“Made in Bangladesh” | Dilruba Ahmed

“Alpana” was one of the last poems I wrote for my first collection, Dhaka Dust, and took shape in response to discussions I’d been having with my father about the rise of the garment industry in Bangladesh, the international “race to the bottom” to find the world’s cheapest labor, and the plight of garment workers who often faced no better alternative than to accept low-paying work with appalling working conditions.

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The conversations were complicated, as my father’s pride and triumph were often apparent as he read clothing tags in department stores: “Made in Bangladesh!” he would exclaim. We had talked about the fact that workers who make garments for Western manufacturers are often very poor women laboring in countries where they possess few civil and workplace rights: El Salvador, Mexico, Haiti, Nicaragua, Bangladesh. We talked, too, about how the availability of new jobs could have the potential to offer these women some economic independence and disrupt an old-world order in which females are financially dependent on the men they marry (but how, for many, upward mobility will not be possible). And we also discussed how factory owners regularly destroy unionizing efforts by brute force, with American manufactures likely to respond to any increase in wages by moving jobs to another site.

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Inevitably, these conversations with my father–who is a liberal and an unwavering supporter of women’s rights–would end with his statement that the jobs could at least prevent some women from resorting to prostitution. But for all of us, the question remains: as consumers, and as human beings, shouldn’t we want more?

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While writing “Alpana,” I hoped to complicate my depiction of the issues at hand while also bringing a human face and voice to the situation. I didn’t want to portray the speaker as mere victim, although clearly she suffers from some of the worst ills of globalization. Nor did I want to depict her as the submissive figure that some Western readers might assume she would be. Rather, I wanted her to be vocal and strong, much like many of the South Asian women I’ve known over the years…women who are intelligent, resourceful, and often loud–and who have fought fiercely for what they think is right for their families.

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In the poem, I wanted to recognize that, in this speaker’s context, taking the low-paying job is an act of agency: to support herself and her family, she suffers and endures what’s unimaginable to affluent consumers of the West. She’s aware of the hand she’s been dealt but has few choices. I wanted her to have a chance to speak out to those of us who might not otherwise think of her situation, connected as we are by a globalized economy.

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While I was working through drafts of “Alpana,” a writer friend from New Orleans was traveling to Philadelphia to visit. We were planning to attend a spoken word event but he got stuck in traffic and arrived hours too late. We didn’t make it to the reading, but as I worked on “Alpana” the spirit of spoken word poetry was on my mind: its narrative drive; its embrace of both political and personal matters; its bravado and performance. And of course, its sounds–the energy and movement of unpredictable rhyme, the attention to rhythm and tempo–as well as its capacity to provide a space for marginalized perspectives.

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I remain apprehensive about having assumed the persona of a female garment worker. That I have the luxury to write about her situation at all–and in particular, from this distance–strikes me as presumptuous, perhaps even criminal.

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No longer worlds away from us, the women are leaving the factories after their shifts, walking in throngs for protection through the dusk.

 

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