Unprecedented number of female MPs sparks optimism and skepticism in male-dominated country
Voters give thumbs-up signs in Dhaka after casting their votes during the national election on Dec. 30, 2018. Bangladesh's new parliament has 22 women MPs, the highest number in its history. (ucanews.com photo)
Bangladesh's parliamentary election on Dec. 30 saw the highest number of women directly elected to the Lower House, sparking optimism and skepticism over how far this will advance women's rights and gender equality in a country known for its dysfunctional politics.
There are now 22 women MPs in parliament — compared to 18 previously — all from the ruling Grand Alliance, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League (AL). Some 69 women stood in the poll.
Women's rights activists have welcomed the news but questioned how successful they will be in curbing discrimination, subjugation and violence against women in this male-dominated South Asian nation.
"There are 300 seats but we only have 22 women MPs — not enough to get too excited about," Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the Women's Desk at the Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh, told ucanews.com.
"Half of the population is female, so women deserve at least one-third of the seats in a direct election," she said.
The Grand Alliance led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the AL won the 11th general election of the National Assembly (Jatiya Sangsad) by a landslide at the end of last month.
The party bagged 288 out of 298 constituencies, marking a record third straight win for Hasina and the AL.
The Jatiya Okiya Front (National Unity Front), another alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) that represents the main opposition, claimed just seven.
The AL has 19 women MPs, including Hasina, while the Jatiya Party (National Party) and Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (National Socialist Party) can boast of just two and one, respectively.
The new members of the House from the ruling alliance took their oaths on Jan. 3.
However opposition MPs refrained from doing so in a symbolic gesture showing their rejection of what they called a "farcical" election allegedly undermined by vote rigging.
Bangladesh's 300-seat parliament holds an election every five years. Fifty seats are reserved for women but critics see this as a ceremonial provision and say women's rights issues get scant attention.
A woman casts her vote in Dhaka during the national poll on Dec. 30. (ucanews.com photo)
"Most women MPs here have been able to enter politics and rise to power due to the country's dynastic political culture. Without such a background it can be very difficult for them to climb the ladder of power," Costa said.
"Few men in this country see women as their equals, and most never want to be ruled by women, even if they are qualified to do so," she added.
"I don't expect much from our new women parliamentarians in terms of raising the status of women," the activist continued.
"History shows us they are more inclined to toe the party line than take the initiative in trying to change women's fortunes."
Nonetheless, the gradual increase in their parliamentary ranks should be viewed as a positive trend, according to Rasheda Rawnak Khan, a Dhaka-based political commentator.
"In a patriarchal country like this, four additional women MPs is a good sign. It shows change is taking place, albeit slowly," she said.
"Sadly, from a political perspective, women are making good progress. But ideologically, they are still considered inferior to men, or are treated like commodities. This scenario is unlikely to change much, as far as we can predict."
Those who have amassed a degree of power may struggle to sympathize with their fellow countrywomen who live lower down the social ladder, for example the workers in Bangladesh's thriving garment industry, Khan said.
This is because the more privileged do not face anywhere near the same level of subjugation or abuse and so often fail to internalize the problems and challenges working-class women face, she added.
"Women with power have a life of dignity, security and privilege, which is elusive for most women in the country," she said.
"They need to realize they must play a stronger role to promote the rule of law that protects and supports women adequately for a better society and country," she added.
Gloria Jharna Sarker, a Supreme Court lawyer and Catholic, sought nominated from the BAL prior to the election but failed. Yet she is still hopeful of winning one of parliament's 50 seats reserved for her sex.
"Many women like me sought nomination but they were denied despite their qualifications," Sarker told ucanews.com.
"We need to see more women in positions of power but that can only happen if men renounce their dominance and authoritarianism and make room for us," she said.
Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan after a nine-month war in 1971. The new nation was plagued by political upheaval in 1975 following the assassination of country's first president, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — Hasina's father — during a botched military coup.
The killing of Rahman and most of his family members was followed by the assassination of four of his close associates in a Dhaka jail that same year, which paved the way for a series of coups and counter coups.
Consequently, the country fell under military rule from 1975-1990.
Parliamentary democracy was restored in the late 1990s. Since then, the AL and the BNP led by two-time former prime minister Khaleda Zia have traded power.
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