Prajnya Gender Talks, December 2021 || Contesting Power and Creating Space: 50 years of the Women’s Movement in Bangladesh by Meghna Guhathakurta

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December 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the Speaker

Dr Meghna Guhathakurta taught International Relations at the University of Dhaka, Bangladesh from 1984 to 2007. She is currently Executive Director of Research Initiatives, Bangladesh (RIB) a research support organisation based in Dhaka, which specialises in action research with marginalised communities. Dr Guhathakurta graduated from the University of Dhaka and received her PhD from the University of York, the UK in Politics. Her field of specialisation has broadly been international development, gender relations and minority politics. She is well-published on migration trends, partition histories, peace-building in post-conflict societies and minority rights in South Asia. She is also the Associate Editor of the Action Research Journal published by Sage and the Journal of Social Studies published by the Centre for Social Studies in Dhaka.

Setting the Context

The women’s movement in Bangladesh was borne out of legacies of anti-colonial movements and resistance in the British and Pakistani eras as well as the foundational ideologies of liberation and nation-building that accompanied its independence 50 years ago. 

Called the “basket case” or “test case of development” in its early years, it is now on the verge of becoming a “middle-income country.” But what does it have to say about the kind of social transformation that is taking place from a gendered lens? Looking at this trajectory from a feminist perspective, Dr Guhathakurta discusses this journey of contesting power and the creation of feminist spaces in Bangladesh.

Legacies

Dr Guhathakurta begins the session by discussing the legacies that laid the foundation for the women’s movement in Bangladesh. The movement has its origins in the anti-British-colonial resistance much like the rest of the South East Asian countries. Besides this, Dr Guhathakurta traces two strands of legacies: firstly, the anti-colonial resistance movement against terrorism and institution and secondly, feminist writing and scholarship against religious orthodoxy. 

During the Pakistani period, the feminist movement looked at institutionalism from both the welfare as well as the resistance perspective. Two prominent organisations were established. The first was the Mohila Samithi which was a civil disobedience movement where women formed neighbourhood communities for common growth. These were mostly middle-class women who set up embroidery and sewing classes – efforts that may seem tame but were actually mobilisation of work. The second organisation was the Mohila Parishad, which was another front of the communist movement, that dealt with initiatives such as pay hikes for nurses evolving over the years to occupy the frontline of the national women’s movement.

Foundation of the Movement

The Liberation War of Bangladesh in the 1970s began initially as a people’s war and then became a conventional war, where solidarity between India and Bangladesh played a major role. The Mukti Yudh included men, women and various ethnic groups, and was a continuation of the anti-colonial resistance. Women were not just soldiers but also acted as support systems, cooking, and hiding and transporting arms. They were also the most impacted community, with over 200,000 thousand women raped during the war. But it became clear that war was becoming history and not “her-story.” 

Women who had served during the war were extolled as war heroines and given awards, but in reality, they were excluded and discriminated against. It was only in the 1980s that women’s writings about this oppression emerged. They wrote stories of war victims, escapees, widows etc. Many ‘war heroines’ wrote autobiographies, making room for critical voices in Bangladesh’s history.

Following the war, the long and delicate task of nation-building began and unfortunately, Bangladesh became a sort of test case of development for the Europeans. All developmental theories and methodologies were tried out by the World Bank, Scandinavians and others. The development progressed through two lines: the official and the civil society lines. 

The official line included women’s participation – which was a buzzword of the time – because the Bangla had to toe the lines of international requirements regarding the inclusion of women. The civil society included early schools of conscientisation in the form of small NGOs and MFIs which precipitated civic changes without adhering to religious orthodoxy, unlike countries like Pakistan or Malaysia. In the 1980s, when global Islamic discourse took the world by storm, women’s organisations in Bangladesh wondered if they should have factored in religious institutions after all; that said, Bangladesh’s women’s movement still runs on civic rather than religious discourse. 

Status of Women in Bangladesh

Dr Guhathakurta rounds up the talk with a short summary of the status of Bangladesh’s women’s movement. 

The personal never became political in Bangladesh: women may be treated as equals in public spheres, but their domestic lives are a whole other story. Early marriage exists in many parts of rural Bangladesh. Laws have improved with the Violence Against Women Act and the Domestic Violence Act, which even consider mental torture and marital rape. 

However, most of this is still only in theory, and not implemented properly. Women’s organisations have fought for the rights of sex workers with interventions by global organisations such as CARE. 

The country has recognised transgender persons but lots of barriers remain The LGBTQ movement is still criminalised, where the country has recognised transgender persons, but done nothing more to ease their lives. Women’s organisations need to focus more on this type of intersectionality in their agenda.

Bangladesh’s Women are in the House

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Hana Shams Ahmed, Bangladesh’s Women Are In The House,  Womens Feature Service, News Blaze, May 26, 2009.

 

At a public meeting in Noakhali district in the Chittagong Division of Bangladesh, Agriculture Minister Motia Chowdhury had a strange encounter. Throughout the proceedings, a group of men stood with their backs toward her. The men, as it turned out, were conservative Muslim clerics, who found it difficult to accept a woman as a leader, but at the same time could not pass up the opportunity of listening to her speech.

