This article is written in the context of a rising trend of developing intimacy between feminists and anti-secularist and anti-gender political and religious groups that has become noticeable in both online and offline civic spaces of Bangladesh. Feminists in Bangladesh need to be aware of the long-term negative implications of affiliation with anti-secularist and anti-gender groups and their political interests for the sake of short term gain or specific protests or activism. They need to recognize who their political allies and strategic partners are.
- Feminists in Bangladesh need to identify their true political and strategic allies by looking into history as they always had backlash coming from the anti-secularists and religious fundamentalists.
- Bangabandhu played a pivotal role in liberal policies, social activities, and pop culture to ensure women’s rights but his assassination made sure of the demise of secularism.
- The Awami League government has ensured equal rights through massive changes in legislations, policies and culture such as- Evidence Act, Marital rape, Menstruation Stigma etc.
- Some feminist groups disregard the support of the present government and forge ties with anti-secular parties who wear the sham of being progressive but advocate for anti-women, extremists policies.
The birth of Bangladesh was not only about the birth of a political nation with secular values but also the beginning of the bright prospects of women’s rights in South Asia that could go a long way to meet the international standard for gender equality. Unfortunately, after the assassination of Bangabandhu – the father of the nation, the demise of secularism in Bangladesh was plotted through a long term deliberate political project of changing the political and social landscape of Bangladesh to a quasi-Pakistan model state. This transnational and national political endeavour had an impact on the progress of women’s rights for implementing gender equality of international standards.
Today, the online and offline backlash in Bangladesh that we witness against feminists and feminism has roots in anti-secularist politics practiced by religious and political groups. Feminist and women rights groups need to be aware of this anti-secularist politics which will only damage the potentials of their movement in the long run. Feminists in Bangladesh should revisit the history and reexamine who have been their political allies in the long arduous journey of claiming gender justice.
After the liberation war, when the survivors of gender and sexual violence were abandoned by society due to patriarchal norms, it was Bangabandhu who came forward to save them from the patriarchal wrath of the society. Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman popularized the term Birangana, declared them to be his daughters and was unhesitant to emphasize the need to integrate Biranganas into society with the highest dignity. His approach initiated a culture of respecting Biranganas through social works, cinema, and literary works. In 1972, Bangabandhu set up the Nari Punorbashon Kendra (Bangladesh Women’s Rehabilitation and Welfare Centre) for Biranganas to provide social and financial support. That initiative was closed during General Ziaur Rahman’s regime.
The Constitution of newly born Bangladesh under the Awami League government incorporated the provision of gender equality. Article 28 (2) said, “Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and public life.” Later, this provision became instrumental in inspiring women’s movement and many legal battles for gender equality. Even today, this provision is the most powerful weapon for the women’s rights group to claim equality through advocacy and activism. The biggest contribution of the Awami League government was to unambiguously accept secularism as one of the four foundational pillars of the state which created huge potentials for the feminist groups to work towards gender equality without any conditions in the personal laws.
Women rights movement in Bangladesh could go a long way with the strongest backup of secularism and a government committed to promote gender equality of international standard. But the change of political regime which intentionally got engaged in turning the secular landscape of Bangladesh to a quasi-Islamic state gave rise to counter movement or resistance against gender justice. This political project backed by military regimes, a particular political party in affiliation with fundamentalist religious parties, and transnational vested political interests made women’s rights in Bangladesh a site of struggles between women rights movement for gender equality of international standard and the possibility of customizing women rights to meet orthodox religious and social values driven demands.
When Sheikh Hasina’s government was back to power with the same spirit of secularism and political will to uplift women towards ensuring gender equality of international standard, mobilized extremist religious groups and highly sophisticated networks of like-minded misogynistic individuals were waiting to demonstrate backlash against the government’s various policy to implement gender equality. For instance, the backlash against the Women’s Development Policy 2011. Part of this anti-gender politics includes resistance against the government itself. Despite backlash from these groups and individuals, tenures of Awami League government have been replete with success stories to promote women’s rights. During these tenures, we have got an impressive women development policy, legislations to address violence against women (including the first on domestic violence), and the radical change in law to stop the age-old patriarchal culture of attacking rape survivor’s character in cases alleging sexual violence.
In recent years, Bangladesh has become the most gender-equal country in South Asia according to the standard of the World Economic Forum, and women’s high participation in traditionally male-dominated sectors including the armed forces has captured worldwide attention. It was in 1996, during the first tenure of Sheikh Hasina as the Prime Minister, that women were first allowed into the armed forces of Bangladesh. Currently, Bangladesh stands as the topmost contributor of female peacekeepers in UN peacekeeping missions.
The most promising aspect of women rights in Bangladesh is the evolution of feminist consciousness through the change of feminist discourse from liberal to a radical one. This aspect is more profound in online sphere among the writings of young feminist women who have refused to confine feminism to simple demands of rights to education and employment. They prefer to talk about radical feminist ideas like marital rape, menstruation stigma, choice of clothing which were taboo to talk five or six years ago. Definitely, this credit belongs to the new generation of feminists. However, without an environment that is supported by the Government, such a rise of radical feminist voices would not be possible in a culturally conservative country like Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, some feminist groups and women rights activists in Bangladesh disregard or overlook these achievements and the implicit or explicit support that they receive from the current government in power. They get carried away by the political games of the opposition and extremist religious groups, and often end up in activism that have hardly any nexus with feminist goals. They ignore the fact that while the current prime minister keeps supporting women rights unconditionally in her speech and policy, a popular (now former) female parliamentarian of the opposition political party gave anti-gender right statement as a protest against women-friendly legal reform in the Evidence Act.
Feminists also keep a blind eye towards the rising affinity between some leftist feminists and women claiming to be Islamic feminists with strong family and political linkage with extremist religious groups (such as the Jamaat -E-Islami). They tend to appreciate this affinity as a dialogue without evaluating the cost of such conversation for achieving feminist gains in the long run. Feminists married to anti-government political fantasies are found to indulge in bonding with anti-secularist groups and their ideologies with a belief that this partnership will make their political claim stronger. Interestingly, these feminists keep silent on the human rights violations of minority religious community in fear of losing out on support of these anti-secularist groups.
Feminists in Bangladesh need to be more strategic. They have to recognize that any partnership with anti-secular groups can never be in the long-term interests of gender equality. They should carefully choose their allies in politics taking into account their history, policies, laws, and political language.