Shades of Grey: Sexuality and Rights: Lives of Young Women in an Urban Slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh - Dr. Sabina Faiz Rashid

All is not black and white…and we want to explore the shades of grey. Feminism is diverse and we don't always agree totally with one another, though we may share a similar perspective.

One of the issues that often provokes thought is whether women, especially if they are poor, are able to exert any agency over their sexual lives and decision-making in a patriarchal society. Are women only victims or can they be powerful actors of their own lives? What might be the realities of women's sexual lives when they live in an environment that is not conducive to gender equality, leave alone sexual equality? How do ideas of sexual desire, love, intimacy, privacy and so on play out in an urban slum?

Can women living in an urban slum assert their sexuality and use their own power to negotiate their rights in an oppressive environment? What are the parameters by which we assess power and decision-making vis a vis sexuality? Do the women living in the slum think about these the same way that we do?

Dr. Sabina Faiz Rashid

As soon as I entered her room, Rosina smiled and said to me, ‘Apa (older sister), which do you prefer for yourself, an unpeeled banana or a peeled banana?’ Lots of laughter around me as I am asked this question - (fieldwork notes)

Sexual rights are an important emerging issue, although relatively underdeveloped from a conceptual, operational and policy perspective in Bangladesh. Based on ethnographic research of 153 women (interviews, case studies) from December 2001-January 2003, I share some of the experiences of married adolescent women living in a large slum in Dhaka city. The rapid entry of rural poor families to Dhaka has led to a swift increase in urban population growth, slum settlements and worsening poverty. My research uncovered a ‘hidden world’ where married adolescent women spoke frankly about their love affairs and their sexual experiences with their husbands. Surprisingly, some of them also shared their thoughts and feelings about their sexual needs and desires. As this write-up will illustrate, although adolescent women are vulnerable to existing social cultural pressures and norms and cope with unequal power and gender relations, they also try and negotiate new spaces for themselves and challenge traditional expectations. 

Early and arranged marriages by family members are still the norm in villages and in the poorer households in the city. The average age of marriage for 153 adolescent women interviewed was 13.5 years. Surprisingly of the 153 adolescent women, 81 had love marriages and chose their own partners, many against their parents’ wishes. Some of the young women were embarrassed to speak of their ‘romance’ while others candidly shared stories ‘of walking together in the parks,’ ‘exchanging letters, flowers and gifts,’ and ‘going to the cinema.’ As one young woman said, ‘this is the prem (romance) era. Everyone does prem.’ Although no one admitted to premarital sex, gossip and speculation circulated about particular young couples who were rumoured to have had premarital sex. As strong social disapproval exists surrounding premarital sex, many young women will tend to underreport actual experiences or sexual interactions with others. Friends of young couples provide alibis and help them find places to meet in private. One resident in a section of the slum was known to rent out her room to drug users and young couples. 

Love affairs are not surprising in the urban environment where poor young women are forced to interact with men on their way to work, school and within the slum and workplace. A young woman, shared her feelings of when she first set eyes on her husband, ‘I saw him standing near the tube-well and I liked the way he stood, tall and he had a nice body, you know, not skinny but well-built…he looked so handsome. He just had a lungi (a sarong-like cloth) on and he was bare-bodied (she smiles and looks away)…’ Another young woman took the initiative with her second husband when they were dating. She said, ‘Five days after he first gave me the flower, I gave him a red stone ring. I said, “Let’s see your hand.” He gave me his hand and I put the ring on his hand. He said, “Why did you give me this? I should be giving you the ring instead!”’ 

Elders in the slum community openly commented on this ‘new era of romance’ and felt that parents were losing control of their children, who were now disrespectful and flaunted their affairs and their bodies in front of them. One older woman commented, ‘She (daughter) is walking around with her chest open to the world, she is not wearing an urnah. She has gone on the roads and the boys will see her and talk about her. But the girls and boys of today have too much guts - see the girls go to the shops and buy these tiny blouses. What do the men do? They hang around staring at these girls and flirt with them.’ Other parents privately admitted that in the city it was difficult to control the behaviour of teenagers and parents must accept the inevitable. 

