Lessons from the Women’s Policy debacle
As part of a programme marking the International Women’s Day, Bangladesh’s caretaker government announced a National Women Development Policy on 8 March (see here). The announced policy was condemned by a section of the country’s Muslim clerics as un-Islamic. Specifically, the clerics objected to any possible change to the inheritance laws such that women could get equal inheritance rights as men. On 11 March, the government announced that it had no intention of passing any law that is ‘anti-Islam’ (see here). On 27 March, the government formed a 20-member committee to identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and suggest steps (see here). While the committee deliberated, the clerical opposition continued. Following the Friday prayers on 11 April, violent protests broke out in Dhaka’s Baitul Mukarram area (see here). On 17 April, the committee recommended that the government amends its policy, replacing any commitment to equality between the sexes with ‘just rights’ for women (see here).
This blog is committed to equal rights – irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity or faith – of all citizens. As such, it supports, without any reservation, equal property and inheritance rights for men and women. But this post is not about the commitment to these rights. Nor is it about theological discussions about what Islam has to say on the matter. Rather, it is about some lessons to be drawn from the developments described in the first paragraph.
Lesson 1 is that political imperatives are always more important than specific policies.
What was the real political reason behind the Women Developmen Policy? The cynical chattering classes have been asking this question for the past few weeks. May be this was a creeping military dictatorship’s way of hoodwinking and co-opting the progressives? As if the progressives are that strong. No, it’s more likely that this was an issue to divert attention away from war crimes trial. As if the Islamists are that influential. Perhaps this is really the perfidious west and its Deshi collaborator bhadralok’s way of hurting Islam?
Or perhaps it’s none of these. Perhaps the Women Development Policy is just what it claims to be – a commitment to women’s rights in every sphere of life. After all, this was the stated objective of women policies of the two previous governments too. No one claimed that those governments had some ulterior motives.
Perhaps. But even if this is true, events have shown that as soon there was an oranised political resistance against the policy, government has compromised.
The Islamists, of course, have their own agenda. They oppose the very idea of gender equality on ideological grounds. And they have seen an opportunity to project their strength, and gain ‘control’ of the streets through their protests. And even if there was no ulterior motive behind the policy, the government – and its military backers – have their agenda. And whatever else they have on their agenda, those things are very likely to be more important to the government than the Women Policy. Political imperatives are always more important than specific policies.
Politics is supreme, that’s the lesson here. Anyone naive enough to think that a bunch of technocrats will do ‘the right thing’ without paying heeds to political calculations should get their head out of sand.
Lessons 2, 3 and 4 follow from the supremacy of politics.
Lesson 2 is that there is no substitute for political coalition building.
If we want a durable Women Policy, then we have to build a political coalition that supports the policy. There is no short cut here. Indeed, this is true for any controversial policy. Whether we want to try the war criminals, protect the Sundarbans, or repeal the Enemy Property Act, we have to build political coalitions. It is only a political coalition that can garner the support of the majority that will make the policies stick. Seminars and roundtables organised by the bhadraloks and held in the Sheraton are no substitute for political coalitions.
Lesson 3 is that there is no substitute for public consultation.
Let’s think about the possible reasons for apprehension that many Bangladeshis may have about the proposed policy. Many people might be under the impression that the proposed policy is indeed anti-Islamic. Under many standard interpretations of the Quran, gender equality might indeed be seen as un-Islamic. So long as a substantial number of people follow such interpretations of the Quran, there will be many with apprehensions. The only way to assuage such apprehension is through open dialogue and active consultation that stresses that the proposed policy would not in any way stop anyone from practising their faith (an example of such a conversation can be found here).
Lesson 4 is that political deficit means legitimacy deficit
When techocrats, and their backers, believe that they can formulate solutions to complex social, economic, or foreign policy issues based on good intentions (giving the government complete benefits of the doubt) and implement text book solutions, they find out the hard way the inadequacy of that approach. If they push through their programme in the face of opposition, the programmes lose legitimicacy in the eyes of the general population.
Here I make no assumption about the government’s popularity. Nor do I make any forecasts about how the current political situation will unfold. But consider this. If the government finds itself in a political crisis, its successor will feel compelled to move away from the policies enacted by the government, regardless of the policies’ merits as such. As long as the opponents of the Women Policy remain organised and vocal, and the supporters remain confined to the seminars, the successor government will find it very easy to scrap the policy to distance itself from this government.
Indeed, even if a popularly elected government pushes through a controversial policy without proper coalition building and public consultation, the policy will probably be rescinded by some successor government. An example of this is the inclusion, and subsequent revoking of, secularism from the country’s constitution. Because there was no political coalition behind secularism, post-1975 governments found it easy to revoke it to distance themselves from the pre-1975 government. Again, the point is not about the merit of secularism. It is that if there was a large political coalition for it (the way for example there was for multi-party democracy and a sense of national identity that had language as a key ingredient), no one could have revoked it as easily.
While the above lessons apply to any major controversial policy in Bangladesh and beyond, the following lessons are more specific to the current Bangladesh.
Lesson 5 is that the mainstream parties are not organised, and need reform. This may not appear to be related to the Women Policy. And thanks to Messrs Mannan Bhuiyan and Amir Hossain Amu, reform has become a dirty word (by the time the emergency ends, shongshkarponthi might join razakar and mir jafor as a choice epithet to hurl at your opponent). But these don’t take away from the fact that our mainstream parties are decayed, moribund dinosaurs.
Think about it. The government announced a policy that is against the Islamists’ agenda. Islam-pasand parties organised, and have forced the government to backtrack. The same government has arrested and mentally tortured the leader of the Awami League, and the country’s grand old party cannot mount a national petition? The same government is effectively disbarring the mainstream faction of BNP – the party that won 3 out of the last 4 free elections. The turncoat leaders’ betrayal is the symptom of the rot in these parties, not the cause. The decay that has set in these parties is real, and these parties need reform – not the reform of Mannan-Amu kind, but genuine reforms.
Lesson 6 is that the Islamists are organised. And chattering classes are not even sure who the Islamists are. There is a very annoying tendency among the self-styled progressive circles to lump all the bearded and cap wearing folks as Jamaatis. Now, I am not in Dhaka, and have no way of knowing whether it was really Jamaatis who were behind the mayhem on 11 April. We know that Jamaat was involved in the violence that swept the country in late October 2006. We know that a Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a senior leader of Jamaat, has been vocal against the Women Policy. But we also know that a major leader of the anti-policy andolon is Fazlul Haque Amini, whose politics differs from that of Jamaat on major doctrinal and organisational grounds. While the mainstream politics remains under embargo, what kind of reallignment is going on in the Islam-pasand spheres?
Finally, when the mainstream parties are rotting, and the Islam-pasand ones are getting organised, in the political vacuum that is the emergency, who benefits from an uprising? The conditions for an uprising are there – food prices, water shortages, power shortages, rising cost of transportation, a downturn in the manufacturing sector: this is going to be one long hot summer. But in this summer of discontent, cheering on the mayhems of 11 April as the first shot of a people’s uprising – as is done by among others, Farhad Mazhar – appears to be a rather naive thing to do. Lesson 7 then is, beware the anti-imperialism of fools that Mazhar and his comrades prescribe.
(Cross-posted at UV).