Bangladeshi women dig for freedom

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The Independent Online
IT'S JUST a rough piece of land but it's all theirs: an allotment cultivated by Bangladeshi women to grow what they want to grow without interference from the menfolk.

The plot of inner-city land is the only all-woman allotment in Britain, and is just across the road from the land worked by Bangladeshi men.

"It's the only way it can work," said Sonhill Ahmed, the men's allotment co-ordinator. "It is not just for cultural reasons, but because there wouldn't be agreement on anything. The men would want to dominate and the women would have to do what they were told. But this way the women can decide what they want to grow and what growing techniques they want to use."

The idea of developing an allotment came about as part of an attempt to interest Bangladeshi women in healthy eating and outdoor exercise. But the small plot in the centre of Bradford has become the only place the women, usually housebound and tied by strict behaviour codes, can call their own.

Diane Moody, manager of Heartsmart, the organisation that set up the women's allotment, said the Bangladeshi women were still dependent on permission from their husbands to work there, but added: "It is still a major step forward. The women are using the skills they would use in their homeland but they make all the decisions."

The his-and-hers allotments produce very different crops. The first year's produce from the women's patch includes vegetables that would not be out of place in a Marks & Spencer greengrocery section: potatoes, onions, cabbages, fenugreek, pumpkins, beans, tomatoes, courgettes, coriander and soft fruits such as blackberries and raspberries. The men's produce is much more traditional: spinach and root vegetables including kodhu, mulah and dughi.

Hunawar Hussain, who first suggested the allotment, said the men didn't believe they would be successful. "They didn't think we could do the hard work of digging and weeding. At first the women would tire very easily but now they are much fitter and work longer."

The group of eight women, most of them over 40, who tend the allotment come from a farming background and had skills they were no longer using. "An allotment seemed a good way of getting them out of the house, helping them to become fitter and develop self-worth. Like many Western women, they are not often thanked by their families for making brilliant meals or looking after the children," said Ms Hussain.

Meanwhile, over the road the men have been keeping a wary eye on the success of the women's allotment. Mr Ahmed said the women still had a long way to go. "The men have chosen to grow the kind of vegetables they would cultivate in their homeland," he said. "At first the vegetables were just for the table at home but now they are supplying local shops and hoping to produce fresh vegetables for restaurants."