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Women Still Underrepresented in Bangladesh Politics

FILE - Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 25, 2023. Although two women — Hasina and Khaleda Zia — served as prime ministers of Bangladesh for 31 out of 33 years since 1991, the representation of women in national politics is still low.
FILE - Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 25, 2023. Although two women — Hasina and Khaleda Zia — served as prime ministers of Bangladesh for 31 out of 33 years since 1991, the representation of women in national politics is still low.

Although two women — Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia — served as prime ministers of Bangladesh for 31 out of 33 years since 1991, the representation of women in national politics is still negligible.

The low rate of participation of Bangla women in politics is clear when looking at the number of women candidates contesting the upcoming 12th general election. According to the Election Commission, 92 contestants out of 1,891 vying for 300 seats are women. That's 4.86%.

In the last general election held in 2018, women accounted for 3.67% of the candidates.

Women leaders and political analysts think the lack of political muscle and monetary power, religious-social prejudices and a patriarchal society are the main obstacles to Bangla women's advancement in politics.

While the participation of women is slowly increasing, the concern is that women run for office mainly because members of their family are already involved in politics.

Women who are politically active at the grassroots level, without any family connection to get a leg up, are few and far between. As a result, the same familiar faces are seen contesting in the polls over and over.

For example, in the current election, the Awami League party is fielding 20 women candidates. Of them, 17 are members of the current 11th parliament. Of the remaining three, one was a member of 10th parliament, and one got the party's nomination in ninth parliament. Only Nilufar Anjum, who is contesting from Mymensingh-3, has no history of contesting in any parliamentary election. Anjum is the wife of Mahbubul Haque Shakil, who was special assistant of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Similarly, three out of nine female candidates from the Jatiya Party were MPs from seats reserved for women.

Sharifa Quader, the Jatiya Party's candidate for Dhaka-18, won a reserved seat for women in the previous election and is the wife of Jatiya Party chairman G.M. Quader.

"Gender-based discrimination still exists in our society," Quader told VOA. "Male leaders don't want women to lead, as they think women are not competent. They think only men are entitled to leadership. Again, women have to manage the family. Moreover, society also tries to prevent women from advancing further."

"Our prime minister is a glaring example that the women can march forward in the realm of politics if they are given opportunity," said Quader. "We had another woman as prime minister in the past. Yet, our society and political parties don't give women priority."

Shantanu Majumder, a political analyst and political science teacher at Dhaka University, said a handful of independent women candidates are contesting from small parties.

"It is an expression of their personality," said Majumder. "But they are not game changers in voting."

Social factors restrict women

While influence, money and religious prejudice are mainly to blame for the low number of women in politics, social factors and lower rates of higher education by women also hold women back in politics.

"The women cannot show the courage of joining politics due to religious and social prejudices," Shamsul Alam, a government and politics professor at Jahangirnagar University told VOA. "The girls are expected to follow purdah. The families think that, 'Why should the women who are supposed to do household chores join politics?' On the other hand, the women who are elected in the Union Parishad don't get enough space or allocation from their male colleagues. They often become suppressed, as the use of muscle flexing can be seen here."

Majumder said women in Bangladesh "have made strides in terms of coming out of home. But women's participation in politics is still rare. You cannot judge only by the situation in Dhaka, but should look to other areas too."

Majumder said political activity requires influence, social connections and availability all the time.

"Not only in Bangladesh, women from many countries of the world are struggling over these," he said. "Given this situation, political parties consider winnability first before picking a candidate rather than considering intellectual ability or people with social responsibility. This is where the women automatically get dropped out."

Activist Khushi Kabir told VOA that "our political parties seek immaculate candidates before picking up women in election."

"They look for candidates who must have all sorts of capabilities and no flaws," said Kabir. "But this does not happen in terms of male candidates."

Parties not 'women-friendly,' says scholar

Kabir noted that women work more than their male counterparts in grassroots politics.

"Actually, the women are used as workers, but the political parties do little to make them able to lead," Kabir said.

The Bangladesh Election Commission directed political parties to ensure that a third of their leadership positions are occupied by women. Even major political parties such as Awami League, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Jatiya Party could not fulfill the quota.

"It means that the parties do not have a women-friendly environment and they don't want women in politics," Alam said.

If this obligation is fulfilled, said Quader, "Women will advance in politics naturally."

Seats reserved for women

Bangladesh's constitution requires a percentage of seats in parliament be reserved for women. Currently, that means 50 of the legislative body's seats must be held by women.

"The reserved seat in fact indicates that the women are still lagging behind here socially and politically," said Shammi Ahmed, the Awami League's international affairs secretary whose candidacy for Barishal-4 was cancelled by the Election Commission – a decision she is appealing to the supreme court. "The system is still in place on the grounds of women empowerment and making the women familiar with politics."

Reserved seats, said Quadar, "are required since the women are getting less opportunity to contest in direct elections."

"If every party had 33% women representation, then there would be no necessity for reserved seats," said Quader. "The reserved seat for women should be in place for some more years."

Kabir said some MPs of reserved seats have contributed well in parliament and for their constituencies.

"The objective of the reserved seats for women was to prepare the women for contesting in direct voting," said Kabir. "Some MPs from reserved seats have later become elected in direct vote. So, I think the system of reserved seats for women should no longer exist and they should contest directly. The system of reserved seats should be abolished. Also, there can be a proportional system of election."