Chowdhury is a leading woman politician in Bangladesh. Her involvement in politics goes back to Eden Girls’ College in Dhaka where she became vic

e president of the students’ union in 1963. She served a jail sentence for political activities in 1964-65 and actively participated in the liberation movement in 1971. In 1990, Chowdhury also actively took part in the movement against the rule of the Ershad junta, which ultimately ended an eight-year military rule. After democracy was restored in 1991, she was one of the few women to win a non-reserved seat in parliament. (In the original constitution, 15 seats were reserved for women. By 2004, this rose to 45 seats.) Chowdhury served as the Agriculture Minister in the Awami League (AL) government from 1996-2001. And is heading the same ministry in the recently elected AL government. Her feisty personality and determination to break barriers in a patriarchal political set-up has earned her the title ‘Agni Konna’ (daughter of fire).

Such passionate involvement in street politics was certainly not conventional in the 1960s, when Bangalis were considered ‘lesser beings’ by the West Pakistani rulers. Now, the paradox is that the most powerful political position in the country has belonged to two women for the last 18 years. Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, as leaders of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (centre-right and Islamist-leaning) and the Awami League (centre-left), have alternated as Prime Minister since 1991.

But this has not created a feminist-friendly Bangladesh, and has not made enough of a difference in the lives of women struggling to make it in politics. One can argue that Zia and Hasina first got their jobs by virtue of being the wife and daughter of murdered leaders, which is more about dynasty politics than women’s achievements. Even now, when politics is still mostly in the hands of men, it is actually Chowdhury’s tenacious stay that is an achievement looked up to by women politicians of this generation.

In the December 2008 election, AL won with an overwhelming majority. Considered the more progressive and secular of the two political parties, the promise of a trial of the 1971 war criminals and ‘a digital Bangladesh’ were two of the main factors behind their popularity, especially with young and first time voters. A record 85 per cent of the total eligible voters voted last year. What was also overwhelming was the number of women voters – a total of 4.12 crore – which is more than half of the total voters. The 2009 parliament has 63 women lawmakers, the highest number to date. The fact that women have won through direct elections shows that there is a change in the mindset of voters. Women voters certainly are hoping that mainstream politics scenario will change with more representation of their issues.

The government has promised to be a ‘government of changing the days’. Hasina’s choice of cabinet members was accepted as a bold and pleasant surprise among progressive circles. Three of the most important ministries are headed by women – Advocate Sahara Khatun, 66, a member of the International Women Lawyers’ Association and the International Women’s Alliance, was given the Ministry of Home Affairs; Dr Dipu Moni, a Johns Hopkins graduate medical doctor and also an Advocate of the Bangladesh Supreme Court, was appointed as the first woman Foreign Minister of a South Asian country; and Chowdhury was once again appointed the Agriculture Minister. Another woman, Begum Munnujan Sufian, was given the portfolio for Labour and Employment.

This is not the first time that women have been ministers. The BNP-led coalition government of 2001-06 had four women cabinet ministers in an over-sized 62-member cabinet. The Minister for Women and Children Affairs, Minister for Cultural Affairs and the Adviser for Primary and Mass Education and the Prime Minister herself were the women in the cabinet. However, what is to be noted is the qualitative difference in the portfolios given to women. The women were only given development-related ministries, while the politically and financially important ones went to the men. By contrast, the current government has given powerful posts to women, which also has led to some challenges, as they are more under media spotlight.

In the four months it has been in power, the new government has already faced many acid tests. Prices of essentials have been on the rise and everyone has been wary about investing their money. Migrant worker remittances, which is the second highest foreign currency earner, has slowed down and may see a steeper drop, as the Middle East gets further hit by the global recession. Foreign Minister Dipu Moni recently visited Malaysia after the government cancelled the visas of 55,000 migrant workers. Home Minister Sahara Khatun has already faced calls for resignation over her handling of the massacre of 74 people, including 57 high-level army officers in the recent Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) mutiny. Certain right-wing groups have already blamed her poor handling of the negotiations on the fact that she is a woman (apparently hostage negotiations are a “man’s job”). In spite of these setbacks, it is still hoped that the female ministers will prove their worth and stay in the government.

Despite having women politicians and women in leadership positions, domestic violence and sexual harassment continue to be part of daily life. There are still many discriminatory laws in Bangladesh that need urgent amendment. The reservation on some clauses on CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women) is a case in point. Successive governments have failed to address the discrimination in the laws of inheritance, citizenship and family laws. Religious groups have always successfully objected to any discourse on changing these laws. Male politicians have never made any serious effort to bring about gender equity.

The hundreds of thousands of women who lined up last December to vote for their leaders did so with hope of change. While there is still a long way to go before participation of women in politics is at a significant level, the new cabinet marked a small but significant shift. Feminists must fight to make sure there is no looking back from here.

 

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.orgwebsite.