Changing Priorities

Written by Tahera Sajid  •  Cover Stories  •  April 2012 PDF Print E-mail

Bangladeshi women today are taking charge of their personal and professional lives. However, gender bias and violence continue to challenge their dreams of emancipation and empowerment. South Asian politics are dominated by dynastic trends and the presence of women leaders at the helm of affairs. The former is an unfortunate reality but the latter should be a source of pride for developing nations that have traditionally struggled with gender issues and have failed to provide their women with basic human rights. Whether it is the assassinated former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Indira Gandhi of India, or the still vibrant Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, these women must be credited for their determination and persistence against the norms of their male-dominated cultures. Unfortunately however, that is not a testament to female empowerment because not only do most of these women leaders have a strong male connection as the primary reason for their rise to power but also the life of an average woman has remained largely unchanged under their rule.

Bangladesh is a developing nation of 165 million with an adult literacy rate of about 55%. It has been ruled, almost exclusively, for the past two decades by Bangladesh’s two Begums – the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Awami League (AL) and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s independence hero and first prime minister murdered in 1975. Khaleda Zia is the widow of former president Maj. Gen. Ziaur Rahman, assassinated in a failed coup attempt in 1981.

As Prime Ministers, the Begums have been known to run corrupt regimes and have faced numerous criminal charges. In 2007, the army tried to end their monopoly when it seized power by splitting their vote banks and attempted to create alternate forces. However, the Begums’ parties proved resilient and Sheikh Hasina returned to power in December 2008 and promptly resumed business as usual by filing more corruption charges against her opponent.

It is safe to say that the last two decades have seen Bangladeshi women become more visible on the social and professional scene but the gains have fallen short of expectations, especially under successive female Prime Ministers. So while the Begums focus on each other, the majority of women fight their own battles at home and in the social sphere against harassment, assault, kidnapping, acid attacks and dowry disputes.

Amnesty International reported that in 2010, Bangladeshi police had received more than 3500 complaints of physical abuse from women over dowry disputes and in 2011, violence against women topped all crimes reported to the police between January and June. Interestingly, 1586 out of 7285 complaints were of rape. Due to patriarchal social attitudes, women in general, but especially from low socioeconomic backgrounds, lack access to resources for protection or legal redress. Domestic violence however, transcends class barriers and acid-throwing is a brutal favored punishment of spurned suitors or disgruntled husbands. There is also extensive trafficking of women to other countries in Asia and Middle East, lured by job prospects but forced into prostitution.

The Daily Star quoted United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP) on International Women’s Day 2012 asserting that much effort was still needed to improve the lives of women in Bangladesh. The report said that almost half of the female population in Bangladesh is married before turning16, which results in higher pregnancy rates in adolescents and undernourished mothers then give birth to underweight babies. Many young girls are still denied schooling and face bleak futures. UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon urged the government, civil society and the private sector to work towards gender equality in Bangladesh, which has unfortunately not kept pace with strides in economic development.

Clearly, Bangladesh’s economic gains are not fully transferred to its women though their contribution to the economy is substantial, especially to the garment industry, which is the source of 90% of Bangladesh’s foreign exchange. Institutions like the Grameen Bank and BRAC have revolutionized the lives of many rural women by extending micro-credit and have contributed to their economic empowerment. Unfortunately, Grameen Bank founder and Nobel Laureate, Muhammad Yunus, has been faced accusations by Sheikh Hasina in what is seen as a political move.

Gender bias has also often surfaced through religious expression. In April 2011, CNN reported that when the government announced its Women Development Policy 2011 exploring the inheritance of property, radical Islamic parties protested that it was a violation of the Quran’s injunctions about inheritance. Ironically, the opposition party, BNP of Khaleda Zia was supporting the protest and undermining the cause of women’s empowerment just to gain political mileage.

In July 2011, Human Rights Watch reiterated its concern for Bangladeshi women who are increasingly on the receiving end of religious fatwas issued by so-called scholars. These decrees have resulted in humiliating punishments resulting in deaths of young girls wrongly accused of adultery. The punishments include imposing fines, lashing, cutting hair or blackening faces, and ostracizing families. While many of these incidents go unreported, human rights groups claim that at least 300 such incidents have occurred in the last decade. In 2011, a particular case in the Shariatpur district highlighted the seriousness of the issue when the shalish, a traditional jury that addresses disputes, ordered 100 lashes to Hena Akhter for an alleged affair, though reports claim that she had been sexually abused. She collapsed during the punishment and later died. Thus, the government’s failure to effectively address such incidences and implement legislation continues to result in severe harm to women under the watch of their female Prime Minister.

It should be a matter of pride for Bangladesh that in November 2010 it was elected to the board of UN Women but to do justice to this role Bangladesh’s Begums need to shift focus from personal and political gains and use their position to aggressively work towards the emancipation and empowerment of the average woman. Only then can Bangladeshi women truly be proud of their Begums. 

Tahera Sajid is a freelance journalist and lives in Massachusetts, USA.  She is a community builder and an active advocate for interfaith relations. 

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