|Volume 7 | Issue 03 | March 2013 ||
Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum --
JULIA AHMED focuses on the empowerment of women at projonmo chottor.
This year the theme of International Women's day is: 'Gender Agenda Gaining Momentum: A modern progressive world needs equality'. While highlighting this, a valid question arises as to what type of momentum we have achieved in Bangladesh on gender equality issues.
In light of the above, Shahbagh projonmo chottor movement 2013 gives us an important moment to reflect on a new dimension with our gender equality agenda.
It is true that when talking about the concept of gender equality, the very first notion to come to mind is about having equal number of women and men or boys and girls in all activities, or treating them exactly in the same way. However, an in-depth look clarifies the matter that gender equality goal actually signifies an aspiration to work towards a society in which both women and men are able to live equally fulfilling lives free from discrimination and poverty. This concept is also embedded in human rights principles that are central to achieving good governance and sustainable development.
In the context of Bangladesh, gender equality is an important development goal of the government. Here, the gender equality agenda is centred around empowering women. This is to highlight traditional social values and norms that legitimise gender difference and to eliminate the unequal power relations between women and men, girls and boys. Many actors, including NGOs, academia, media, private sector, donor community, are all working together in close collaboration with our government for the achievement of this goal. In line with this, a long path has been travelled by adopting different approaches and strategies with some specific gains.
Now, with the emergence of this spontaneous movement led by our young generation comes a fresh, new dimension causing us to pause and review what newness it has brought with it.
Apparently, it might seem that the sole agenda of Shahbagh movement is delivering capital punishment to the war criminals and banning religion-based politics. In fact, it is the tip of the iceberg -- this movement is articulated by many to symbolise a situation that has opened many entry points with farsighted implications to bring positive social change.
What we have seen in the projonmo chottor is young spirit challenging our conscience and questioning our complacent illusions that led us to accept society's wrongdoings until now. They have awakened our basic moral values to rekindle the spirit of our liberation war 1971 that were forgotten at large. They have sent a clarion call to the whole nation as to how to stand bold against injustice and unite for a common cause in a non-violent way. This aspect is important to ponder because they have highlighted the importance of cultivating the basic value system of a nation on which other values need to be built. Otherwise, if the basic value system is based on a weak foundation we will fail to nurture value-based teaching, which is lasting and gives the power to fight against all types of injustices and discrimination in society and to thrive for a democratic society.
In this context the peace-loving Bangladeshi people for whom this basic value was lying dormant, got a sudden strong push, they rightly reacted to the call of the young generation. In turn, we have seen how proactively mass people have gathered and within a moment Shahbagh intersection became a sea of humanity, and through a ripple effect how the heat has mobilised people across Bangladesh to stand against fundamental injustices. Like, for many of us who have seen the liberation war we have experienced a déjà vu like feeling, where, 42 years ago the freedom-loving young men and women along with others were mobilised to liberate their country in the same way.
At Shahbagh, the first thing that hits you is the mellifluous and catchy voice of young women. These women are called "slogani konya" and they have become Bangladesh's sweethearts. These girls have no time for grooming or watching TV serials. By breaking the traditional stereotypes they are here to give you energy, drive and determination to stay tuned to a common cause to fight against razakars and Jaamat-Shibir against their wrongdoings. The other view of Shahbagh is, no matter when you visit the place, every time you will find women from all religions and classes: very poor, poor, middle class, rich, very rich, students, homemakers, professionals -- all merrily chanting away slogans. A mass spontaneous movement like this which has such active participation of women is a rare phenomenon in this part of the world.
Day and night, both young women and men spend time together, and we have not heard of any incidents of violence or mishaps. In a traditional conservative society this is a welcome happening, which can serve as food for thought for the development actors who work on gender-based violence programmes.
It also reveals a solid pattern of young leadership, who are conceptually clear, determined, know exactly what they are demanding and why. The aspiration for women empowerment and gender equality comes naturally to them.
We know women's empowerment is not about achieving power to dominate others, but it is also about power to act with others to effect positive change. Now, to put the matter in perspective with regard to this writing, there are few questions that we need to ponder. Let me start with a very recent personal experience. My 15-year-old daughter was sitting beside me at the February 21 mass gathering at Shahbagh. After hearing all the speeches given by the male activists, she asked me, “Maa, why are there no women giving speeches alongside the not less than 15 men doing so?” In fact, inside me, I was also encountering the same question. The immediate answer which came to mind was that the 'slogan konya' were not ready this time to give political speeches, but the next time they would be. This confidence comes from the fact that these young women have shown their perseverance despite difficulties. From day one of the mass movement, women have made their presence felt at Shahbagh. Their strong, determined and spirited attendance has impacted to invigorate the demonstrators at projonmo chottor. The needed political will that we have seen in the Shahbagh movement came from both young women and men together. They together could invoke mass people's political awareness, and with these their combined effort could put pressure on the government to bring change in legislation.
Now, with regard to the question of ensuring young women's political participation with effective means and processes, it is critical to find out ways to both strengthen the country's democratic foundation, as well as carry out concerted work against gender oppression. Unless they are brought to the decision-making table directly in large numbers, important gender issues will never be tackled with the seriousness they require.
Let me conclude that projonmo chottor has shown us a new auspicious start and an operational platform from where women's empowerment and gender equality can gain lessons and move forward.
So far, in the development planning one of the popular approaches was “incorporating young generation”. However, this movement has changed our notions and made us realise that the young have actually incorporated us in the picture.
Dr. Julia Ahmed is a freelance consultant.
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