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Bangladesh's Women Are In The House

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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 vice 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.org website.

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