Women in politics have a long history on the Indian subcontinent. On the territory of what is today Bangladesh, women organising to claim their rights has deep historical roots. This can be traced back to the Mughal period of the 17th and 18th century, the anti-colonial struggles against the British and the nationalist struggle against the Pakistanis in the early second half of the 20th century. The development of the women’s rights discourse and activism can be divided historically into these three distinct phases.
Historically, starting at least 500 years ago, women were engaged in the political process not only as politicians and heads of state but also as active agents in establishing fundamental rights. Some of the most influential women in the Mughal period and during the British colonial period do not get the mention they deserve in the politico-historical discourse of today’s Bangladesh. Important women who had a significant influence on politics the broader region were Sultana Chand Bibi (1550–1599), Mehr-un-Nissa (1577–1644), Queen of erstwhile Jhasi state Lokkhi Bai (1828–1858), Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949), Ila Mitra (1925–2002) and Captain Lakshmi Sahgal (1914–2012).
During the British colonial period, important icons such as Begum Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain (1880–1932) went against the norm and became thought leaders in political empowerment for women in today’s Bangladesh. During the same period, revolutionaries like Pritilata Waddedar (1911–1932) and Kalpana Datta (1913–1995) took up arms in the nationalist struggle against the British occupation. In their anti-colonial struggle against the British, they opened up the political and the public sphere for women in politics during the era.
Post-British rule, during the early years of Pakistani rule, at the peak of the political movement to establish the linguistic rights of Bengalis in 1952, it was women who first went to the streets during the curfew. They collected funds and provided medical assistance to the injured protesters. Women who played a pivotal role in the language movement included Halima Khatun, Sufia Ahmed, Rawshan Ara Bachchu, Shafia Khatun, Rani Bhattachariya, Protiva Mutshunddy, Sofia Khan, Suriya Doly, Nadira Begum, Nurjahan Morshed, Laila Noor, Mahbuba Khatun and Momtaj Begum. The events of 1952 led to the creation of a pathway for women to get involved in political organising, and eventually in Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971.
Between 1952 and 1971, Bengali women in East Pakistan resisted attempts by the Pakistani military junta to Islamise the culture. This gave rise to a counter-movement that stressed Bengali identity. Women’s attire and cultural activities became powerful symbols of Bengali nationalism. The first national-level women’s rights organisation in East Pakistan, the Mohila Parishad, was established by activist Begum Sufia Kamal during that time. Young women activists linked to progressive political parties played a pivotal role in the formation of this. They advocated for the release of political prisoners, ending military rule and establishing democratic elections. Women’s active role in the national struggle led to consciousness among women about their economic and political entitlements.
Between 1952 and 1971, Bengali women in East Pakistan resisted attempts by the Pakistani military junta to Islamise the culture.
Women leaders contributed to all nationalist movements of the time, such as the Language Movement in 1952, the Education Movement in 1962, the Six Points Movement in 1966, the Mass Upsurge in 1969 and the Pakistani General Election in 1970. Badrunnesa Ahmed, Nurjahan Murshid, Lila Nag, Selina Banu, Hena Das, Sajeda Chowdhury, Ivy Rahman, Amena Khatun, Shamsunnahar Begum, Anowara Khatun, Sheikh Hasina, Mumtaz Begum, Motia Chowdhury, Mahfuza Khanam, Ayesha Khanom and Rafia Akhter Dolly were some of the prominent female leaders of the political movements of the era.
In the Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in 1971, women were on the frontline. They participated in the war as fighters, helping hands, organisers and public opinion shapers. Taramon Bibi, Sitara Begum, Geeta Kar and Shirin Banu are prominent war heroines; two of them were given Bangladesh’s prominent gallantry award, the Bir Pratik. War heroes also include women who risked their lives to support the Bengali nationalist fighters with funds, shelter and medical aid. In the war of 1971, Bengali women were at the centre of the sacrifice. They lost their loved ones, and were subjected to rape and torture, which were tools of war used by the Pakistani army. Many women, such as Ferdausi Priobhashini, survived to tell their stories.
