 

  The beauty parlor was Dashami’s entry gate to Dhaka in 2003. She trained herself for six months [with the help of World Vision, a Christian NGO] in cutting hair, facial massages, plucking eyebrows, and all the other parlor skills. After training for six months she ventured into a few other parlors in Bogra and Sylhet before she came back to Shahi’s in the middle of 2005. With accommodation and food free, she gets a cash of Tk.500 (five hundred) per month. She was offered Tk.2,000 plus free accommodation and food in another parlor in Mirpur. But she chose to stick to a Mandi family even though the amount of cash she gets is small. This makes her stay in Dhaka secure and comfortable for now. She hopes to learn a few other things at Shahi’s and then look for better pay here or elsewhere.

 

  Dashami is one of around 1,200 Mandi girls who work at some 400 beauty parlors in Dhaka city. An owner of a beauty parlor aims at employing a maximum number of Mandi girls. The biggest of all the beauty parlors in Dhaka is Persona employing a few hundred Mandi girls in its two parlors.

 

  The Mandi girls come from scores of Mandi villages from different districts in the north-central plains of Bangladesh. There is hardly any girl from any other Adivasi community such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, and Hajong among others to be found in any beauty parlor. To the Mandi girls, who enjoy equal status with men in their matrilineal society, work in a beauty parlor is quite acceptable. According to Ranjit Ruga who runs Shahi’s, a skilled Mandi girl earns up to Tk.20,000 (twenty thousand) a month.

 

  The Mandi girls work in beauty parlors by their choice and without any sense of moral degeneration. Some of them have married Bengali owners at work place and are doing fine in their business. They are really straight in their business. They travel in the capital city with an air of freedom that most other women don’t enjoy. Not that they have no fear, but they look into your eyes without hesitation. They treat men as their equals. Mandi girls working in beauty parlors or elsewhere in the city do not go unnoticed. Despite their distress back in the villages that bring them to cities to become beauticians, they are confident and enterprising.

 

  As I was visiting Shahi’s to see Dashami’s work environment, I met with Kashuri Chisim, aged 38. She was paying a casual visit to the beauty parlor. It is typical of the Mandis in villages, in Dhaka city or elsewhere that they socialize with each other frequently and without notice, a trait of their kinship. Kashuri is a housemaid working in different houses of foreigners who come to Dhaka to work in foreign missions or international NGOs. As I exchanged a few words with her at Shahi’s, I got interested in visiting her home; she was actually heading for it. I was joined by Ranjit Ruga and his wife Tuli, owners of Shahi’s Beauty Parlor.

 

  We walked to Kashuri’s house. Kashuri has husband and three daughters. The elderly two daughters go to Holy Cross School—one in class eight and the other in class three. Kashuri’s husband Suman Marak (50) was sitting in the drawing room of their two-room quarter. The drawing room was filled with smoke from his cigarette. The smoke that I did not like eventually subsided. We had a warm conversation. The family of Kashuri and Suman, who come from Askipara in Haluaghat, have been living in Dhaka for 15 years now. During this period Kashuri spent two years in Saudi Arabia with her employer who took her there from Dhaka. Now Kashuri works in four houses and all her employers are foreigners. She works part-time in all these houses—two to three hours in a maximum of two houses a day, which means she works four to five hours a day. She earns around Tk.10,000 a month. Her husband, also working in houses, earns about that much. This family likes work like that. Then they have plenty of time to take care of their children. They can drop and pick up their daughters from school themselves.

 

  “In the houses of the foreigners, it is primarily the Mandis who work as housemaids. The foreigners trust them very much. You will hardly see Bengali women in the houses of the foreigners,” says Kashuri. While women work as housemaids in the houses of foreigners, many Mandi men work as guards in the houses, diplomatic missions and offices. There are also a big number of Mandi men and women working in the houses of Bengalis. In Dhaka, many people would prefer a Mandi housemaid to others. They are trusted and reliable.

 

  There are, of course, girls and women from other ethnic communities such as the Santal and Oraon who work in houses. But one will hardly find a Chakma, Tripura, Monipuri or Khasi who would be interested in household work.

 

  The presence of the Mandis in Dhaka is unique. Thanks largely to Christianity, back in the villages, the literacy rate among them could be high as 90%. Universal literacy among them certainly makes it easier for them to step out of the villages in search of fortune in Dhaka and other nearby cities. However, dispossession of local resources, deprivation and unemployment are some of the obvious underlying factors for their migration to cities.

 

  Not only for work, the Mandi youths have a strong urge to come to Dhaka for higher education. “I prefer Dhaka to Mymensingh or Modhupur for my higher education. I understand what life is like in Dhaka city. In Dhaka I have a greater chance to learn many things,” says Tutul Mree, a Mandi girl from Modhupur who is studying BA at Eden College. According to Tutul, there are some 50 Adivasi girls at Eden College and half of them are Mandis.

