In 1978 when Noorul Quader, one of our great war heroes and the founding father of our garment industry, sent 130 workers, mid level managers, and technical hands to South Korea to get a six month long training in garment manufacturing, he included 18 young women in the tour. It was the most important flight in Bangladesh’s history, one that has changed the course of the country’s economy forever.
Quader, the founder of Desh Garments, had to meet parents of each of the girls and tell them that he would make sure they would return home safely after completing their training. He became their legal guardian and their father figure. The girls knew they were on a trail blazing mission. Any misstep would cost the newly established venture, one of the first private companies to have been set up after General Zia rolled back nationalisation and allowed foreign and local investment.
The girls and their male colleagues came back with flying colours and in the annals of the newly independent country, the 18 became the first group of women labourers working in a factory floor in a deeply conservative nation.
They imparted training to more girls and the idea that garment factory should ideally be manned by woman workers was born. After two years of struggle, Noorul Quader made another master stroke by persuading the then central bank governor to allow back-to-back LC for garment exports. The fledgling industry and the country never looked back.
Since then more than 40 International Women’s Days were observed and celebrated. Advertising agencies and newspapers have since made a habit of discovering feel-good heroines to tell the tales of their breaking of glass ceilings. But we have forgotten those 18 poor young girls, who defied fears and apprehensions and came back to change this impoverished country’s history forever.
They are a forgotten lot. The BGMEA, the industry lobby group who now represents the powerful manufacturers, have forgotten them. Last year it got a female president for the first time. And her late husband was one of the managers of Desh Garments in the early 1980s. Yet she too has forgotten those 18 brave girls.
Yet, I believe they don’t need that cheap recognition. When they see millions of women – – in Saris, salwar kameezes and burkhas – – walk miles after miles diligently to the factories all over the country, they can easily find their faces among these army of trail blazers. They know they are still walking with them and they won’t stop until every poor little girl in the country is emancipated from patriarchy, discrimination and deep rooted prejudices.
On this auspicious day, let us salute those 18 girls.

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