Brisbane, May 9, 2014 (Alochonaa): Over the last two centuries there have been significant advances for women in the areas of education, employment, government and political participation, although these changes did not occur organically. Generations of women have come together to make such changes happen. Women were not only the passive recipients of changes; they have worked very deliberately to establish their rights, and have reached a certain level of success (Bonnie and Marry, 1998).
A Global Struggle for Women
For the last two centuries women all over the globe have been engaged in an active struggle to achieve an equal status with men in the political, social and economic aspects of society, in order to establish safeguards against gender discrimination. One of the pioneering historical achievements for women’s political empowerment was the establishment of women’s suffrage rights in the United States. However, the collective efforts, and struggles by women’s groups and civil society organizations from all over the world made it possible to achieve success in the area of women’s political rights at the international level.
The introduction of the United Nations Charter (1945) referred to “equal rights for women; in 1948 the UN Commission on the Status of Women was established; in 1952 the United Nations (UN) General Assembly held a convention on the political rights of women” (Eleanor, 1976). Ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by several states opened up the opportunity for millions of women across the nation to become an active part of the political domain of their own countries. An apparent impact of civil society organisations on women’s political participation, has been that it generated, through the accumulation of global trends, a drive for women’s equal rights movements all over the world. This achievement is marked not only by women being given the right to vote, but also by women being elected to all levels of government in the majority of states throughout the world.
Women in Bangladesh Fight for their Rights
Bangladeshi women have also come a long way since 1905 to establish their rights. At that period Begum Rokeya Hossain, (Bangladeshi pioneer and activist of women’s rights) dreamed of empowering women by reversing gender roles, putting men in seclusion, and allowing women to take charge of the public sphere (Jahan, 1997). Rokeya Hossain, a forerunner of the women’s rights movement for Bangladeshi Muslim women played a progressive role in this context. Such encouraging initiatives have historically led women to challenge and confront traditional gender oppression (Guhathakurta, 2002). Despite the ambition of such earlier female activists, the inheritors of Rokeya’s dream have since struggled to create an equal place for women in Bangladesh’s public sphere in more recent decades.
Bangladesh holds a traditional patriarchal society, where males play a dominant role within the family, the community and the broader society. Gender power relations are persisting within families, communities, states, political institutions and legal systems. Under prevailing circumstances Bangladeshi women have historically shown great resilience and courage in facing social, economic, political crises, and participating in the struggles for advancing their civil and political rights. Thousands of women actively participated in the liberation movement with men to become equal partners in their country (Begum, 2000).
Over the years, within the discourse of female development, the positions of women have been redefined, gender roles reappraised, and the aim of women’s struggles also reshaped. Following Bangladesh’s independence in 1974, there was a strong force driving women’s equality in Bangladesh, supported by women’s organisations, NGOs and other civil society groups. The government also paid attention to women’s education, health, employment and laws relating to marriage, divorce, and family as a means of achieving women’s equality. Moreover the constitution of Bangladesh grants the rights of freedom of association, assembly, and speech, all of which are regarded as fundamental to citizen’s political rights. This also created space for women attaining political rights. Although in reality, the political domain is not friendly, and it is often difficult for women to gain access to this avenue (Chowdhury, 2001).
The Incorporation of Women into Local Government Bodies
Due to the male domination of Bangladesh society, women are discouraged from being involved in the political realm, and have to face and overcome many social constraints to access this arena. Although the two major parties of Bangladesh; the Bangladesh Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party are both led by women, and both of the leaders were Prime Minister for the last 3 terms, they failed to bring any significant change in the area of women’s political empowerment as a whole. Within this context one major gain is the introduction of three directly elected reserved seats for women in Union Parishad that has created prospective spaces for women in local level politics.
Women have been incorporated into local government bodies through these three reserved seats at the Union Parishad level. The Union Parishad, is the bottom level of the existing local government system in Bangladesh. The system aims to ensure women’s participation in local government bodies, and at the same time assist in developing women’s leadership within the community. The body hears the voice, needs, demands and rights of women. Through this process, thousands of women came out from the private sphere of the family to become part of the local level political system. This social transformation process did not happen automatically. Collective and combined activities by women activists, women organizations and development organizations of Bangladesh worked behind this success.
The process of women’s political participation in Bangladesh was stimulated by global expansions of the female equality movement. As a result, the state had to adopt many women focused development policies that emphasised women’s empowerment, and was driven by many international Conventions and Treaties. The United Nations’ Declaration of International Women’s Year (1975) and the decade for women (1975-1985) resulted in a series of agreements which led the state to take action, to change discriminatory policies and promote gender equality in every aspect of life. It should be considered as a benchmark in this perspective. Civil society organisations also emerged and played a vital role in this context.