The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh was a landmark as the first document in the history of the Indian subcontinent to recognise women’s political participation. It institutionally established women’s equal rights in both the public and the private spheres. Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s wife, the first First Lady of Bangladesh, Fazilatunnesa Mujib, partnered him in formulating the blueprint for the independence of the country. Bangladesh’s current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, is also a mention-worthy home-grown political leader, emerging from a long process of political movements, very similar to former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Against such a backdrop, this article identifies the internal and external factors that make up the environment for women’s political empowerment in Bangladesh.
For most of its lifetime of 50 years, Bangladesh has been ruled by a female. It holds the record for the most political rule by female heads of government. The country is ranked seventh in the world in terms of political empowerment by the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap 2020 Report. However, it has also been ranked 86th on the sub-index on parliamentary participation and 124th with regard to cabinet portfolios.
Bangladesh has initiated efforts to increase women’s participation in the development process. In the current Parliament, 21 female members are directly elected, along with 50 through an affirmative action policy of “reserved seats.” In total, currently 20% of lawmakers are women, as against 50% of voters. This discrepancy demonstrates that politics in Bangladesh is still male-dominated. There is plenty of space to bolster the advancement of women in the political arena. Bangladesh’s current government stands on its progressive principles, rooted in the spirit of its liberation struggle, which are to create a pro-women political environment.
Strong constitutional start
The Constitution of Bangladesh was adopted in 1972. Its Articles 27 and 28 cover the participation of women in all spheres of public life. Considering the constraints facing women of the time, it reserved 15 seats for women in the Parliament for 10 years. There were no territorial constituencies for the reserved seats, and a system of indirect election was put in place for them. These reserved seats made up 5% of the directly elected seats, and directly elected members would select the female members for the reserved seats. This provision was criticised by different women’s groups of the time. It was nonetheless the first major step towards including women in the legislature. It also sent a message of gender equity, helping create political awareness among the country’s citizens.
National and international machinery
Bangladesh has already prepared a National Policy for the Advancement of Women. It has also made noteworthy progress in implementing a National Action Plan, formulated in response to the Beijing Platform for Action. The Constitution of Bangladesh, in Articles 9, 27, 28.1, 28.2, 28.3 and 65.3, incorporates provisions dealing with the equal status of women. To promote women in politics at the grassroots level, it clearly states that the state must encourage local government institutions that are composed of representatives of the areas concerned. This provision was a milestone achievement for engaging women in politics since 1996.
Women in decision-making
In the latest election pledges, Bangladesh’s major political parties committed to increase the number of women parliamentarians. They appeared to coalesce around a point to increase the number of reserved seats to more than 60, corresponding to one per district in future. The current government in Bangladesh has the highest number of women Cabinet members, with 10 women-led ministries. The leader of Parliament and the leader of the opposition are also women.
Participation in direct election
The first direct election of women members, under a reserved seat scheme, was held in 1997. This marked the beginning of a new trend in women’s participation in local electoral politics in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s Local Government (Union Parishad) Act 2009 sketches out the rural governance units. Three seats of the local government units are exclusively reserved for women members, who are elected by the local voters. This is regarded as a milestone for change in the political landscape.
Decision-making in local government
Bangladesh has created opportunities for the participation of women in development planning and implementation at local level. Within the policy framework, there are 13 social development committees (SDCs) at all local government units. The SDCs are meant to ensure transparency and accountability in governance and service delivery and are mandated to incorporate women from the community. In Bangladesh, this is the primary structure to nurture women’s leadership at local level. This strategy has enhanced the visibility of local female leaders at the grassroots level enormously.
Female voter participation
In Bangladesh, the number of female voters has increased steadily yet remarkably. According to the Election Commission of Bangladesh, there were a total 53 million male voters in comparison with 52 million female voters in the latest election of 2018. Although turnout in 2018 was low, female voters’ participation has shown an upward trend since 2008. In 2008, out of 70 million, a majority of voters 46 million were female. Large female voter participation in the political process has given an added boost to the agenda of women in politics.
Influence of women’s activist groups
Bangladesh is known globally for its unique development work, often through civil society. Many organisations are involved in pro-women advocacy work and policy inputs. Development partners have encouraged programmatic interaction between citizens and their elected representatives. Many such programmes are designed to directly target women, including by encouraging women to participate actively in community governance bodies such as market committees.