 

  It is not just the Mandis, the other major ethnic communities of Bangladesh such as the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Monipuri, Khasi, Santal, and Oraon also look towards Dhaka for higher education and exposure to the outside world.

 

  Mandis in Dhaka are also seen in other areas such as hospitals, physiotherapy centers, garments, driving, Dhaka Export Processing Zone (DEPZ), NGOs, church enterprises, and mechanical workshops. One striking thing about the Mandis and members of other major ethnic communities in Dhaka is that they are hardly seen as rickshaw-pullers, salesmen at shops, kulis (porter) or vendors in a market place, and in other similar jobs. One special feature of the Mandis and Adivasis in Dhaka is that they neither belong to the upper income class, nor the very low level. They stay in the middle and always opt for a decent life, though not economically very prosperous.

 

  The largest number of individuals from an Adivasi community in the capital city is obviously the Mandis. There exists no reliable data. But what can be figured from different estimates is that their number in Dhaka city and its outskirts would vary between 10,000 and 12,000. While the Mandis are seen everywhere in Dhaka city, their main concentration is in Kalachanpur with about fifty percent of them living there.

 

  The second largest ethnic community in Dhaka city and its outskirts must be the Chakmas with distinct characteristics. Like the Mandis there is also no reliable data on the number of Chakmas and members of other ethnic communities from the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Different sources mention different figures. What is made out from these numbers is that the Chakmas in Dhaka city, DEPZ in Savar and Kanchpur would range between five and six thousand. According to a source, the number of Marmas would be some 500 and the Tripuras 200. The numbers of Tanchangya, Lushai, Pangkhua and other smaller ethnic communities are very small.

 

  The job market and professions of the Chakmas in the capital and its industrial zones are strikingly different from those of the Mandis and other ethnic communities. In contrast to the Mandis, a big percentage of them are industrial workers with main concentration in DEPZ area in Savar. According to Dilip Chakma (24), a worker at DEPZ, in Savar alone, there are some 3,500 Chakmas, most of them industrial workers and more than half of them women. Very few are in the higher ranks. In the export processing zone, the Chakmas live together in different houses and locations.

 

  The Chakmas began to come to the DEPZ area in the late nineties. One unique feature of the Chakma industrial workers is that most of them are educated. Dilip Chakma has a Higher Secondary School Certificate from Khagrachhari. He laments his position as just a helper in a cap manufacturing company. He worked for two years at a garments factory in Kanchpur, an industrial area on the outskirts of the city. In Kanchpur, there are some 500 Chakmas, says Dilip. Dilip and workers of his rank earn from Tk.3,000 to Tk.4,000. Dilip and others resent the conversion of their pay from Dollar to Taka. They complain that they get less when their salary is handed down to them in Taka.

 

  What led to such and influx of Chakmas to the industrial areas in Dhaka? Back in the CHT, particularly in Khagrachhari and Rangamati Hill Districts, there are many educated youths without employment opportunities. Besides, political tension, conflicts among themselves, shrinking access of hill peoples to local resources due to Bengali in-migration in the hill areas, etc. drive the Chakmas and others out of their homes.

 

  The new entrants to the industrial areas follow the trail of relatives and friends. The tendencies of the Chakmas and others who come from the CHT are different from those of the Mandis in choosing jobs. One will hardly find a Chakma working in a non-Chakma house or a beauty parlor. The values of matrilineality of the Mandis and those of patrilineality of the Chakmas and others are vivid in the selection of jobs and professions in the cities. The kind of freedom that the Mandi girls enjoy is absent in other communities.

 

  However, the Chakmas are dominant in professions requiring higher education. Civil service, banking, life insurance, teaching, law, medical services, and NGOs (local and international) are the major areas where Chakmas are seen in greater numbers than the members of other ethnic communities. Like the Mandis, the Chakmas are not strongly represented in businesses. It is a common feature among almost all ethnic communities that they give up in competition with their Bengali counterparts. “The Chakmas are very unsuccessful in businesses. They take business initiatives, but do not continue,” says Dipayan Khisha, editor of Maorum, a publication on the CHT issues.

 

  The urge for higher education among the Chakmas is outstanding, which is reflected in their presence in Dhaka University and other educational institutions. This is perhaps the secret of their success in professions that require academic qualification.

 

  The political life of the Chakmas in the capital city is, indeed, very significant. Given the political history of the CHT and a strong military presence, democratic practices such as organization of assembly, meetings, protests, and processions are a lot easier to follow in Dhaka than the CHT. Dhaka is also a safe sanctuary for many political activists who find it difficult to move freely in the CHT. There are many factors contributing to this situation. In addition to the tension that originates from the non-implementation of major aspects of the peace accord and Bengali settlements, conflicts between the Parbattya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti (PCJSS) and United Peoples’ Democratic Front (UPDF) that often turn violent, force many political activists from both parties to spend their time in relative peace in Dhaka. No one is at least physically attacked here. Dipayan Khisha puts the feeling of insecurity in the right tone: “I feel comparatively secure and better-placed in Dhaka than in my home in Bandarban. I feel no one will attack me here and I am a free man in Dhaka.”

