“The Speaker represents the House. He represents the dignity of the House, the freedom of the House and because the House represents the nation, in a particular way, the Speaker becomes the symbol of nation’s freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right that that should be an honoured position, a free position and should be occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality”
— Jawaharlal Nehru
Former Indian Prime Minister
Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury is of course a fortunate woman as she has been blessed by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It was difficult for many in the ruling AL to imagine that Shirin Sharmin would become the Speaker of the current parliament. But it was Hasina who made it possible. The premier wanted to make Shirin the Speaker and she has made it possible. There is no one in the ruling AL or in the cabinet to question her choice. So, only some formalities were needed such as holding meetings of the AL Parliamentary Board and the AL Parliamentary Party to endorse Hasina’s choice. In fact, both the two forums were used to rubberstamp Shirin Sharmin as the ruling AL’s nominee for the office of the Speaker. And as the AL-led ruling alliance enjoys more than three-fourth majority in the parliament, the question of any difficulty to elect Shirin as the country’s first woman Speaker in voice vote did not arise. The parliament itself was used as a rubberstamp to complete the election on April 30.
In off the record conversations many ruling AL MPs criticised the choice, as Shirin Sharmin is too young a politician to hold the office of the Speaker. But none of them dared to speak openly. No one spoke against the premier’s choice at the meetings of the AL Parliamentary Board and the AL Parliamentary Party. Rather all supported the choice with a smile in their face.
The appointment of Shirin Sharmin to the office of the Speaker has made Indian ex-Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s remarks a little contradictory. Pundit Nehru might not have imagined what would take place in Bangladesh.
By electing Shirin Sharmin as the Speaker, the country made another landmark in the history of parliamentary democracy that resumed its journey in 1991. The first record was making Shafique Ahmed, a non-MP, minister of the law justice and parliamentary affairs in 2009. Now, Shirin Sharmin, who was not a elected MP by the people, was elected as the Speaker. She was elected to a reserved seat for women. She is a first time MP and was holding the portfolio of sate minister for women and children affairs until she was sworn in as the Speaker on April 30. It also runs counter to Hasina’s much professed stance against the caretaker government. She does not like the caretaker government now as it is not elected by the people and she believes that only people’s representatives have the right to rule the country.
Regardless of Shirin Sharmin’s political career and experience as an MP, she will act as the president if the newly elected President Abdul Hamid becomes unable to discharge his functions. She occupies the state’s number third position after the president and the prime minister.
Her immediate predecessor Abdul Hamid had spent more than four decades in the parliament. He was elected an MP seven times. He was unanimously elected the Deputy Speaker in the seventh parliament in 1996, and in 2001, he was elected the Speaker. In the present parliament, he was unanimously elected Speaker in January 2009. The office of the Speaker had fallen vacant on April 24 with Hamid sworn in as the country’s 20th president following the death of president Zillur Rahman. Other Speakers elected in independent Bangladesh were senior politicians with longtime experiences as MPs.
Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury is exceptional. She cannot be compared to her predecessors. Is this an example of empowerment? Or is it another example of distribution of favour to those who are blindly loyal to the supreme leadership of Hasina? This reminded people how Hasina had given a big surprise by inducting some of her party’s junior MPs into her cabinet in January 2009 ignoring some party stalwarts. Not only that, after a few months, she also dropped them from the party’s presidium, the highest policymaking body, and included only loyalists. Thus, Hasina emerged as the supreme leader both in her cabinet and in the party.
By picking Shirin for the office of the Speaker, Hasina however cited instances of elections of women MPs as the Speaker in Pakistan and India.
In Pakistan Dr Fehmida Mirza created history on March 19, 2008 when she was elected with an over two-third majority to become the first woman Speaker of any elected House that practices parliamentary democracy, not only in Pakistan but in the entire Muslim World.
Her rise to such prominence comes as a tribute to her long and dedicated struggle, spanning almost two decades as a pro-democracy activist and a committed political campaigner. Having served in the 10th, 11th and now the 12th National Assembly, Dr Mirza is counted among one of the most senior and seasoned parliamentarians in the country, says the official website of Pakistan’s National Assembly.
What about India? A five-time member of Parliament, Meira Kumar was elected unopposed as the first woman Speaker of Lok Sabha on June 3, 2009.
Meira is a lawyer and a former diplomat. Prior to being a member of the 15th Lok Sabha, she has been elected MPs for four times. She was a cabinet minister in the ministry of social justice and empowerment between 2004-2009.
Born in 1966, Shirin Sharmin has also become the youngest Speaker of Bangladesh. The opposition MPs have been boycotting the House since March last year. Shirin Sharmin may have them in the House in the next session in June if they return after ending the long boycott. Therefore, it is not possible to see now how she deals with the opposition MPs and their demands in the House.
She assumed the office of the Speaker at a time when the present parliament has already passed most of its life span of five years. The remaining few months will be crucial for her to demonstrate her efficiency and impartiality to uphold the dignity of the institution of the Speaker. Her role will determine how she represents the House and becomes a symbol of the nation’s freedom and liberty.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.