Since 2003, Bangladesh has been implementing gender-sensitive budgeting, guided by its poverty reduction strategies. It has become a practice to require all ministries to evaluate their performance against gender indexes, although not all of them meet the requirements. The National Women’s Development Policy 2011 provides a base for the government to promote gender-based financing of any major national development plan.
Bangladesh’s challenges with women in politics have been no different to the global experience. Women face exclusion from political structures for functional, cultural and personal reasons. Global debates on the enabling environment for women’s political empowerment are centred on two major arguments – the intrinsic and instrumentalist arguments. The intrinsic argument is founded on the basic human rights concept that women constitute half of the global population, therefore it is fair to create pathways for equal political participation. The instrumentalists differ, stating that men and women play different gender roles and have different visions about politics. This article is grounded in the notion that women’s participation adds much-needed feminist values to politics.
Women’s political participation is connected to the nature of politics, especially in a liberal democracy. Democracy serves men more than women. From ancient Greece to the 21st century, politics has established a public–private dichotomy. Women are systematically excluded from politics as a domain of the public world. Western philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Hobbes and Hegel strongly believed that women should stay in the private sphere. This public–private dichotomy for women remains the foundation of various forms of democracies. From a normative perspective, many philosophers considered the private sphere non-political, so there has been no effort to explore the political elements of the private space.
Is politics a men’s game?
Politics is commercialised. Women’s lack of access to and control over productive resources limit their participation in this sphere. Culturally, men are the heads of households and community heads. They have access not only to resources but also to information on political empowerment. Such information may relate to training, education, skills development, resource management and political lobbying. Encouraging women to pursue politics in their own right becomes problematic because politics is regarded as a “men’s game.” The problems of limited resources and systemic marginalisation affect women politicians at all levels.
Hierarchic order between femininity and masculinity
Subordination of women is part of a socio-cultural phenomenon, in Bangladesh and beyond. The duality of femininity and masculinity created by the gender role ideology has placed women within a hierarchic order. In other words, men are superior to women, and this order has been associated with reproductive roles. This status quo is maintained during allocation of resources for capacity development at state, community and family levels. This is reflected through gender disparities in education, health, employment and participation in politics.
“Purdah” and restrictions on mobility
In South Asian countries, women face restrictions on mobility as a result of cultural practices. Their mobility is restricted to a great extent through mechanisms of veiling known as purdah. Mobility is a significant factor in building networks and social capital, which are essential to political organising.
Lack of constituencies for women
In Bangladesh’s patrilineal society, in which women have to stay with their in-laws after marriage, women lose their own community networks, which have been built from childhood. In other words, women have to move from their social base. Local governance policies do not consider the loss of a women’s social, and potentially political, base as a result of marriage, and this may prevent women from seeking political office.
Dwindling women’s contestation
Over time, the number of women taking part in local government elections has dwindled in Bangladesh. Only 15% of women elected in the 2011 elections have been re-elected, compared with 90% in 2003. This seems to owe in part to unwillingness to stand for election. Education levels have decreased among elected women representatives at grassroots level. In 1997, most women representatives in Bangladesh had completed middle school; in 2011, most had not. This trend may be interpreted positively, as showing that elected women representatives are closer to their electorate’s average education level. It is also of concern, because literacy skills are needed to serve the people adequately.
Women in political parties
A Bangladeshi woman encounters systemic challenges to entering a political party. In a male-dominated society, women receive minimum support from their kin and community to take up a career in politics. In Bangladesh, women members of political parties are increasing in share compared with the neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, lack of adequate institutional knowledge and direct experience in politics, including training and financial support, are stopping them entering political parties or rising through the ranks. As a result, political parties too often do not have the confidence to nominate their female members for election. Under constitutional provisions, political parties have to retain at least 33% of women in all committee positions.
Challenges with regard to reserved seats
In Bangladesh, there is a policy debate around the affirmative action on the quota for women representatives. Despite this, the policy does ensure women’s visibility in the political arena. This system represents a process to nurture women to get involved in politics. It also encourages women to showcase their capacity by emphasising their role as women politicians. It reinforces the notion that “seeing is believing.” The major challenge of the reserved seat policy is that the seats come without electoral constituencies. This makes the representatives vulnerable.
