By Farjana Mahbuba
But you know what’s funny? All my life, I have been trained to be an engineer. Look at me now, I am a pickle seller!
She laughed with teary eyes. I did not laugh. I felt like crying and giving her a tight hug. Yet I did not move. I kept listening. I am a researcher. I am supposed to just collect data. I am not supposed to respond emotionally.
By the way, how does one collect data when the “subjects” are human? When the information one is looking for has turned into personal stories? Like this story of Selina (a pseudonym), born in a riverside town near Dhaka – the capital of Bangladesh. Selina’s husband was already planning to apply for an Australian offshore visa when they married and in 2010, when she was 27, the couple migrated to Sydney.
On the occasion of her birth, Selina’s grandmother had held her closely to her chest, telling her mother,
Beti (dear daughter), in our family, girls are strong. Make her strong. I may not live long to see her grow, but promise me, you’ll make her strong.
Her mother kept the promise. She made Selina an engineer.
To my Australian readers, a girl being an engineer may not mean much. Only my Bangladeshi readers will know a girl being an engineer means her parents were constantly bombarded with well-wishers’ remarks:
Why are you wasting your money on making your girl an engineer? What’s in it for you? She will be married to someone and go off to her in-laws!
She was made the centre of jokes by her friends:
Hey, here comes our engineer! Once married, her engineering skills will make her cooking more delicious!
She was ridiculed by her teachers whenever she stumbled on something difficult that she couldn’t understand at one go:
Why are you wasting your time in this engineering class? Better you do cooking classes in the kitchen!
A Bangladeshi girl, an engineer: it means she and her parents fought all the way for her to complete the degree and enter the profession.
So, when she said, “look at me now”, I literally looked at her. Looked at her teary eyes. Looked at her clean, tidy, beautifully organised house. Looked at her cooking and talking to me simultaneously – her kids would be back from school soon – having just moved the pickle jars from the shade to the sunny places on the kitchen veranda, so a carpenter could fix the broken deck in the backyard.
There was a time when Selina was busy with her daily hectic routine as a civil engineer working in Bangladesh. She enjoyed those days very much. She felt proud going to work. Just like the other women in her family, who are either a doctor or engineer, she had made a name for herself.
No, no one forced Selina to leave her profession when she moved to Australia. At the same time, no one guided her or told her how to rebuild her career in this foreign land. Selina’s case is not unique. Bangladeshis are a relatively new migrant community. Mostly they arrived in Australia through overseas scholarship programs during the late 1970s and the early 1980s, and later through the general skilled migration program from 2006 to 2011.
According to 2021 census data, 51,491 people in Australia were born in Bangladesh. Bangladeshi Muslim women here have significantly higher educational attainment than the wider Australian female population. The data shows 19.71% of Bangladeshi Muslim women in Australia have a postgraduate degree, compared with 5.41% of women in general. Overall, 22.75% of Bangladeshi Muslim women have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 15.87% of women across the board.
The same census data shows the unemployment rate to be 5.31% amongst Bangladeshi Muslim women compared to 2.21% in the wider female population. Salma Bint Shafiq, in her research into Bangladeshi migrants in Australia, has found non-participation in the labour market is much more common for these women (30%) than it is for men (2%).
“When I came to Australia”, said Selina, “I knew no one except my husband.” He is from a totally different profession and was struggling to make an entrance. Selina was aware of her ticking biological clock and did not want to miss out on motherhood. She’d already delayed motherhood because of the prospect of migration. And she had one of those pregnancy experiences where you constantly throw up. You can’t hold even a sip of water down. She had to carry a polybag in her hand at all time because she would vomit without any warning, any time, anywhere.
After the pregnancy, there was simply no time. Her husband was doing a second job to support his own study, career and family. She was there, alone, to recover from the baby blues, and at the same time taking care of a difficult baby who didn’t want to sleep at night. Two separate specialists gave the same verdict; some babies are just like that.
It’s interesting how one single step backward in one’s career starts an avalanche of falling behind. Eventually, there was a second baby and there were some attempts in between to study something related to the engineering field.
Oh, I just said it in a single sentence, didn’t I?
In reality, it didn’t happen that easily. There was extreme physical exhaustion, blood and sweat, months after months of sleepless nights, so much confusion with new babies, isolation, living like a single mum with two young kids all alone while the father was struggling to rebuild a career and doing two jobs. Which is not uncommon. Recent ABS statistics show 57% of skilled visa holders have had two or more jobs simultaneously since arrival.
‘Losing myself bit by bit’
What does a new country do to a migrant wife? I met Selina to listen to her financial experiences, to identify any pattern of financial abuse in her spousal relationship. I ended up discovering how she went from engineer to pickle seller.
So far in my fieldwork, collecting “data” on spousal financial abuse, I have spoken to more than a dozen Bangladeshi migrant Muslim women living in New South Wales. In our in-depth interviews, stories similar to Selina’s have started to emerge. I have met Jasmin and Shimul (both pseudonyms), one a former banker and the other a university lecturer before she migrated. Both were unable to resume their careers here. Says Jasmin:
The moment I stepped out of the airport, everything was new to me. Even the sky looked different. I have never seen such a blue sky in my life. The people looked different. All my life I was a very good student in English, but I could not understand a single word they were talking. Instead of feeling joy and excitement, [it was] as if I was losing myself bit by bit into the unknown. It was traumatic.
