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     Volume 7 Issue 10 | March 7, 2007 |

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Cover Story

The Power of Political Equality

Women are often at the helm of political processions and protest rallies. A common scene on television news after such events is that of hundreds of women resisting and being assaulted by the police, being hauled into police vans and put into jail. But their representation at the policy-making level is limited. In a patriarchal political system, the women's movement has been lobbying for decades to increase the number of women's seats in Parliament through direct election in order to make the whole process more democratic and representative. With the proposed reforms for the upcoming general elections, a change is anticipated for women politicians in Bangladesh.

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

The 1972 Constitution provided for a quota system by which, in addition to the 300 seats in Parliament, 15 more seats would be reserved for women through indirect election. This number was increased to 30 in 1979, but the constitutional provision lapsed in 2001.

Women's movements have been lobbying for decades to increase the number of women's seats in Parliament to one-third of total seats and, more importantly, for their direct election. Under the 14th Constitution Amendment Bill 2004, passed in May of the said year, the number of reserved seats was increased to 45, to be allotted to the different parties in proportion to the number of seats they have in Parliament (one reserved seat for every 6.66 seats). Direct election, however, was denied once again.

Photos: Syed Zakir Hossain

For political empowerment of women, or, simply put, for women to play a meaningful and effective role in governing the State, there must be gender mainstreaming in the political process, says women's right's activist Ayesha Khanam. "By women in top policy-making positions, we do not mean one Motia Chowdhury or Sajeda Chowdhury, and certainly not the two former prime ministers, for they are representative of a different political process all together," she says. "We mean mass women."

In order to play a political role, women must be directly elected, says Khanam. "People do not even know women who are indirectly elected, they have no recognition, no accountability to the people. And in Parliament, they are treated as second-class citizens. Their only function is to come in and pass bills when their male colleagues are too busy to do so. They are asked to wait to raise bills after the men, openly told that they have been indirectly elected and must wait for the men to finish first. It is as if the men are real political leaders and the women are not."

Women activists get their share of police brutality but not necessarily political power. Photo: Star File

Women in Parliament thus often have an ornamental function, filling the quota for a seemingly gender-sensitive political system. On the other hand, women politicians at the local government level have proven their worth despite many odds. In the Union Parishad (UP) elections of 1998, over 12,000 women members were directly elected to reserved seats. In 2001, 20 of them were elected chairpersons. But even here, women face discrimination. They have no jobs, they are given fewer resources to work with, they are even excluded from the information dissemination process, with circulars being read out in their absence. Though they attend meetings regularly, their views and inputs are often ignored. They are looked down upon as "second category" members and sometimes are even subject to sexual harassment.

"They take loans from their husbands, banks and even outsiders, they sell their gold jewellery in order to raise funds. They suffer a lot of humiliation, yet they do not give up," says Ayesha Khanam, President, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. "In spite of all these negative factors, the women still want to be in politics. Members want to run for chairperson, and some even want to contest in the national elections. Their dedication and drive are amazing and their strong political feeling must be nourished."

Though political parties claim that there is a dearth of qualified female candidates, Ayesha Khanam believes this is not true. "Qualified candidates is not the problem," she says. "Patriarchal politics and lack of strong political will are." Religion is not a factor here, according to Khanam. "If it was, those women who are in politics today and who have the support of lakhs of people and who work together with the religion-based parties, would not be here."

"What must women do to qualify?" demands Khanam. "They can get beaten up at protest rallies, go to jail, even die in grenade attacks, but they cannot be elected to Parliament? This is discrimination."

AL presidium member Sajeda Chowdhury. Photo: Star File

Women may not have proper training, but they do have practical experience after working for so many years against so many odds. Even if qualification is a problem, says Khanam, it is the duty of the political parties to train their members and make them qualified. "They do it for the men, why are women expected to do it all on their own?"

With the upcoming general elections and the electoral reforms being proposed, it is being hoped that women's participation will also increase this time around. Besides social and religious biases, and the theory that Bangladeshi women have been conditioned not to take much interest in government and politics, the main barriers to women's entry into politics are the huge campaign costs and the lack of party support. The proposed reforms will make it easier for women to participate in the polls, believe women's rights activists.

