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Lady of Bangladesh’s Rivers

BARISAL, Bangladesh — In southern Bangladesh, the 8-million populated port of Barisal sits along the Kirtankhola River, beckoning those seeking its tranquil hold. Firuza, a sari-draped woman in her mid-40s, lives here, on a bobbing riverboat swelling with all her possessions. As a ferrywoman, Firuza earns an income by rowing boats from dusk to dawn each day, accruing approximately Tk200-300 by nightfall.


The Shardar: Char Dwellers

On a tiny slice of land in Rasulpur, in close proximity to the Dhaka launch terminal of Barisal, over 100 families attempt to eke out a livelihood as “char dwellers.” Belonging to a landless group called the Shardar, some construct homes here directly on the water, using corrugated metal sheets propped up by wooden stilts. Ligneous boats docked nearby hold their chattels.

Others like Firuza lack even this shelter. Boats are her entire world: she lives on one boat, which holds her entire possessions, and she works with another, rented to earn her livelihood.

Residents know they will not be here long. The Bangladesh-based Association for Climate Refugees estimates that by 2050, Bangladesh will host up to 30 million environmental refugees. Rising sea levels and riverbank erosion displace these climate castaways. And most of Firuza’s neighbours will end up in the urban metropolis of Dhaka.

“We have little to our name,” Firuza says, chewing betel leaf. “We are just surviving.”

Rowing with the wind

Five years ago, Firuza’s husband abandoned her for a Bede woman. Informally referred to as “river gypsies,” the Bede are a transient community – 98% of Bedes live in abject poverty, and over 90% do not appear on voter ID lists requiring address registration. The Shardar and Bede are inter-linked by overlapping roles on the river, and increasingly, by poverty itself. Firuza’s community is mostly involved in precarious labour, lacking job security and suffering occupational hazards for low wages. The port of Barisal offers Firuza little, but as an independent ferrywoman, at least Firuza does not answer to a boss. She schedules her own hours. “I move when and where I want,” she says.

She moors herself on land only when gathering medical provisions or collecting vitals from the market. Firuza prefers the aquatic idyll of her boat lifestyle to the punishing concrete of the city. On land, she is limited by her gender, where people watch her movements with judgment, or worse, pity. On water, she navigates fluidly, rowing away from a community that ascribes importance to male figureheads.

“It is more peaceful for me on the water,” Firuza says. “I am free. I have my own boat, my own job, my own independence. What’s there for me on land?” she questions. “In the city, they will make rude comments and judgments, but here it matters less that I am a woman.”

Gender obstacles

But it’s not always easy. Firuza gently clasps her oar, modestly covering her thin frame. When boats pass her, she drapes her sari cloth over her nose and mouth, hoping to gain some modesty. Her face is covered in deepening age lines, sped up by the unyielding sun rays that strike her boat.

Although women amount to half of Bangladesh’s population, only 36% of the labour force is comprised of females, according to the International Labour Organisation. Firuza takes careful consideration of her gender in her work schedule, opting not to work at night, when few women are on the water. It’s clear why: When male fishermen pass her, they volley unsavory comments and note Firuza’s singularity as a woman. Sometimes, customers on other boats will even brazenly eve-tease her. Firuza is an easy target: on most days she is one of only two women ferrying passengers.

Firuza’s boat is encircled by small children who yelp excitedly, but Firuza has no children of her own. Each hour, she steers the boat past ramshackle homes dangling perilously close to the water. Mothers hanging kameezes on makeshift clotheslines squint into the water, barely acknowledging Firuza.

On the line

Firuza is content with her work, but harbors other dreams when things seem possible. She expresses an interest in commercial fishing, but the opportunities for a single woman are grim. “Without a man to help you, it’s an impossible and unsafe job. You have to stay in the middle of the river with a group of men, and they already eve-tease me when I’m working on the boat. It can be dangerous, not to mention it is a heavy load for a woman to carry.”

Instead, she rents her ferryboat for Tk100 a day, setting loose on the water, her sari clasped tightly around her.

“We are here to work. That is what God wills us to do.”

This article originally appeared in print in Bangladesh’s Dhaka Tribune.

Published in Bangladesh Dhaka Tribune