Three decades ago, Chemon Ara Begum was among a new generation of women being inspired to enter politics by the rise to power in Bangladesh of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.
Just a teenager at that time, the current president of Chittagong District (South) Mohila Awami League felt that she, too, could contribute something to her country by forging a political career against all the odds.
“The journey began 33 years ago, but I can still recall those times,” Chemon told the Dhaka Tribune.
“After watching Sheikh Hasina become the president of Awami League, I was encouraged to start my own political journey.”
Chemon’s rise to political prominence has not been straightforward, however.
Married at a young age, her early involvement with the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) at Boalkhali SI College was constrained by her twin commitments to her family and her graduation.
“For women in Bangladesh, a journey into politics is not an easy feat in the patriarchal society,” Chemon said.
Chemon got her chance to become more actively involved at Chittagong University, where she joined the Chhatra League unit of the ruling party.
Here, Chemon could expand her passion to inspire the female population in Chittagong to engage in politics.
In particular, Chemon wanted to remove the “core barriers” preventing most women from succeeding in politics, namely: a lack of family support; the patriarchal attitude of society; and the political platform itself.
“The balancing of politics and a family life is extremely difficult (because) most of the time, the women in our country do not possess equal financial capacity as men,” she said.
“They have to fight alone, and are discouraged to continue their political career. I was lucky that my family was supportive of my decisions (but) in most cases, women lack family support.
“The male dominated society also poses a major barrier for women in politics. Parents think a girl’s duty in life is to get married after finishing high school education; they think it will be tough for a girl to lead a family life if she gets into politics.”
Another reason, Chemon mentioned, is the non-cooperation of the male colleagues from the political parties.
“I have faced this throughout my whole career,” she said. “But because of the culture of silence, women do not protest against this kind of behaviour, which allows men to keep us in the dark.”
Chemon said even though men consider women as threats, they take advantage of their unwillingness to speak out, and continue to engage in behaviour that would make a woman’s position in the party uncomfortable.
Chemon thinks the Representation of the People Order (RPO) provision can help women overcome the barriers to pursuing a political career, but only with proper guidance and training.
“If the conditions are met - if women are allowed to participate in committees and if they are given proper training to exercise their capacities - then they can work strongly to bring changes in society,” the Mohila Awami League president said.
“Sadly, parties have failed to make significant progress in meeting the conditions set in RPO. We cannot find qualified candidates, and many party leaders think women will be unable to complete assigned tasks.”
Chemon disagrees with the argument that reserved seats undermine the merit of women.
“I consider this as a respectful gesture,” she said. “Those seats are creating opportunities for aspiring female politicians. You will be surprised how many women were inspired by my own journey to come into politics.”
That said, Chemon does not think reserved seats in parliament alone can help women engage in politics actively. She would like to see similar incentives offered to women in politics as they are now receiving in education, where Bangladesh is providing stipends for girls which can help them get employment in the future
“If a similar attitude of cooperation is extended to politics, it will encourage women and also help those who are already in politics to use their capacities to the fullest,” she said.
“Give us the chance, and we will show what we are capable of.”