Stories of first sexual experiences were not so positive and young women shared their trauma of not knowing what to expect but realizing that they were expected to be willing and compliant. A young woman shared her first experience of sexual intercourse with her husband: Apa when we had sex the first night I was fast asleep. He put his hands on my chest. My breasts were so small then - like little seeds. I woke up when he pinched my breasts. I asked him, ‘What are you doing? Why are you touching me like that?’ He said to me, ‘Don’t tell anyone this. If you do then this is shame. You can’t tell anyone this. If you do people will make fun of you.’ Then he put his hands on me and kissed me. He kept kissing me. I was so confused and I didn’t know what to think - all sorts of things were going through my head. Is this what husbands and wives do? I was so young - I don’t think I really understood. I was very scared though. He said to me, ‘This is what a wife has to give her husband and if she doesn’t then a husband can go elsewhere for it’. He came on top of me and tried to enter me. I screamed out in pain and tried to push him off me. He put his hands over my mouth and forcefully entered me. It was so painful. He said to me, ‘You have to give it to me!’ My vagina was completely swollen. I couldn’t walk for 8 days. My back hurt and I was really upset I cried…

This was fairly typical of many of the stories I heard from young women regarding their first sexual encounter. However there were also a few stories of caring and thoughtful husbands who wanted to make the first time special. An older adolescent woman recalled: My husband came up to me and said, ‘You must come to my room tonight’ …I was sleeping with my mother in law and then he came into my room and picked me up and took me to his room. I was scared…my heart was beating loudly. Then when I came to the room I saw that he had put biscuits, sweets and a glass of water and a jug with water for me…I felt less scared then…he slowly explained to me what he was going to do and we chatted for sometime before we had sex.

In the conversations with married adolescent women, it also became apparent that sex with one’s husband improves considerably over time. Some of the adolescent women spoke of enjoying sex, and even initiating the sexual encounter to meet their needs. One young woman explained, ‘I really like it when he puts himself (penis) inside me, that is the most enjoyable part of it…’ 

Another woman shared her feelings: When I want it, I turn over to face him and that is how he knows that I want to have sex with him, or I will put the baby on one side of the bed and he knows that I want to have sex with him. I also put my hands on his back or legs and he turns around and smiles and says, ‘What’s up?’ My husband has never said no. He can’t have enough of it frankly. When he wants me he will tell me, ‘Today I have work with you’ and I pretend not to understand and smile and say, ‘What work?’ Sometimes we even have sex on the floor next to the bed. 

When I asked if she ever gets embarrassed because of a lack of privacy (she has some holes in her newspaper/cardboard walls) she looked amazed and retorted, ‘Why should I be embarrassed? I am having sex with my husband and not with anyone else.’ 

However, another young woman shared how she and her husband had sex frequently even in the afternoons when he came home for lunch, but she felt harassed by the community. She was upset because some of the neighbors made rude comments about them and tried to spy on their activities. ‘Apa, these people in the slum are bad, they try and look through the holes in our walls (cardboard walls) and make comments behind our backs…’ 

Interestingly, a few of adolescent women also spoke candidly about ‘unsatisfying sex’ and husbands who could not or would not have sex as often as the women wanted to. Some of them reported, ‘I am left unsatisfied…he is too quick and I don’t feel much’ and ‘He can’t do anything and we rarely ever have sex’, and, ‘He never wants to touch me and does not even come near me anymore…’ One young woman complained: ‘He has sex with me once in three months. He has no desire. He comes to lie down and all he does is read and then he turns over and goes to sleep. He never says anything. Apa I don’t understand why he is doing this. Can you tell me why this is happening?’ 

One young woman justified her husband’s behavior and stated, ‘We have sex maybe once a month. Sex is good for the body - the mon (heart) remains happy and the body feels lighter…otherwise there is also build up of needs in the body. Women don’t lose their strength as they don’t have to be as active as the man. For men this is bad, as they get older they become weak and there is pressure on their bodies when they have sex.’