Bangladeshi Women Struggle for their Political Participation
The provision of three elected reserved seats for women in the local governmental bodies is a significant, and encouraging effort in women’s political participation process in Bangladesh. However, initially, there was a tendency to fill the posts by women rather than encouraging active participation of women in politics. The traditional attitude towards female involvement in public spaces and the dichotomy between private and public sphere usually discouraged women’s involvement in politics. There was relatively less participation of women in the last UP election in 2003 compared to previous years. The number of female candidates for reserved seats declined from 44,969 to 39,419 in the 2003 election (Rashid, 2006). Meanwhile, the elected women members of the first period faced structural barriers, as well as socio-cultural challenges while performing their duties at that time.
Radical Islamists also made the situation hostile for women, especially in traditional rural areas. According to their ideology Muslim women’s religious duty is regarded as one of submission and obedience to male members of the family. Such groups want to maintain traditional gender segregated spheres, and women should be confined to the home. They systematically threaten female participation in the public sphere that severely affects their economic independence and role in public decision making (Khan, 1998). The emergence of Islamic fundamentalism during the last two decades in Bangladesh represents a paradox of the Islamization of national politics, and the backlash against progressive NGO activities. Most of the activities of NGOs helped to bring change in traditional womenfolk in rural Bangladesh.
In recent years a large number of NGOs have played a vital role in bringing women into public spaces from rural Bangladesh. NGOs became an important actor in the overall development of women in Bangladesh, working as an interface between the state and other actors for ensuring women’s empowerment. In a developing country like Bangladesh, NGOs and civil society actors have an important role to play in the development sector. Due to several limitations, the government cannot accomplish all of society’s requirements, and as a result these actors play a supplementary, or even at times complementary role to the efforts of government agencies. Through this way many NGOs have penetrated the social fabric of Bangladesh to bring qualitative change in women’s political participation in Bangladesh. So the contribution from NGOs and civil society organisations has led to women’s political participation at a grassroots level.
The constitution of Bangladesh guarantees equal rights of women in every sphere of their lives, and even provides for special affirmative measures to promote equality. It seeks to increase equal access to education for girls, to create opportunities for women’s employment, the initiative to increase female political representation, to enact new laws and reformation of some laws for women, all of these contribute to women’s development in Bangladesh. Among these, the access for women to enter the local level of politics is particularly important because women’s representation and participation in government bodies can be a precondition to enabling women to exercise their rights, enjoy full entitlements as citizens and participate in decision making and share power with men.
Political advocacy and activities by women organisations, civil society and NGOs within Bangladesh have succeeded in opening up the area of women’s political empowerment at the local level by their representation through the electoral system. The three two local government elections (1997, 2003 and 2011) have created opportunities for a large number of women to familiarise themselves with, and enter the arena of local level politics and local development processes. It is important to recognise the challenges that these elected women face are due to long traditions of patriarchy, religious fundamentalism, seclusion and the social control that males exert on female activities.
The Future for Women in Bangladesh Politics
The political participation of women within local government bodies in Bangladesh is very much connected with gender and politics. Bangladesh is traditionally a patriarchal society, with politics being a man’s domain. Women often lack the education, resources, power, information and opportunity required to participate and succeed in politics. Women all across South Asia face the same predicament. The provision of the three reserved seats has resulted in the significant number of women now active in the local political field. Women’s effective political participation is one of the essential pillars for good governance, which can change the overall development scenario of a county.
However it is also true that most women members are unaware of their rights, and lack the competences and the confidence to enter the political domain. These are the difficult obstacles women must face in order for them to enjoy equal power with men. Despite Bangladesh having the experience of two women prime ministers in the last 15 years, there still exists strong cultural and religious opposition to female participation in politics. Women in these new leadership roles are in the front of the rising battle to politics.
*Mumita Tanjeela is PhD researcher at the School of Government and International Relations in Griffith University, Australia. Mumita has recently returned from 6 months fieldwork in Bangladesh.Tanjeela is an Assistant Director with the Department of Women Affairs of the Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. Her Academic background is Sociology & Gender Development Studies. She Has MSc on Gender and Development Studies from Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand and Masters on Sociology of Dhaka, BangladeshMumita can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
**This is author’s personal view . It is neither reflective of his employer’s view nor Alochonaa’s view