"We have been lobbying for decades against the muscle-money phenomenon," says Ayesha Khanam. "Putting a ceiling on election costs, making a quota for women, reallocating constituencies are all steps that we think are positive and which will enable more women to contest the polls."

"We want democratic, honest, secular, pro-women candidates to be nominated," says Khanam. "We do not want conservative and reactionary parties like Jamaat-e-Islami. Though they have included some women in their parties, they get in the way of women's development. They discourage women's mobility, education, jobs, their fundamental rights which will enable them to function as modern human beings."

Mahila Parishad, says Khanam, has recommended that the parties nominate between 10 and 15 percent women.

Ayesha Khanam, President, Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

For the political parties, however, increasing women's participation does not seem to be a major item on the reform agenda at least yet.

"We believe in women's empowerment," says Major Hafizuddin Ahmed, acting secretary-general of the reformist faction of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). "We will nominate women if we find qualified candidates." Asked about the 10 to 15 percent of nomination of women as recommended by some members of the women's movement, however, Ahmed says, "We have not decided on that yet. Once the election process is more underway, we will discuss and decide on it."

Awami League (AL) acting president Zillur Rahman also says that no final decision has yet been taken. "But we support the demand for one-third of seats for women in Parliament through direct election," he says.

According to AL presidium member Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, the AL has the most women of any political party, including Sayeda Johra Tajuddin, Motia Chowdhury, Shahara Khatun and Nazma Rahman besides Sheikh Hasina and herself in the top tier, not to mention the hundreds of women activists of the party.

"The AL has a very progressive outlook," says Chowdhury. "Our leaders do not hesitate to recruit women to our party. But they must prove themselves, just as we did. From 1956 I have been attending political meetings, rallies and protests, shoulder to shoulder with men. I spent a year in jail without trial."

"Women today must learn from us and come prepared. No one will make them, just as no one made us. Yes, they are at a disadvantage as women, but we are giving them the chance to move forward. In 1997, Sheikh Hasina declared direct election at the local government level as a first step for women. Those who succeed at the local level will move on to the national level. But candidates must be qualified, they must be popular, they must have a footing. Nominating someone who does not means losing a seat."

"But I am hopeful that there will be many more than 30 women in the next Parliament," says Chowdhury.

The first push must come from the political parties themselves, believes Ayesha Khanam. "They must develop a political mindset. Without it, we will not be able to move forward as a nation. Just as women are now seen as not only the targets but also as agents of development, they must also be a major driver in the political field. Parliament as a process has not developed, as a democratic institution it has failed. It cannot develop leaving out 50 percent of the population."

Women in Bangladesh are enthusiastic voters. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

Ward Commissioner Rawshan Ara, in charge of wards 44, 46 and 48 in the Dhaka 10 constituency, says that though she does not have trouble fulfilling her duties, she does not get the same facilities or enjoy the status that her male counterparts do. "I have repeatedly asked the city corporation to give me the facilities I am missing, but they keep saying it is being processed, I must wait."

"There are problems, but they can be overcome if you try," says Rawshan Ara. "Yes, it was difficult for me as a woman, but I tried and have made it to where I am today."

If she ever contests in the national elections, she will do so directly, says Rawshan Ara. "I have already told my party this. If I am indirectly elected, people will not know me, because they will not have voted for me. If they directly elect me, they will know me and come to me with their problems. This is why we enter politics -- to be closer to the people."

Ward Commissioner Rawshan Ara at work. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

Rawshan Ara's story says it all -- the many obstacles and discrimination faced by women in politics, and their dedication and sheer resolve to overcome them and succeed.

According to Western liberal arguments for increased representation of women in politics, besides representing half the population, women bring a different perspective to politics; they broaden the political agenda; they are more aware of the needs and issues which affect them. Extensive participation of women in public life is even expected to lower the level of corruption.

