Written by Nusrat Nasim Meraji

Bangladesh is no stranger to the fire that makes up the soul of an average Bengali woman. In 1952, at a time when then East Bengal (currently Bangladesh) was primarily moulded around a patriarchal social framework, the women of East Bengal felt not a moment’s hesitation in rebelling against social norms and family resistance in order to fight alongside men demanding official recognition of the Bengali language. In 1971 the world watched in awe as Bengali women exemplified valour by running into the battlefield to fight Bangladesh’s Liberation War, shattering stereotypes in the process. Time and again, Bangladeshi women have illustrated how the female gender is not a synonym for weakness.

In order to bring about women empowerment for every woman, it is crucial that the focus is shifted to empowering the minds of family members and the society around a woman.

Fortunately, the right to equal suffrage, a basic right that women worldwide had to fight decades for, has been enjoyed by Bengali women since 1947. Besides guaranteeing women the same voting rights as men, the constitution of Bangladesh, which was adopted in 1972, also expressly dictates provisions in favour of women which are apt to be viewed as historical in the context of women empowerment in the Bangladesh of the 70’s. Amongst such rules are those providing for equal opportunities for women in “all spheres of national life” and reserving seats exclusively for women members in the parliament. In a world which was, and remains, male-dominated, for a new country like Bangladesh to ensure such rights for women so early on was a reflection of hope for the future of women rights and empowerment. Bangladesh did not disappoint.

Since 1971, Bangladesh has been a nation keen on bridging the gender gap, and the role of politics has been key in this. Bangladesh elected her first female Prime Minister, Khaleda Zia, in 1991.  The key opposition party at the time was also headed by a woman, Bangladesh’s now Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. For over three decades, these two ladies have led the major political parties in Bangladesh which, in the face of a robust tradition that continues to oppose women in the Muslim world from being in positions of leadership, sends a strong message of leadership having no correlation to gender. Significant contribution by such female leaders facilitated  Bangladesh’s consistent growth in women embracing politics. For instance, more women were being elected as members of parliament, becoming ministers and local government representatives. Bangladesh’s current Speaker of the Parliament is also a woman, another notable first for the country.

While Bangladesh has seen an unprecedented growth in women making their voices heard in politics, the numbers leave room for improvement. Research shows that as of 2008, women MPs make only 18.6 percent of the 300 seats in parliament. Bangladesh needs more women participation in politics to ensure that the acknowledgement of women’s interests in society is not only brought forth to the notice of the country, but done so by a gender that is most likely to empathise with these interests.

That being said, over the past two decades the country has seen the enactment of flagship legislation and policies in favour of women. In 1995, the Bangladesh parliament passed the ‘Nari O Shishu Nirjaton (Bishesh Bidhan) Ain 1995’ (Women and Children Repression [Special Provisions] Act) which acknowledged the need for severe punishment for offences relating to, amongst others, compelling women to marry against their will and causing injury or death to women because of dowry. In April 2018, the High Court of Bangladesh banned the belittling “two-finger test” conducted on rape victims. Such examples reveal that there are powerful voices fighting for Bangladeshi women’s rights, and it has been made possible because of the ever-growing active political roles played by Bangladeshi women.

However, the question that is vital is this: how thoroughly are such safeguards being implemented and how successful are they in empowering the women of Bangladesh?

According to the rights organisation ‘Odhikar’, despite the ban on dowry through the meticulously drafted Dowry Prohibition Act 1980, at least 2,800 women were killed, 1,833 women were physically abused and 204 committed suicide due to dowry related issues between 2001- 2014. A socially acceptable practice especially in the rural areas, in general the victim’s family do not file complaints. In cases where they do, the police have been known to not act upon it or be bribed into dismissing the matter. Research has also found that educated and employed brides are far less likely to engage in dowry related transactions compared to illiterate and unemployed brides. This is but one example of how without educated minds, laws alone are inadequate in empowering women.

In the Gender Gap Index of 2017, Bangladesh secured the first spot amongst South Asian countries. Amongst others, the index considers education and political empowerment in measuring the gender equality of a country. Therefore, although social indicators illustrate that women empowerment in Bangladesh has risen, is a more thorough holistic approach required in order for empowerment to reach women at all levels?

If there is one thing the aforementioned dowry related issues portray with clarity, it is that the traditions, norms and customs of a society, when combined with illiteracy, can suffocate any chance of empowerment for a woman.

In the patriarchal society that is Bangladesh, work undertaken by women which does not bring in monetary remuneration is typically regarded as non-work. Most homemakers are denied the respect they deserve, from both their families and the society, for their lifelong contribution in their household work. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue found that if monetized, a woman’s unpaid work will be an enormous 2.5 to 2.9 times higher than the income of women received from paid services.

Further, the repercussions of such dismissive treatment of women echoes far beyond what meets the eye. The children of such households where women are so undervalued grow up accepting this mistreatment as normal, subsequently falling victim to such injustice themselves, or becoming the oppressor. And thereby, a vicious cycle of oppression and disempowerment continues.

In order to bring about women empowerment for every woman, it is crucial that the focus is shifted to empowering the minds of family members and the society around a woman. Teachings of the importance of breaking patriarchal stereotypes must be taught early on in educational institutions and most importantly, at home.

The visibility of female politicians and women in positions of power in the society cannot be the sole indicators of a society doing a commendable job in the women empowerment sector. Nor can excellently drafted legislations and policies in favour of women be expected to be sufficient in safeguarding women empowerment. Loopholes originating from the lack of implementation of legislation and social norms which are an innate part of a 47 years old patriarchal nation must be targeted through the education of the mass public. Dialogues, debates, discussions and programs both by the government and the mass public must be initiated in relation to spreading awareness on the fundamentals of women empowerment, much of which starts at home.

Nusrat Nasim Meraji is a lawyer by profession, having completed her LLB at London College of Legal Studies. She has written as a Features Writer for ICE Media. Image Credits: CC by Flickr/WorldFish.

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