These young women admitted that they did not share their thoughts with anyone. Women in general mentioned that it was socially unacceptable to show one’s desires and they were often reluctant to express their feelings to their husbands. An adolescent girl explained, ‘There are many women who are ashamed to show their desire - a woman may not want to tell her husband. Others will insinuate that their husbands cannot satisfy them, hence they desire sex all the time. So this is lajja(shame)!’ In the context of Bangladesh, where women are expected to be sexually passive and men ‘have uncontrollable urges,’ these women will be looked upon suspiciously and husbands may fear their infidelity. Observations in the slum revealed that men monitored the movements of their wives closely and they were chastised for being out of the home too frequently. 

Narratives also reveal women’s worries about their long-term desirability and sexuality in their married life. A few adolescent women frankly shared their anxieties of having ‘loose vaginas’ from too much sex and from bearing children, and their husbands rejecting them later for younger women. A young woman explained, ‘A man wants good mal (referring to a ‘tight’ vagina), and if you have sex too much then the place becomes too big. My thing (vagina) is okay…it is just right. Men don’t have similar problems as they have more power…their bodies are not affected….but if a woman’s thing (vagina) becomes big, then the man doesn’t find enjoyment! That is why these men marry so many times.’ Arguments and fights related to suspicion and jealousy are common, with women often accusing each other of seducing their husbands. 

Marital instability was a widespread concern among the women in the slum and poverty, unpaid dowry demands, unemployment and drug use were all blamed as contributory factors. The extent of actual marital breakdown is uncertain because of the social stigma attached. The few studies available suggest that migration from the village to urban slums disrupts the extended family system, causing instability (Jesmin and Salway, 2000). Of the 153 young women, 17 were already separated or had been abandoned by their husbands. In addition, among the 50 who had in-depth interviews, another seven young women revealed that they had been previously married and that this was their second marriage. From this group of seven, four were sharing their husbands with a co-wife. Further probing found that another three suspected their husbands had another woman or co-wife. Those who were deserted by their husbands found that working conditions, low wages and social and economic discrimination in the slum and workforce made them worse off than before in the urban city environment.

There were always stories of women who flirted with other men, and those who had betrayed their neighbours, friends and even sisters and eloped with their partners. Older and married adolescent women often worried that their husbands would leave them for a younger woman. As one adolescent girl explained, ‘All men are dogs, they are all the same. Wherever they see a youngkochi girl they go running.’ Observations in the slum indicate that paradoxically, young women because of their age and youth are also advantaged, as they are able to manipulate their only assets — their bodies — to gain power. A young woman whose husband has a co-wife explains why she has the upper hand in her marriage, ‘My husband is older than me. His first wife has big saggy breasts and because she is older he does not like her anymore (sexually) and that is why he has married again. It does not matter that I am his second wife I have much more pull over him and he has more affection for me.’ In the context of poverty and competition for men, young women can mark their superiority over older women through their youth, and their attractiveness (sexuality) becomes an important source of power.

To conclude, listening to young women’s narratives, a divergence appears between traditional gender ideologies and social roles and the situation young urban women find themselves in, where not only are love affairs occurring, but some young women also exert agency as they act on their sexual desires and feelings in their married life and also express dissatisfaction with their husbands inability to satisfy them. Although the numbers of young women speaking out may not be many, this speaks volumes in a society where women are not expected to be sexual beings but rather passive and docile and men are seen as the sexual ones. As some of the stories highlight young women may also use their bodies as a way of holding on to men in the insecure slum environment. 


This study (Project A 15054) was supported financially by the Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction, World Health Organization, Geneva. I would like to thank all the married adolescent girls and their families for their time, kindness and patience. I am grateful to Nipu Sharmeen, research assistant for her valuable assistance during fieldwork. 

A few sections of this paper have been taken from another article submitted and published in IDS, Bulletin, October 2006. 

Dr. Sabina Faiz Rashid is Assistant Professor at the James P Grant, School of Public Health, BRAC University, in Dhaka Bangladesh. She is the coordinator of Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights course, taught to Master of Public Health students ( Since 1994, she has been working as an anthropologist, conducting qualitative research on gender and reproductive health issues in Bangladesh. She has published in a number of peer-reviewed journals and co-authored a book on birthing practices of rural women. I am the course coordinator for the Reproductive and Sexual Health and Rights course for the MPH program.