For an ordinary woman without influence or connections, it is a struggle to take up a career in politics because of the traditional structure of the country’s political arena, not to mention the patriarchal mindset that drives the Bangladeshi society in general
With a female prime minister, female leaders in the opposition, and a female speaker in parliament, one may believe that women have favourable space – if not equal opportunities – in Bangladeshi politics, but in reality that is not the case.
For an ordinary woman without influence or connections, it is a struggle to take up a career in politics because of the traditional structure of the country’s political arena, not to mention the patriarchal mindset that drives the Bangladeshi society in general.
Several female politicians told the Dhaka Tribune that even if a woman manages to overcome the hurdles and step into politics, the journey forward is equally thorny, if not worse.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017, Bangladesh has made good progress in advancing women’s political empowerment, rising to the seventh position among 144 countries in 2017, from the 17th position among 115 countires in 2006.
However, many challenges still remain in Bangladesh’s politics, hampering the rise of women to leadership roles.
Political parties have so far failed to ensure a significant participation of their female members in decision- and policy-making processes compared to their male colleagues. Several female politicians said that women are, in most cases, “assigned to decorative posts”.
“Women are left out of the main (party) committees because the men don’t want them to contribute in real decision making,” Sajeda Begum, secretary at Bangladesh Women’s League’s Patiya upazila unit in Chittagong, said.
“Male politicians hardly cooperate with their female counterparts. No male political leader has helped me to move forward in politics.”
The Election Commission requires the committees of all registered political parties to be one third comprised of women by 2020. It is an ambitious target that most of the parties are struggling to meet, indicating the real picture of women’s empowerment in Bangladeshi politics.
What are the problems?
Speaking to the Dhaka Tribune, at least 20 female parliamentarians, both elected and in reserved seats, as well as female political leaders said the key obstacle to women’s equal and effective participation in politics is the attitude of their male colleagues, who see them as inefficient and weak in the power play.
Chemon Ara Begum, president of Chittagong district (south) Mohila Awami League, the women’s wing of the ruling party, said women living in a male-dominated society constantly face obstacles when it comes to taking part in the country’s politics.
“Parents think their daughters’ duty in life is to get married after finishing their education,” she told the Dhaka Tribune. “They think looking after a family becomes difficult if a women gets into politics.”
Chemon, a former female member of parliament in a reserved seat, also mentioned the lack of cooperation from men as a key factor.
“I have faced this throughout my whole career,” she said. “Women don’t protest against this kind of behaviour, and men take advantage of that. They continue to make it difficult for women to play an active role in the parties.”
Sultana Rahman, president of the Chittagong city unit of Jatiya Mohila Party, said although the number of female politicians is on the rise, most of the women who are joining politics at grassroots level are not properly educated and are lacking in adequate financial support.
“Because of these problems, many potential leaders are being forced to leave politics,” she said.
Political scientist Dr Rounaq Jahan said political parties often use the excuse that women cannot win in general seats because they do not have the necessary money or muscle power.
“But it is the parties’ responsibility to ensure that lack of funds or the muscle power do not become the deciding factors,” she said. “They need to make a commitment to train a sufficient number of their female members to contest and win general seats in parliament.”
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad President Ayesha Khanam said women are learning to look after themselves.
“It is a tough journey ahead, but the women will have to make their own way and overcome the obstacles,” she added.