<%-- Page Title--%> Politics <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 150 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 16, 2004

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Selection or Election

that is the Question


Our 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 their pledge."

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 fighting."

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.


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