DHAKA, March. 7 (Xinhua) -- In Bangladesh culture, like in other Asian countries, the male is traditionally the head of the household and the primary breadwinner of the family.
But 35-year-old Shirina Khatun is one of those few Bangladeshi women who has defied tradition since she is the primary breadwinner of her eight-member family.
Khatun is actually one of nearly 1 million river gypsies, known locally as Bedey, the nomadic communities in Bangladesh, who relate themselves to the Arab origin on the basis of similarity with the Arabic word "Bedouin".
There are also many other theories that reveal the origin of the Bedey people, who for generations have lived on Bangladesh waterways between May and December and on land for the rest of the year.
For hundreds of years, the gypsies in Bangladesh crossed rivers, charmed snakes, trained monkeys, sold trinkets and performed magic and healed people.
But with the rapid progress of Bangladesh society many of the river gypsies like Khatun had no alternative but to join the mainstream job market with which they are not familiar at all.
Now Khatun sells bangles and ceramic-made plates in rural villages. She said she has to adapt to the changing times, particularly now that life has become more difficult for river people like her.
"We are struggling to lead a normal life. Due to poverty, most of us are now living in leaky boats. So after a certain time our boats sink," Khatun said.
She said people like her cannot afford to live in a normal house on land. "So we have no other choice but to live in leaking porous boats," Khatun said.
Khatun said her husband is almost blind. He has a cataract in both eyes but they have no money for his surgery.
Like Khatun, most of the Bedey women who used to make snake charming, snake catching and selling as their main source of livelihood have now been forced to change their vocation.
Khatun's ramshackle boat is anchored in an inlet of mighty River Meghna some 17 kilometers away from capital Dhaka. It has a rusty tin roof and two doors and small windows in both sides.
With broken boats and no other skills, Rahatun Begum, another elderly Bedey woman, aged about 70, has now become a street beggar.
She said the techniques she learnt to make money no longer impressed people.
"I now beg. I lost my husband 16 years ago. I have no money for buying medicine."
Like many in her community, Khatun and Begum wished for the day when the government would attend to the plight of gypsies like them so that they could live better lives and be useful to society.
But the situation has now changed to some extent as Subornogram Foundation, a local development organization, has been providing not only free education but also study materials to children of the gypsies.
The Foundation has built a floating school for the gypsy community, a separate school in the cobblers' slum, and another school in the fishermen's village.
Shahed Kayes, founder and executive of Subornogram Foundation, said that its mission is to change the lives of those living in low caste communities through literacy.