What's in a Scarf? A Robot Restaurant in Bangladesh Serves up Controversy

A robot wearing a scarf is serving in a restaurant. Image via Sharif Saladin Sarkar. Used with permission.

A restaurant in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka has been in the headlines recently for employing robot waiters. Now, it is in the news for another reason — one of the robots has been spotted sporting a scarf.

Many have questioned the motives of the restaurant owners for scarfing up the “female” robot, spurring a debate about the boundaries of conservatism in the South Asian country.

Gendered bots

In a video, citizen journalist Nazmul Shahadat explained the functions of the robot waiter. Note that the robot with breasts is not wearing a scarf in the clip made soon after the cafe opened.

According to the report, there are two robots bringing food to customers at the restaurant called simply Robot Restaurant. One is a male robot and the second is a female robot. Each robot weighs about 30 kilograms and they are both 1.6 meters in height. Each robot costs the equivalent of $9,750 and can run on batteries for around 18 hours.

But Bangladeshi social media channels were in no mood to hail technological achievements, focussing instead on news the female robot had been seen wearing an “orna” or scarf, which is worn by devout Muslim girls after puberty in Bangladesh.

The “orna” is part of the purdah system, a religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim and Hindu communities in South Asia. It serves multiple purposes — segregation, identifying the female sex, and fulfilling the requirement women cover their bodies to conceal their form.

Ishrat Karin Eve wrote on Facebook:

অবিশ্বাস্য! আমরা এ কেমন সমাজে বসবাস করি। নারীর প্রতি কোনো ধরনের সম্মান নেই। তারা একটি রোবটের গলায়ও ওড়না তুলে দেয়।

পিতৃতান্ত্রিক সমাজের জন্য এটা লজ্জাকর।

Incredible! What a society we live in! There is no respect for women. They even put a scarf on a robot.

This is the shameful act of a patriarchal society.

Earlier this year, a revision in Bangladeshi primary textbooks fuelled controversy as “orna” was introduced as exemplifying the Bengali letter “o” (“ol,” or vegetable, was the prior example).

An opinion piece in the New York Times cited the switch as representing creeping Islamism in the South Asian country.

Representatives of the restaurant confirmed to local media that the scarf was deployed to distinguish the female robot.

Mayesha Arefin railed on Facebook:

আমাদের সমাজে রোবট বেচারাদেরও ওড়না পরিধান করতে হয়!ওড়না এর আগে রোবট নিশ্চয় একটা সাধারন উন্নতমানের যন্ত্র ছিল তবে ওড়না পেচানোর পর এটা মেয়ে রোবট হয়ে গেছে,তারমানে রোবটের লিঙ্গ নির্ধারণ করা হয়ে গেল শুধু মাত্র ওড়নার কারনে…

তবে কি সমাজের চোখ রোবটের বক্ষেও যায়?? /

In our society, even the female robots have to wear “orna”! What they are saying is that the robot is an intelligent machine, but has changed its gender after wearing a scarf. Does that mean the scarf is the primary means of female identification?

Is that because people have been leering at the robot's bosom?

Shahana Hanif commented on Mayesha Arefin's post:

We all know why that robot has a scarf/orna around the chest. In patriarchal society this is what happens #modestrobot #bukdhakarobot #sarcasm

Some also defended the act. Sheikh Tanjim Ahmad wrote on Facebook:

এ কেমন কথা? একটা মেয়ে রোবট (রোবট তো রোবটই) ওড়না পড়েছে তা এতে ‘রোষানল'এর কী আছে? ওড়না না পড়ে বিকিনি পড়লে কি প্রগতিশীল রোবট হয়ে যেতো?

Why such fuss? One female robot (a robot is a robot) has put on a scarf so why are we “offended” by it? Will it be seen as progressive if the robots are in bikinis?

In majority-Muslim Bangladesh, girls and women are strongly encouraged to keep in line with purdah. Popular Facebook pages such as “Hey Girl, Where Is Your Orna?” engage in moral policing, telling women to wear the orna to hide their form.

Journalist Ishrat Jahan Urmi wrote on NTV Online:

তাই রোবটের গলায় ওড়না পেঁচানো নিয়ে কেন জানি খুব বিস্ময় কাজ করেনি আমার। এইটা কেন স্বাভাবিক নয়? যে দেশে পাঠ্যবইয়ে ‘ও’ তে ‘ওড়না’ পড়ানোর নিয়ম চালু হয়, যেদেশে গর্ব করা জিডিপি গ্রোথে অর্ধেক সমান অবদান রাখার পরও প্রতিনিয়ত কর্মক্ষেত্রে, গণপরিবহনে নারীকে হয়রানির শিকার হতে হয়, নিজেকে ‘কাভার্ড’ করতে করতে যে দেশের গ্রামের, শহরের মেয়েরা ক্রমাগত মমিতে পরিণত হয়, সে দেশে রোবটের গলায় ওড়লা নিয়ে কী বলার থাকতে পারে আমি জানি না।

I was not surprised to see that the robot had to wear a scarf. Isn't that normal here? In a country where texts have been changed to teach [children] that “o” means “orna”, a country where women and girls get threatened and abused on public transport and in workplaces, even though they contribute to half of GDP growth, where women and girls in rural or urban areas turn themselves into mummies by putting on layers after layers of clothes to cover their forms. What to say if a robot is covered by a scarf?

Anna Nasrin commented on the Women Chapter blog:

রোবটের গায়ে ওড়না জড়ানোতে দেখতে পাচ্ছি আমাদের অনেকেরই টনক নড়েছে; আমাদের নৈতিকতার মানদণ্ডে এটাকে খুব আপত্তিকর বলে মনে হয়েছে। তাই অনেককেই দেখছি, রেস্টুরেন্ট কর্তৃপক্ষকে বিকৃত মানসিকতার বলে দাবি করছে। অথচ রক্ত মানুষকে যখন এই বাড়তি কাপড়ের টুকরোয় মুড়িয়ে সংরক্ষণ করা হয়েছে যুগ যুগ ধরে, যা চলছে এখনও তখন কিন্তু আমাদের মনেই হয়নি বিকৃতি, মনে হয়নি এভাবে মানুষকে অসম্মান করা হয়।

I see that people have woken up after the scarf on robot incident. We find it morally abhorrent. Some even commented that the restaurant owners have twisted thoughts. But when women and girls are covered in layers of clothes (in the name of purdah) for ages, which still persists, people do not think of it as a perversity. Nor do they think they were disrespected for all these years.

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