Women are at par with men in every sphere of life. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

Despite an uncongenial political atmosphere in our country, women have shown their enthusiasm in and proved their dedication to politics. With education and proper training, equal allocation of jobs and resources, they will be able to fulfil their political duties more effectively and be at par with men. The Bangladesh Constitution, with reference to the participation of women in national life, states "Steps shall be taken to ensure participation of women in all spheres of national life." Along with the women's movement, which acts as facilitator, the government and most importantly, political forces must work to ensure significant participation of women in the political sphere. The political and social empowerment of women is necessary not only for women but for strengthening the democratic process as a whole, for a nation that excludes and undermines half the population is anything but democratic.

Women on the Roadmap

With the upcoming elections and all the electoral reforms in the pipeline, much of the power to bring about change lies with the Election Commission (EC). In an exclusive interview with Star Weekend Magazine (SWM), Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) ATM Shamsul Huda talks about the EC's role in ensuring greater participation of women in the next elections.

"Political parties are required to register under the Registration of Political Parties Rules," says the CEC, "and in order to be eligible to register, parties must have a system of internal democracy. We have tried to promote women's leadership, and in order to give voice to women, we have said that parties must have 33 percent women's representation in committees at every level. This was the original proposal."

After the first round of dialogues with the political parties, however, it became apparent that they would not be able to meet this criterion. According to the CEC, many of the parties which came to the dialogue had no women in their 10-member delegation, making it evident that they had very few women in their party. "Only a few parties like the Awami League, Liberal Democratic Party and Bikalpa Dhara Bangladesh had a few women on their team."

"Some of the major parties like Awami League and Jatiya Party pleaded with us to set a long timeframe in which to meet this criterion -- 25 years," says Huda. "Even the more liberal parties were not very positive about the proposal. They did not oppose it, not even the religion-based parties. But they highlighted the problems more than anything and said it would be difficult for them to do this right now."

ATM Shamsul Huda, CEC. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

"Thus we have had to reconsider and reformulate our proposal," continues the CEC. "We have said parties must mobilise more women and meet this criterion by the next two rounds of elections."

"We cannot force the political parties, however," says Huda.

"Women's rights activists must continue to lobby and try to persuade the parties to nominate larger numbers of women."

At the five-tier (city corporation, municipality, district, upazila parishad and union parishad) local government level, however, 40 percent of seats are reserved exclusively for women, informs the CEC. "This is not like the 300 plus 30 seats in Parliament," he says. "Here, 40 percent of total seats are to be contested by women only. In addition, women can also contest for the general seats. This provision will apply for the next two rounds of elections, however. It will be abolished in the third round."

Other steps toward reform taken by the EC, including the removal of muscle power and black money, will also encourage more women to participate in the elections, believes the CEC. "Women in our country did not feel that the atmosphere was congenial for them to contest in elections. If there is peace, fairness and justice, they may feel safe and be encouraged to participate." The Code of Conduct has been revised in such a manner that a lot of money is not needed to contest in the polls. This may also create opportunities for women to contest, as financial constraints are a major barrier for women, says Huda.

As for direct elections, the CEC says that in order for them to take place, the Constitution needs to be amended. "The EC has a very specific mandate and we cannot go beyond it. We will take the measures we can and recommend other measures to the government. We will make a recommendation for direct elections."

The EC itself is trying to make its own method of recruitment more gender-balanced. It has proposed to the government that, out of the three election commissioners, one of them should be a woman. "We wanted to set an example for other organisations," says the CEC. "In our country, there is some women's participation at the lower levels, but hardly any at the top. It is as if women are destined to be telephone operators and receptionists. This attitude must be changed. In order to ensure women's empowerment, they must participate at all levels."

Legislation must be amended to remove gender discrimination, believes the CEC. He cites the example of the United States where affirmative action is taken for African-Americans. Similarly, legislation in our country must also be changed to ensure women's participation in the public sphere.

"We had a pleasant experience during the voter registration," says ATM Shamsul Huda.

When the EC first came up with the idea, many sceptics said it was one thing to go to women's homes and ask them to register, but to ask them to come out of their homes to register, take photographs, etc., would be very difficult. "But this proved wrong," says the CEC.

"Women must be encouraged to take part in various activities in public life. Not only legislation, but a conducive environment and positive attitude is needed to advance the cause of women. Many social and religious barriers have already been broken down. The more they are, the easier it will be for women to enter into public life."

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