Shelley Feldman


The contemporary Bangladesh economy is marked by sustained increases in women’s paid employment, a rise that began in the 1980s with complex and contradictory effects on the lives of women and communities. Today this increase in the numbers of employed women recasts gender relations and the gender and social contract, with wage employment leading to new sources of mobility and social, economic, and political freedoms for women, but also to contestation over rights and security, and, in some cases, to declines in women’s welfare. In this paper, I offer a window on the relationship between macro-economic changes in the Bangladesh political economy, the meso-institutional changes created by policy reform, and changes in women’s labor market relations. I highlight emergent relations of regulation as they create, organize, and control women’s social behavior and normative practice. As I will suggest, the emergent gender division of wage employment in Bangladesh unsettles the causality presumed when changes in economic and cultural organization build on an already available pool of surplus labor that can straightforwardly lead to changes in women’s behavior. Three themes animate this discussion. One theme emphasizes the contradictory effects that incorporation into export production has for women; they are simultaneously emancipatory and highly exploitative. Second, I note that neoliberal reforms articulate differently in particular places making it crucial to draw attention to how specific antecedent labor force practices, ideologies, and policies contribute to constructing a female labor force. Finally, I suggest that women are increasingly viewed as disposable and redundant even as their labor is becoming central to imaginings of family maintenance and sustainability.

Author Biography

Shelley Feldman is Professor, Development Sociology and Director Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Cornell, Visiting Professor of Sociology, Binghamton University, and President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies. Her publications include Unequal Burden: Economic Crises, Persistent Poverty, and Women’s Work, and Informal Work and Social Change and numerous articles on Bangladesh. Her research explores moral regulation, state formation, social and spatial restructuring, and precarious labor and provisioning.