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.