Since the start of Bangladesh’s journey in 1972, genuine decentralisation, development and capacitation of local government has faced many shortfalls. The progressive regulations formulated during the founding of the Constitution paved the way for the long journey for women in politics. In Bangladesh, reforms are politically sensitive, and progress is contested. The government has programmes in place to support elected women representatives and potential candidates to amplify women’s voices on fundamental rights and reform of government services.
Indian Panchayat Raj Institutions: an attempt to build up women’s political empowerment
In India’s local government system, the Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) are viewed as solution to the problems of rural development. PRIs are local government decision-making bodies to which people from the community are elected. This is linked to the empowerment of women. The participation of women representatives, including from weaker sections, appears to have increased substantially over the years, mainly on account of affirmative action under the long-term PRI policy. Various studies indicate that women leaders are less corrupt and are able to provide more public goods of equal quality at effective price. More in-depth research has found that women representatives are illiterate and depend on husbands and male officials, especially in taking decisions. The political journey is not smooth for women in the patriarchal and caste-ridden society of India. Women representatives are not comfortable working at the panchayat level, given the male-dominated nature of society.
Source: Billava, N. and Nayak, N. (2016) “Empowerment of Women Representatives in Panchayat Raj Institutions: A Thematic Review”. Journal of Politics and Governance 5(4).
In addition to government programmes, civil society is engaged in projects designed to politically empower women. Programmes by women’s organisations raise awareness of women at the grassroots level. Apart from mobilising women around specific issues, these are expanding the scope of the women’s agenda by including developmental issues like access to education, microcredit, population control, legal aid, prevention of violence against women and, most importantly, enhancing the participation of women in the political process.
Bangladesh has made tangible progress in several sectors with respect to women’s political empowerment. However, the capacity of women from local to national government levels needs to be strengthened. Women need to be equipped with knowledge in order to be able to break gender barriers within the political system. An across-the-board anti-discrimination approach, rather than a one-off effort, can truly address Bangladesh’s challenge at hand. For example, addressing the issues of discrimination in the job sector, such as the wage gap, is necessary to close the gaps.
Bangladesh’s current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina has pledged to empower women politically for a balanced and just society. With institutional support, women can assert their position with confidence to serve the public.
The current Bangladesh Parliament, in which all the major leadership is female, is unique in the world. Yet gender mainstreaming needs to be integrated at the higher policy-making level as well as in implementation, through well-formulated strategies aimed at minimising the gender gap. Women parliamentarians in Bangladesh do not usually rise up from the grassroots. Women at this level need to be as proactive as those at the policy-making level, if they are to be politically assertive. Meanwhile, women parliamentarians in reserved seats do not represent any constituency. However, they are accommodated in various legislative committees. Their roles and responsibilities can be further enhanced through the addition of a more defined decision-making agenda.
Having role models, especially in a political system, is important for young women.
Having role models, especially in a political system, is important for young women. In Bangladesh, women who wish to take up public office are lucky because they have a role model in their Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina. To encourage women in politics, 20 laws have been developed and amended in the past 10 years. Meanwhile, Bangladesh has declared a zero-tolerance policy on violence against women. And government policy-making is geared towards valuing women not only as family members but also as politicians and working professionals. Bangladesh’s pioneering social reformer and activist, Begum Rokeya, stated in her writing during British colonial era:
“I will do whatever women need to do for becoming equal to men. If earning a livelihood can ensure our independence, we must work for a living, if necessary, we will become everything ranging from Lady Secretary to a Lady Magistrate, a Lady Barrister, and a Lady Judge. In fifty years’ time, we can hope to have a Lady Viceroy.”
What Begum Rokeya prophesised would become true in contemporary Bangladesh, with its female “viceroy,” the prime minister.
 The Mohila Parishad later became Bangladesh Mohila Parishad, the largest national-level membership-based women’s rights organisation.
 In 2020, the prime minister, who is female, headed five ministries, Public Administration, Defence, Power, Energy and Mineral Resources, Women and Children Affairs, and Labour and Employment.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu