Shimu doesn’t have a birthday: she has
never known what day she was born.
Nor does she know how old she is. She
thinks she is 22 or 23, but when she tells her
story it seems like she might be older than that.
Don’t you want to pick a day, say that that is
your birthday and celebrate it?
No, what for? I’m poor. It’s so expensive to celebrate
a birthday. I’m lucky not to have one.
Shimu does know that she was born in
a village in the Natore district in northern
Bangladesh, where her father farmed half an
acre of land. He didn’t always have enough to
feed the family. She also knows that her mother
died when she was three or four years old, but
she doesn’t know how or why. Shimu thinks
she got food poisoning from a fish that her
grandfather had caught, but she’s not sure. And
she knows that afterwards she went to live with
an aunt and then back with her father and his
new wife, and finally with an older sister and
There, when she was 9 or 10, Shimu
discovered, in a neighbour’s home, a strange
box with people who moved, talked, did
things. She was shocked. The first time she saw
someone die on TV, Shimu cried; no one had
told her that it was not real, and no one would
until long after she was married.
At that time, Shimu started going to school,
but after few months her sister took her out.
If she spent so much time in class, she said,
how would she be able to help her with the
housework and with her child?
Didn’t you try to keep going to school?
No, I liked not going. I didn’t have to study, I had
lots of time to play with my friends and dolls.
And also to look for firewood, wash clothes,
sweep the tiny house, go to the market. At the
market there was a molasses salesman who
would look at her. Sometimes Shimu looked
back. One day he approached her and said that
he wanted to talk; they sat down and he said he
wanted to marry her. The boy was 17; Shimu
was 11 or 12 , and didn’t really understand.
Marriage was a word she had heard here
and there, on television and in neighbours’
conversations, that was about it.
In Bangladesh, the median age for women to
marry is 15, and it is lower in poor rural areas.
But parents arrange most of these marriages.
Shimu didn’t know what to do that afternoon;
she told the boy she would talk to her sister and
They are my guardians, they are the ones to decide.
The boy went to see them about his proposal:
he was willing to marry Shimu without a dowry
because he liked her. In rural Bangladesh,
marriages involve a dowry in money or goods
that the bride’s parents pay to the groom. This
is a new “tradition” – maybe half a century old
– which, though illegal, is still practised in three
marriages out of four.
Shimu’s guardians agreed, but on one
condition: since the bride was so young, the
groom would have to wait two years before he
could take her home. The boy accepted and
the celebration was brief; Shimu was officially
a married woman, but her life had barely
That was not going to last: a few months
later, Shimu’s husband started to demand a
dowry; his friends were getting married and
they were all getting something, he said. His
reputation would be affected if he didn’t. His
demands became more and more violent.
When he understood that there was nothing
to get, he said that since they didn’t give him
a dowry he would take his wife by any means
Did you want to go with him?
I don’t know if I wanted to or not. He was my
husband and so it was my duty to go wherever he
told me to.
Young women with autonomy over their earnings
have more freedom to decide when and whom they marry, and over the
timing, number and spacing of their children
Her husband lived with his mother, siblings,
in-laws, nieces and nephews – and Shimu
had to do most of the housework. At first,
she didn’t mind: she was used to it. But her
husband treated her worse and worse. He said
she was stupid, complained that her family
never gave him gifts, shouted at her, and
started beating her. Shimu thought that it was
somehow her fault.
Because we were so poor that we hadn’t given him
anything. That was my fault.
A few months later, Shimu started to feel
funny: something was moving around in her
belly. A neighbour told her, “Of course, girl,
you’re pregnant.” No one had ever explained
anything to her, so she didn’t realise it for four
or five months. When she told her husband,
he didn’t seem particularly interested; Shimu
only thought that she wanted her baby to be
pretty. But on the day of the birth, when the
midwife announced it was a boy, everyone
I was happy. I wanted a boy because that was what
my husband wanted. Having a son gives you a lot
Those first few days her in-laws helped out and took care of her;
a few weeks later,
though, everything returned to normal, and
her husband hit her harder than ever. Now
and then a neighbour, startled by the shouting,
would come by. Shimu’s husband would tell
them that since she was his wife, he could do
whatever he wanted with her. Like, for example,
tell her to leave so that he could marry a
woman who would give him money.
Sometimes he would feel sorry about his
behaviour and invite Shimu out to the movies.
Those times, Shimu would think that maybe she
could have a family after all. But the illusion was
short-lived, and soon there were more blows
and insults. At a certain point her mother-in-law
stopped feeding her, and Shimu had to start
working in other houses to pay for her food.
Time went by and she continued to suffer.
After four years, Shimu got pregnant again and
had another son. But this time no one cared.
Her husband wanted to get rid of her and
he accused her of cheating on him with his
brother. Shimu swore on the Koran that this
was not true, but he hit her furiously with a
bamboo stick; wounded, Shimu sought refuge
at her sister’s. Her husband went after her and
Shimu went back because her sons needed her.
One afternoon, Shimu was on her way home
from work and she stopped to rest a little. Her
husband passed by, saw her and accused her
of waiting for a lover. He hit her on the street.
Shimu had put up with almost everything, lack
of food, insults, blows. But she would not be
You never cared that I had to work for other people.
But you see me there on the street and accuse me of
being a whore.
Shimu told her husband not to come after
her ever again and she went to her father’s
house. The next morning, she was planning
to go to court to file for divorce but, in the
end, she didn’t dare. Shimu was 18 or 19, had
two children and no way to support them. Her
stepmother told her that all she could do was
leave the children with her and go to work in
She was right. In the village I had no way of
making money. There was no work and I needed to
earn money for them.
The only city Shimu knew about was Dhaka;
she had seen it on television: a big place, full
of cars and rickshaws and people. Dhaka is
indeed a big place: Bangladesh’s capital has
around 12 million inhabitants. When she
arrived at an aunt’s house, the city seemed even
bigger, noisier and more foreign than she had
imagined. She was frightened. But she also
liked walking down the street without anyone
looking at her or knowing who she was. In a
few days, Shimu got a job at a garment factory
and everything seemed off to a good start.
The garment industry provides 70 per cent
of Bangladesh’s exports and it employs two
million people. Many of them are rural migrants,
and four out of five are women. Shimu started
working as a helper for 700 taka a month which,
at that time, was around US$15. The factory
where Shimu works is a seven-storey building in
the centre of Dhaka. From the outside, it looks
like an apartment building. Inside, each floor is
a large workshop with dozens of employees,
sewing machines and cutting tables where all
sorts of clothing are made. Shimu was pleased:
she had a job, she was learning and her mates
were helping her. For the first time in her life
she had got rid of her husband, her in-laws, her
village and their burdens. A few months after she
arrived, Shimu, now able to support her children,
mustered the courage to return to her town and
file for divorce.
After a year she was promoted to operator.
The first time she had a sewing machine to
herself, she says she felt like a real person.
One afternoon, two years later, her supervisor
told her to go back to her village because her
younger son was ill. When she arrived after the
long journey they told her they had buried him.
Shimu cried and cried. But she thought God
must have his reasons, and she went back to
Now, six years after her arrival, Shimu is still
an operator. She earns 2,100 taka – US$30 – a month for eight hours
of work, six days a week. It is well known that the garment
industry prospers among others things
because of these wages: the cost of labour is
just a fraction of the retail price for a shirt or
pair of trousers made in Bangladesh.
Do you feel that you have changed a lot in
Yes, very much. I’m not so skinny anymore. I have
more self-confidence. I can send money home so
that my son can go to the madrassa – the Islamic
school – and get an education. He is 11 and doing
Do you send him to the Islamic school
because you are religious?
Yes, I always wanted to send him to the madrassa.
I suffered a lot, but God determined this fate for
me, so I must deserve it. For there to be happy
people, some of us have to be unhappy. By the
luck of the draw, I didn’t have anything: no
money, no education. But now my fate is looking
up; I’m making money and sending my son to the
Shimu speaks slowly and firmly: she doesn’t
hesitate. Living in the city has allowed her to
make a break from traditional networks. True,
she sometimes feels lonely and doesn’t know
what to do. But she does know that she doesn’t
have to do what her relatives and elders say.
I’m satisfied. My dream is for my son to get an
education and a good job.
And what do you want to do in the future?
I don’t have an education. I’m illiterate. The
best thing I can do is work my whole life as an
operator. If I had an education, I could think about
something else, but I don’t. I’m not worried. I just
want to earn a little more.
Shimu prefers living in Dhaka because “it is
safer, and here I can earn a living, live and think
my own way”, she says. In her village none of
this would have been possible. But she thinks
that when she is older she will go back there.
She plans to buy a piece of land and settle
there. She has already managed to save 20,000
taka –almost US$300.
But if life is better in Dhaka, why go back to
Because here, if I don’t work I won’t have enough
money. In the village I will. And anyway, when I
am old no one will be able to put pressure on me to
do anything I don’t want. So then I will be able to
live in my place.