that is the Question
political leaders haven't really had the reputation of being
true to their words. In fact they have shown remarkable skill
to conveniently shift their position. The last month's bill
regarding women's seat in the parliament, which contradict the
ruling BNP's pre-election pledge, has only reaffirmed this truth
yet again. Prominent women leaders and activists, though incensed
by such betrayal, have vowed not to be deterred by such adversities
as they spoke in a discussion meeting titled "Dialogue
with Representatives of the Local Government" held on April
5 at Narigrantha Probortona.
The issue of direct elections to the reserved
seats for women in the parliament is not new. Representatives
of various women rights and human rights organisations have
been zealously campaigning for direct elections to reserved
women seats for quite some time now. The issue featured prominently
not only in the pre-election (of the 2001) campaign but even
in the election manifesto of all the major political parties.
But, when the bill was finally tabled last month after procrastinating
for nearly two and a half years, all hopes evaporated.
The proposed bill is the same dish in a new
platter. Instead of creating the provision of direct elections
to the women's reserved seats -- which is precisely what the
real demand was -- the proposed bill had only increased the
number of reserved seats from the erstwhile 30 to 45, keeping
the option of selection intact. "We met the law minister
and asked why they were once again going for selection instead
of election, he bluntly replied 'it is not possible now'. My
question is why did you then promise direct elections in your
manifesto then?" Dr Naila Khan answers the question herself:
"They are ready to promise anything when they need our
vote, but once their purpose is served they conveniently forget
A general feeling of betrayal by the political
parties underlined almost every speech made in the dialogue.
"AL also doesn't appear to be very serious either; if they
can call hartals over trifle issues, why haven't they bothered
to call a hartal against this farcical bill?" asks women's
activist and leader Farida Akhter. "When in opposition,
our political parties virulently support our demand of direct
elections, but the moment they grab the throne they start to
discover serious obstacles to implement them. But we won't accept
anything short of direct elections," she adds.
The whole issue here is elections. Explains
Farida: "We have seen for far too long how ineffectual
the whole idea becomes when the reserved seats are filled in
by selection. If they insist on carrying on with selection we
would rather prefer to have this provision of reserved women's
seats deleted from the constitution." The invited Union
Council members from different parts of the country speak in
the same tune as Farida.
Sheuli Akhter, a Union Council member from Kushtia,
is an elected people's representative in the local government.
If women MPs are selected they are bound to turn into puppets
at the hand of the male politicians and they can never work
for the cause of women," she argues. No doubt, she knows
from her own experience the strength an elected representative
carries: "If you are elected you can work without any outside
influence, without compromising the cause for which you are
Besides, there is a sense of obligation that
a directly elected representative feels towards her electorate.
"That people have voted me to power means I have been entrusted
with the responsibility to stand by them and assist them to
my best ability. Why should one feel the same responsibility
when she's selected?" says Rowshan Akhter Laki, another
UC member from Noakhali district. While arguing in favour of
direct elections Shahana from Cox's Bazar makes the same point
in different words: "The MP apas who are selected because
of their husband's position don't have to worry about people's
welfare. They can just idle away time sleeping in air-conditioned
rooms on the ninth floor in a Gulshan apartment because they
don't have any relation to the people."
Farida Ahkter in her speech mentions some of
the common arguments politicians cite to prove their point that
women are still not in a position to fight in the parliament
elections: "They ask where do we get money and manpower
from run for elections? We say, why should you need money and
musclepower to do elections? The invited women representatives
in the local government who have themselves fought elections
and come out victorious back Farida's point.
The party or parties in government always seem
to have some arguments or other to deny this right to women.
Naila asserts these are all lame excuses, part of the hundreds
of years' of male propaganda to keep women under their dominance.
"We can no longer keep waiting, hoping that one fine day
men will take mercy on us and give what we want. We will have
to earn our rightful demands on our own. If needed, we will
create a women's party as it happened in the Philipines and
seven crore women of the country will choose their representatives
from themselves," Naila says.
Whether it is poverty alleviation or economic
prosperity, women's empowerment is a must for any sustained
and enduring development of the country, not to mention the
strengthening of our nascent democracy. In fact, we have already
made some progress by creating a new position, reserved for
a woman member in the Union Council. But for establishing women
empowerment there is no substitute for having women representatives
in the highest policy making forums, including parliament, which
is supposed to be the seat of power. The earlier this realisation
dawns on our political leadership the better.