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Bangladesh: Gendered politics holds back women’s empowerment

Monday 10 March 2014, by siawi3

Source: New Age, 8 March 2014

THAT Bangladesh has had a woman prime minister and a woman leader of the opposition in parliament since 1991, save the two years of illegal rule by an unconstitutional interim government in 2007-2008, has often been showcased as an indicator of stupendous ‘progress’ of women’s empowerment, especially by the political parties of the ruling class and their crony intellectuals. The Awami League-led government has sought to sustain such ‘progress’ in women’s empowerment by electing the first woman speaker of Jatiya Sangsad and appointing the first woman foreign minister in its previous tenure. Just a few days ago, the incumbents appointed the first woman vice-chancellor of a public university. However, the ‘progress’ in women’s empowerment, as showcased by the ruling quarters over the years, seems to have been more about style than substance — for more reasons than one.

First and foremost, despite having several women in several key posts of the government, the state remains essentially patriarchal, as it has been since the emergence of an independent Bangladesh. In fact, the two leaders of the two major parties, the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who have alternated as prime minister for more than two decades now have appeared rather comfortable in presiding over the patriarchal system and been either unable or unwilling to break the status quo, in respect of the state and even the parties that they lead. Not surprisingly, thus, the very tone and tenor, text and subtext of the political discourse remains inherently male chauvinistic. Regrettably still, in many cases, in the name of political one-upmanship, women political leaders trade—even in parliament—obscene accusations and vulgar innuendos that are unabashedly gendered.

Needless to say, such a gendered approach to politics makes their self-professed commitment to democratisation of the state and society sound hollow; after all, equality in power relations—between genders, castes, creeds, ethnicities, so on and so forth—forms the core of the universal democratic principle. It is this essential emptiness of what goes in Bangladesh as democratic politics that has sustained patriarchy across the state and society. Indeed, women and work are no longer mutually exclusive as they used to be; however, when it comes to policy or decision making—in the affairs of the state or a family—it is the male ethos, if not men themselves, that dominate.

Thus far, the political class has blamed the pervasive patriarchy on the lack of people’s awareness — social and cultural — craftily leaving out political consciousness out of the equation. The prime reason for such omission may be that the admission to society’s lack of political consciousness actually puts the political parties — right, left and centre — in the spot. After all, it is their responsibility to make society politically conscious about equality between men and women, not only by words but by deeds also. As Bangladesh joins the rest of the world in the observance of another International Women’s Day, it is perhaps time for both the governing and non-governing elite to admit that women’s political empowerment remains a remote reality because of their gendered, and thus distorted, understanding of democracy. It is also time for all democratically oriented and rights conscious individuals and institutions to redouble their efforts so that equality between men and women is established across the state and society.