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     Volume 7 Issue 12 | March 21, 2008 |

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Human Rights

Policy Controversy

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women via direct election has been a demand of women’s rights groups for decades.

Every time the National Women Development Policy is about to be passed, there is some sort of controversy getting in the way. Either it is the activists who do not think it is progressive enough, or some clerics who think it has gone too far.

First passed in 1997 and amended in 2004 amidst much debate, the policy was declared again anew this past International Women's Day. This time, it has given rise to a different sort of controversy. While the 2004 policy came under criticism for taking two steps back from the original and more progressive policy, the new policy has been condemned by a section of religious leaders for allegedly going against Islamic values.

Interestingly, however, the issues over which there is contention, such as inheritance, are not mentioned in the policy at all. In fact, according to women's rights activists who have otherwise welcomed the policy, three vital issues have not been mentioned clearly in the policy -- besides inheritance, full ratification of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) and a uniform family code, the lack of which results in women being subjected to discriminatory personal laws governed by their respective Muslim, Hindu or Christian religion.

What does make the policy progressive though, are provisions seeking to ensure equality of women and men in national life, women's security at the national, social and family level and their empowerment on the political, social and economic fronts. More specifically, the policy has clauses on reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for women via direct election, equal opportunity for and control on all earned movable and immovable property, increasing women's participation in public bodies and higher levels of policy-making in political, administrative and professional bodies and more.

Though women work as hard as men do, they often receive less pay.

The overall goal of the policy is the social, political and economic empowerment of women and their greater involvement in nation-building in general and policy matters in particular. The policy consists of a number of Short-term, mid-term and long-term goals. Short-term programmes to be immediately taken up by the government include raising maternity from four to five months, ensuring appointment of equally qualified women to public positions, taking steps to reduce the suffering of women working abroad and launching special programmes to help women in distress, Women and Children Affairs Adviser Rasheda K Choudhury told The Daily Star after the policy was announced.

However, some religious leaders have reacted negatively to the policy saying that it goes against the Sharia and demanded that it be scrapped. Speakers have also warned that the government would be in trouble if it tried to push women into competition with men and especially giving women equal rights of inheritance.

According to the law and religious affairs adviser, Hassan Ariff, however, no such law has been passed about inheritance and there is no question of enacting such a law. At a meeting with Islamic scholars at the Islamic Foundation in Baitul Mukarram soon after the policy was announced, the acting Khatib of the Baitul Mukarram National Mosque Mufti Mohammad Nur Uddin held that that there is no question of ensuring equal rights to women on inheritance, but that they should be ensured their due rights. The law adviser was quick to clarify that the policy contains no clause concerning inheritance and stressed that the government had no plan to enact any law that goes against the rules and spirit of Islam. According to the adviser, the policy is only meant to work out measures for protecting women from different forms of harassment and deprivation. The clerics also met with Home Adviser Major Gen (Retd) MA Matin and told him they would not accept any policy that would go against the Quran and Sunnah.

The original policy of 1997, formulated after the United Nation's Beijing Women's Conference, directly involved activists and thinkers and was said to reflect the goals of the women's movement and be in tune with CEDAW. But with provisions on women's economic rights and participation dropped, such as equal opportunity or share in property or assets, and inheritance and land rights struck out, the 2004 amendment was seen as taking two steps back. The amendment also dropped the principle of placing women in high posts in the government and judiciary, those encouraging them to take part in politics and specifics on state and police violence against women. The amended policy was being criticised for being influenced by the Jamaat-e-Islami section of the coalition government at the time.

Among other things, the current policy also advocates the establishment of women's human rights and their protection from poverty, discrimination and violence. It suggests that women be given equal opportunity to property, employment, market and business. It also addresses women's health, nutrition, their role in the environment and participation in the media. Cancelling the policy on the basis of it allegedly going against Islam could mean nullifying all these other basic rights for women.

Although the guidelines need legal backing in order to be enforced in ways that count, whether the policy itself will survive has come into question. Women's rights groups have embraced it for the most part, with some room for improvement, but whether the religious leaders will allow the government to go ahead with it is another matter all together. CEDAW itself has been ratified by a number of Muslim countries without any trouble, which is why activists question why women's rights always spark off debates in our own country. So far the National Women Development Policy 2008 has not gotten into the specifics of inheritance -- and it really cannot, without the legislation to back it -- but if the guideline itself is scrapped, it will be like breaking a foot before the very first step is taken down a long and hard road towards equality.


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