Confronting Social Norms Is Critical for Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh, a New Book by Political Science Alumna Shows

Nayma Qayum and the cover of her book, "Village Ties: Women, NGOs, and Informal Institutions in Rural Bangladesh"

Nayma Qayum (Ph.D. ’14, Political Science) recently published Village Ties: Women, NGOs, and Informal Institutions in Rural Bangladesh, a book that argues that women’s mobilization programs can empower women, but only if these programs confront social structures. “Women’s lives are embedded in social norms and their social relationships,” Qayum says. “They are governed not just by the rules that exist on paper, the laws that are visible and written down, but by these social norms.”

Qayum spent two years working for the development organization BRAC (formerly Building Resources Across Communities) studying, among other things, its program Polli Shomaj, whose work is the focus of her book. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her research and her path to becoming a professor at Manhattanville College:

The Graduate Center: Why did you choose to focus on the work of Polli Shomaj?

Qayum: One of the reasons why I wanted to focus on Bangladesh is that it’s known as this development miracle. It’s come out of civil war, of natural disasters and famine, and is now a medium human-development country on the World Bank’s Human Development Index. We focus a lot on this miracle story, but when it comes to women’s lives, there’s a lot of work left to be done. 

Nongovernmental organizations, both foreign and national, have played a huge role in Bangladesh’s development. But most adopt a neoliberal approach. Neoliberal development is very much focused on the individual: The idea is that the individual has to work hard, and then can emancipate themselves from poverty. In the field, this takes the form of service delivery. NGOs give women services — they finance loans so women can build a business, they give women training on human rights, they provide assets like money or a cow — with the idea that these services will lead to women’s financial independence and well-being. But what the global development industry misses is that women’s actions are not independent of their social roles. They can’t always act as they choose. So there’s a need to understand and tackle the social norms that hold women back. 

What drew me to the women of Polli Shomaj is that they actually challenge these social norms. They work in a number of areas to make sure that welfare services are distributed equitably. To make sure that legal issues are resolved equitably. To make sure that women participate in governance. And they’re changing the expectations of social norms on the ground — the way that people think, the idea of what is expected and accepted behavior. 

GC: Did your book evolve from your dissertation? 

Qayum: The book is based on the same dataset as my dissertation, but it’s a completely different project. When I wrote my dissertation proposal in 2009, I wanted to focus on the informal. I grew up in Bangladesh, and I was really obsessed with the idea that people don’t follow the rules because the rules don’t work for them. They find something better. And I wanted to see what that was.

I’d interned for BRAC when I was straight out of undergrad. I wound up working for them as a research fellow and leading a study — a big project landed in my lap and it was really exciting. 

When it came to the dissertation, I was studying women’s participation. As a political scientist, I wanted to study if being involved with groups like BRAC changed how they behaved in their political lives. But I realized while writing my book that there was also a different story to be told. My adviser Vincent Boudreau [now the president of City College], who is a phenomenal methodologist, encouraged me to think in that direction. Like: What are the rules in question? As I started to write the book, I became intrigued by this question of how you can measure social norms. How do you measure something that’s not on paper and is so subjective to a society?

GC: You’re now a tenured professor after previously working at SUNY Geneseo, Pace University, and City College. Is there anything you wish you’d known when you were just starting out?

Qayum: I think I ended up where I was a good fit. I didn’t think I was going to find a job. I was ready to go back to Bangladesh and work in the development industry.

I think GC graduates are well-equipped for the job market. We teach so much and that makes us stronger candidates for the job market. I think it’s really important to leverage that and feel confident about it. 

What helped me was really focusing on the jobs I thought I was a good fit for. I think it’s also important to figure out what’s important for you: location, kind of program, size of the institution, kinds of colleagues. What I wish I had known is that we don’t have to kill ourselves for tenure. It’s so much more important to think about other things that matter: your health, your emotional well-being, spending time with loved ones, doing things you care about. If I could have done things differently, I would have been a little easier on myself. 

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Submitted on: JAN 10, 2022

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