A fight we can’t afford to lose
Last December, I attended the first event organised by a newly created Bangladesh Government agency whose creation was long demanded by progressive activists. Not unexpectedly, the programme started a bit later than the scheduled time. A fellow Drishtipat writer -and I were sipping tea in one corner when an elderly gentleman walked up to us and introduced himself. I greeted him and introduced myself. He returned my salaam, and completely ignoring my friend, walked away.
I was totally taken aback. My friend has extensive experience in the field, with field experience in places like Gaza, Afghanistan, and Nepal. I was there only because another friend got me a pass. But the gentleman completely ignored HER, as if SHE wasn’t even present. My friend saw the reaction in my face, and said how this was nothing new to her.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, that male chauvinism is deep rooted in Bangladeshi society was nothing new to me. Imagine my surprise then to see the gentleman sitting in the stage, as the chairman of the agency that is supposed to fight precisely this sort of disdain for half the humanity!
It’s easy to despair at times like that. The fight for equal rights — irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, or faith — of all citizens, including equal property and inheritance rights for men and women, is going to be a long hard one. I always knew that. But the incidence made clear the enormity of the task.
And yet, despair won’t do. Instead, let me revisit the lessons we should have learnt about the last regime’s abortive effort to institute a women development policy.
A quick recap of the events of March-April 2008.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / DRIKNEWS
As part of a program marking the International Women’s Day, a National Women Development Policy was announced on March 8. A section of Muslim clerics called the policy un-Islamic, objecting to any possible change to the inheritance laws such that women could get equal inheritance rights as men. On March 11, the government announced that it had no intention of passing any law that is “anti-Islam.” On March 27, a 20-member committee was formed to identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules. While the committee deliberated, the clerical opposition continued. Following the Friday prayers on April 11, violent protests broke out in Dhaka’s Baitul Mukarram area. On April 17, the committee recommended that the announced policy be amended, replacing any commitment to equality between the sexes with “just rights” for women.
Let’s revisit the relevant lessons from that debacle.
- Political imperatives reign. The fight for equality will be won when it is in politcal players’ interest to win the fight. Unlike last year, we have a political government in power. It has shown at least symbolic commitment to redress gender inequality. Only political mobilisation will turn the symbolism into concrete action.
- No substitute for political coalition building. Only broad-based grass roots coaltion can result in sufficient mobilisation. Is this happening?
- No substitute for public consultation. Gender equality will only be accepted by the Bangladeshi society when through open dialogue and active consultation people will be convinced that this would not in any way stop anyone from practising their faith. Is this happening?
- Political deficit means legitimacy deficit. Of course the current government does not suffer from legitimacy deficit. It has come to power with a mandate for change, a clearer mandate than that received by any other government in a generation. And its manifesto said this about gender equality: Discriminatory laws against the interest of women will be rectified.
I worried last April about the decrepit state of our mainstream parties, and the strength of the Islamists who forced the unelected government to backtrack on the women development policy. We now have an elected government with a strong parliamentary majority, while Islamists were trounced in the election. We have a government that is committe to gender equality.
It is now up to us, the self-styled progressives, to mobilise so that government keeps its commitment. This post is titled after a piece by Rumi Ahmed. Keeping in mind the difficulties involved, let me end with his words:
And this is an issue we really NEED to fight and win. I know this issue is not as politically profitable venture as war crime issue is, but our secular progressive world must engage and fight the fight. This is one fight we can not afford to loose. If the stone age proponents win this round, they will sure come after other privileges of 21st century life we are used to.