Today, numerous Bangladeshi women are taking charge of their personal and professional lives. However, widespread gender bias and violence continue to challenge their dreams of emancipation and empowerment. Have the two women Prime Ministers of Bangladesh made a difference in the life of an average woman?
South Asian politics is 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 to provide their women with some very 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, we must credit these women for their determination and persistence against the norms of their male-dominated cultures. Unfortunately, however, that is not a testament to women’s empowerment because not only do most of these women leaders have a strong male connection as 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 run almost exclusively for the past two decades by Bangladesh’s two Begums – 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 faced criminal charges. In 2007, the army tried to end their monopoly on power when it seized power by splitting their vote banks and trying to create alternate forces. However, the Begums’ parties proved resilient and Sheikh Hasina came back to power in Dec 2008 and promptly resumed business as usual by filing more corruption charges against her opponent.
It is safe to say the last two decades have seen Bangladeshi women become more visible on the social and professional scene, but the gains have fallen short of expectation, especially under successive women Prime Minsters. 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 throwing, and murder over dowry disputes.
Amnesty International reported that in 2010 police had received more than 3,500 complaints of physical abuse of women over dowry disputes, and in 2011, violence against women topped all crimes reported to the police between January and June, and 1586 out of 7,285 complaints were of rape cases. Due to prevalent 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 favoured 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.
Moreover, 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 reaching 16, which results in higher pregnancy rate in adolescence, and undernourished mothers then give birth to underweight babies. Many young girls are still denied schooling and face bleak futures. UN Secretary General Mr. Ban Ki-moon urged the government, civil society and the private sector to work for gender equality in Bangladesh, which had 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 Grameen Bank and BRAC have revolutionized the lives of many rural women by extending micro-credit to them, and have contributed to their economic empowerment, but unfortunately, Grameen Bank founder, the Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus, has been attacked by Sheikh Hasina, ironically again, 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 about inheritance of property, protests broke out from the radical Islamic parties that considered it a violation of the Quran’s injunctions about inheritance. Ironically, the opposition party BNP of Kahleda Zia was reported to be supporting the protest, undermining the cause of women’s empowerment just to gain some 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, even against the rulings of civil courts, in shalishes, the traditional dispute resolution methods. These decrees have resulted in humiliating punishments resulting in death for young girls wrongly accused. The punishments include imposing fines, lashing, cutting hair or blackening faces, and ostracizing families, carried out by vigilantes. While many of these incidents go unreported, human rights groups claim at least 300 such incidents have occurred in the last decade. In 2011, one particular case in Shariatpur district highlighted the seriousness of the issue when the shalish ordered 100 lashes to Hena Akhter for an alleged affair, when she had reportedly been sexually abused. She collapsed while the punishment was being carried out, and later died. Thus, the government’s failure to effectively address such incidences and implement legislation continues to result in grievous harm to women under the watch of their woman 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 to work towards emancipation and empowerment of the average woman. Only then can the Bangladeshi women be truly proud of their Begums.
A version of this article was published in SouthAsia, April 2012, as Changing Priorities