 

  The Chakmas also make headlines in politics at the national level. Prominent among those who currently make these headlines include Mr. Jyotirindra Bodhipryia Larma (Shantu Larma), the chairman of interim Regional Council; Mr. Mani Swapan Dewan, MP, deputy minister, Ministry of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs; Raja Devasish Roy (Chief of the Chakma Circle), Mr. Bir Bahadur MP; and Proshit Bikash Khisha (President of UPDF).

 

  Adivasis, other than the Mandis, Chakmas and those from the CHT, who frequent Dhaka for education and job opportunities include the Santals, Oraons, Malos, etc. of North Bengal; the Monipuris and Khasis of the greater Sylhet district and Rakhaings from the coastal districts of Cox’s Bazar, Patuakhali and Barguna.

 

  Like the others, no statistics about the numbers of the Adivasis from North Bengal in Dhaka are available. Different sources suggest there are some 1,000 Adivasis from North Bengal in the capital. Of them the Santals are the largest group, amounting to 600 followed by Oraons (300) and others (100). A significant number of the Adivasis from North Bengal work in technical workshops. Some work in offices, some are students and like Mandis, some of the Santal and Oraon girls work in houses.

 

  Mr. Paul Charwa Tigga, a highly educated Oraon and a resident of Dhaka, runs Dipshika, a development NGO that works mainly in North Bengal. Mr. Tigga, a long-time observer of the condition of the Adivasis, says, “There is a strong tendency among the Adivasis of North Bengal to come to Dhaka because of unemployment in villages. But in Dhaka their residential problems are massive. Most of them live in messes. They are also not well connected with each other although the Santals are better linked among themselves.” According to Mr. Tigga, there are some six Adivasi families from North Bengal established in Dhaka.

 

  Combined, the Monipuris and Khasis would not exceed 200 in Dhaka. Members of these two ethnic communities stop by Dhaka mainly for education and business. According to Pidison Pradhan Suchiang, a Khasi leader, there are only two Khasi families in Dhaka. “Khasis are better-placed in their punjis (villages). They are strongly attached to their punjis and the trade of betel leaf. Their deep connection with the land holds them back in their villages,” says Suchiang.

 

  According to a Monipur source, there are more than one hundred Monupuris including a High Court judge, two lawyers and few businessmen in Dhaka. However, what is now Monipuripara in Dhaka was basically Monipuri village till 1950. The nearby areas were also inhabited by Monipuris. Land acquisition for an agricultural farm gradually led to their exodus from Monipuripara.

 

  The story of the Rakhaings is similar to that of other ethnic communities. According to Ushit Maung, Chairman of Rakhaing Development Foundation (RDF), there are some 100 Rakhaing families living in Dhaka. There are some 60 Rakhaing students. “Ten to 15 Rakhaing girls work in beauty parlours without much social pressure,” says Maung

 

  It is logical that like the Bengalis, people of all other ethnic identities take an interest in Dhaka city and seek opportunities here. This tendency comes along urbanization and in-migration of people from rural areas to city centers. For survival it is not bad. But the recent tendencies of migration of the Chakmas to the industrial areas and the choice of jobs as industrial workers in great numbers and the kinds of jobs that are chosen by members of other ethnic communities raise concerns.

 

  “It needs to be examined why the Adivasis migrate to Dhaka and other cities to become industrial workers, beauticians, housemaids, guards, etc. Many come because they are in trouble back home due to the worsening economic condition and dispossession of resources,” says Raja Devasish Roy. Concerned about their work and living condition, the Chakma chief says, “Healthy working and living conditions are imperative for practice of religions, community building and protection of culture.”

 

  Raja Devasish Roy is also concerned about what the Adivasis take back home from the cities. The kinds of jobs they generally get do not fetch them enough money to settle down in Dhaka. Many come to Dhaka to spend a few years and go back home with some cash. “They can take back good things and bad things with them,” says Roy. “To prevent intrusion of bad things into our society, we need to provide them job opportunities back home.”

 

  Despite fear and trepidation, the capital city is significant for all citizens of Bangladesh, irrespective of ethnic identities. Like others it is a common ground for all Adivasi groups to raise their voices for rights and show their cultural riches. This is reflected in the observance of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, cultural festivals, Adivasi gatherings organized by different groups, and many other events. In all these events we see beautiful faces and minds and can feel the significance of our ethnic and cultural diversity in which we all can take pride. 

 

 

First published in The Daily Star, 10 February 2006

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