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    Volume 8 Issue 58 | February 20, 2009 |

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The Importance of Visibility

Aasha Mehreen Amin

The most obvious demonstration of change in the last election was the number of women candidates elected to the parliament. The Prime Minister pleasantly surprised us further when she gave important ministries to four of the elected women MPs. The fact that Sheikh Hasina nominated so many women to run for the election and then appointed women to head the foreign, labour and home ministries along with the ministry of agriculture (which was an expected choice), at least gives credence to her promise of bringing about real change. It is too early to assess their performance as ministers, too premature to applaud or condemn. But the fact that these women have braved an extremely competitive election campaign, won the hearts of thousands of voters, beat their male counterparts and come out victorious, is in itself something to celebrate.

On February 10, Manusher Jonno Foundation, hosted an informal meeting at Spectra Convention Centre, to honour our women Members of Parliament where women activists, heads of women's organisations, journalists and writers were also invited. Some of the women MPs, especially those who were ministers could not attend as they were held up in standing committee meetings but those who did turn up impressed everyone with their candid remarks and genuine eagerness to connect with other women. The organisers of the programme also presented a list of issues that they wanted the women MPs to address including the prickly subject of women's development policy, the adoption of the Family Law and removing Bangladesh's reservations of CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women).

Women MPs with Manusher Jonno Foundation's Executive Director, Shaheen Anam (centre).

All the MPs invited acknowledged the role of the women's movement in making this phenomenal change possible. Women activists have no doubt, done immense groundwork at the grassroots level to promote the rights of women in every aspect of life including the political field. This election is enough proof of the fact that the women's movement has succeeded in bringing about a change in the way women perceive themselves, hence the unprecedented turnout of women voters many of whom recognised the merit of voting for a woman candidate.

"The fact that women have won through direct elections shows that there is a change in the mindset of voters," says Sagufta Yasmin, who won from Munshiganj 2 and is a Whip of the present parliament. "And the credit goes to all the countless number of women who have helped to bring about this change," she added.

As Shaheen Anam, chairperson of Manusher Jonno pointed out, women are behind not because of lack of ability but because of lack of opportunity. Many of the constituencies from where women candidates stood were strongholds of rival parties which had male candidates, thus it was to their credit that these women were able to overcome all odds and come out as winners.

Many women voters voted for women in the hope for a real change in politics.

"I come from a place where there were no December 16 celebrations, where it is very difficult to work for women's rights," remarked Habibun Nahar, who won from Bagerhat 3 where Jamaat e Islami's influence has been very strong. "I was very intimidated at first, then I gathered courage and fought on. I did not change my image in order to get votes, I never wore a burkha and have always stayed the way I am. I am a rebel and have always protested against injustice."

Habibun Nahar had quite a few interesting observations. She said that while direct elections were always preferable it was also true that the main strength of any candidate is his or her popularity. She also mentioned that there was a need to have more women at the Union Parishad level as they were closer to the people and their presence would help to empower women.

Actress Kobori Sarwar (known as Sahara Begum Kobori) who won from Narayanganj 4, pointed out the challenge of new contenders campaigning against seasoned candidates. She also said that she was quite impressed to see how politically conscious people are. "The fact that ordinary people have given support to women shows their appreciation and desire for change."

Surprisingly, many of the women MPs expressed their support for reforms in the inheritance laws, a subject that has been severely attacked by religious groups.

Rebecca Momen who won from Netrokona 4 pointed out the life of deprivation and neglect that women in the villages (especially in remote areas) lead because of the discriminatory nature of inheritance laws. "When I would see them and asked them to vote they would reply that they would only if their husbands let them to which- I said: 'Don't listen to them, you have to vote’.”

Meher Afroz Chumki, who won the Gazipur 5 seat, said that women voters voted for women because they felt confidant that a woman leader would work for their interest. She however, admitted that the number of helpless, vulnerable women was very high. "Women don't know what their rights are or even what they should aspire for". she said adding that women leaders should transcend party affiliation ad work together. "We are hopeful that women's development policy will be implemented."

Mahbub Ara Gini, a former athlete who won from Gaibandha 2 brought attention to the abject poverty of most people, who cannot even afford to have rice everyday. She said that this was where women leaders could work to make a difference.

Other MPs who were present included Nilufer Zafar Ullah, who won from Faridpur 4 (AL) and Rumana Mahmud from Sirajganj 2 (BNP); both of them narrated their campaign experiences.

Present at this unique programme were many prominent women leaders who expressed their aspirations from women MPs.

Ayesha Khanam, the General Secretary of Mahila Parishad said that it was important that a caucus between women inside the parliament and those outside, be created. Such a network would ensure that the most pressing and realistic issues were addressed in the parliament. She urged the MPs to be members of the standing committees so that they could move these issues to the forefront in future parliamentary sessions. She mentioned issues such as women's development policy especially equal inheritence share, a law on domestic violence, citizenship act. Rasheda K Chowdhury, former advisor to the caretaker government and an important educationist, said that the crime of 'eve teasing' has been left out from the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 which is something women MPs should try to change.

Salma Khan, who heads Women for Women and chief of CEDAW's UN Committee (from Bangladesh) made an important observation, that women MPs have to be involved in discussions (in Parliament) on issues other than those that relate exclusively to women such as transit, making a pro-poor health policy, in foreign policy and overall poverty alleviation. She mentioned, moreover, the need to remove the CEDAW reservations, pointing out that many Muslim countries have fully ratified CEDAW.

While there is still a long way to go before the participation of women in politics is at a meaningful level, the number of women candidates who stood for this election, the number of women who fought and won the electoral race, the sheer presence of women Members of Parliament, at the helm of state power and heading important ministries -these are all hopeful signs. Women are considered more compassionate, fair and sincere in their work. These are the qualities that people aspire for in their leaders, men or women. It will be an uphill task to try and live up to the expectations that people have of their women MPs and to make themselves heard in a typically men's club. Uphill and challenging but not impossible.


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