Both Jasmin and Shimul became pregnant shortly after arrival, giving birth for the first time, alone in a new land, without a single family member being around. Often their husbands are busy with second jobs to earn extra money to support the family.
I see a pattern emerging. A pattern where a migrant woman’s financial misery starts at day one of her journey to Australia; the day she steps into an unknown world, where her only bridge to this world is her husband. A husband who himself is often extremely busy earning enough money to support his two families; the new family in Australia, and his own parents and siblings back home in Bangladesh.
Intentionally or not, the wife is left alone, isolated and uninformed. She gets lost. And the impact lasts for many years to come. Financially and otherwise, she gradually becomes totally dependent on her husband.
For some couples, it does not take long for the husband to turn his wife’s financial dependency into a tool to control her mobility. Spousal financial abuse thrives when one partner starts manipulating, deceiving or coercing to create or maintain the other partner’s dependency.
‘Do they think I am a robot?’
“Do you want to try some?” Selina offered me three different types of pickles on a plate. I accepted. Not doing so would be rude. The pickles were delicious, made of mango, olive and mixed fruits.
“How come you make such delicious pickles? Did you learn to make pickles before you came here?”
She started laughing at my question. This time not with tears. My question was so funny to her that she held her stomach to balance the body’s vibration. Her laughter was contagious. Through my laughter, I managed to ask, “What’s so funny about this question?”
“It’s that …” she was still trying to get a hold of her laughter.
It’s just that I have never made pickle in my life before! … My mother never asked me to cook or to do any house chores because I was busy with my study. I was pampered in my house. Everyone knew studying engineering isn’t easy.
“How come you make pickles now?”
Her laughter slowly wore off. One day she looked at her two young kids; she looked at the social media profiles of colleagues she once worked with in Bangladesh – now being promoted to senior positions …
You know how it feels? It feels like as if that was another life when I was an engineer. As if that life was a dream. These past many years, I was so busy making a home in this foreign land, going through difficult pregnancies, giving birth twice, and looking after these two kids who just started to go to school recently, coming so far almost all alone, somehow along the way, I have become someone else.
A silence fell upon us. She turned her back to me, cleaning some dishes in the kitchen basin, or did she just try to hide her tears?
Everyone is so proud of my husband now that he is doing well in his field. At the same time, I can clearly see the pity in their eyes for me. No one says anything, they don’t need to. People can say so much without actually saying it out loud. After my second kid started school last year, I heard this a lot – ‘now you can go back to your career, can’t you?’.
I just smile. Do they think I am a robot? Just switch off the career one day, and after many years of having your life upside down, switch it back on and go restart the career! No one talks about the years of the [employment] gap that put me at the bottom of the list or maybe out of the list. No one talks about how lost I feel now. The first few weeks when my second kid went back to school, I felt so lost, I walked on the road alone for hours, didn’t know where I was going.
The silence again. So heavy on me I felt uncomfortable. I tried to concentrate on the pickles on the plate. I put the rest in my mouth. Would she tell me how she became a pickle-seller? I did not want to ask the question again.
She turned towards me, a strange smile on her face.
One day, I felt so pathetic that I wanted to do something totally different … So, I tried to make pickles from a YouTube recipe. That’s the first time in my life I made pickles. My husband usually does not like pickles. But when he tried my pickles, he was surprised at how tasty it was. He jokingly said, ‘you know, people will actually buy this!‘
I suddenly thought, why not try to make pickles and sell them? Something that I can do from the house while not disturbing my set-up routine of taking care of house chores, looking after kids’ studies, dropping them off and picking them up from school… So, I did. I opened up a Facebook page and started to sell pickles. And it worked!
She looked at my plate and said, “Oh! You finished them! How lovely. Would you like more?”.
No, I did not want more, though they were really delicious. Her story was enough to fill me up.
Do I see myself a little bit in her story? What about my own struggle as a Bangladeshi migrant woman in this foreign land? Was that not me who went shop to shop in malls, with copies of a handwritten CV to drop off, looking for any kind of job, any kind of job at all?
Was that not me who one day burst into a flood of tears, crying to another Bangladeshi woman,
what’s the use of me being the best student in my class? I understand not a single word they say! What kind of English is this?!
Was that not me who one night, when coming home after a long shift working at a chain shop, was the subject of racial slur by a drunk white man. The man was shouting F-words in front of a platform full of people waiting for the same train. Not a single person asked him to stop shouting.
And was that not me who had decided to leave her profession after her second child was born; who herself had to make that impossible choice, a choice between academic career and motherhood. How many of us can really manage to bounce back after a sharp fall like that? It took five years of struggle for me to come back to academia, but that’s another story for another time.
After a long interview, I said goodbye to Selina. I was walking back to my car when I thought, how many migrant women are out there with similar kinds of stories? They come to this country with such high hopes and dreams.
Since I started doing this fieldwork, whenever I see a visibly recognisable migrant woman, walking down the road, in the supermarket, or in the playground with kids, I wonder: what’s her story? What kind of dream did she have when she first came to Australia? Did Australia help her realise her dreams, or did it become the graveyard of her dreams?