Women in Politics
Women participated extensively in anti-British agitations during the 1930s and 1940s and were an active force during the independence struggle. Since 1972 the Constitution and the legal system have guaranteed equal rights for women to participate in all aspects of public life. The prominence of the well-known opposition party leaders Hasina and Khaleda Zia at first sight indicated a national openness to women's political power. Both, however, were exceptional in Bangladeshi politics. They originally owed their positions to family connections and only later skillfully built their own followings and platforms. Women candidates for political office were a rarity in the 1970s and 1980s, and female participation was labeled anti-Islamic by conservative men throughout the country. Secular provisions in Bangladeshi laws safeguarded the equality of women while "protecting" them and assuming their dependence.
Women running for office have had little success. In the 1979 parliamentary elections, for example, only 17 women were among 2,125 candidates for 300 seats; none of the women won, and only 3 polled over 15 percent of the vote. At the union council level, the 1973 elections returned only one woman chairman, and the 1977 and 1984 elections each returned only four female chairmen. The leaders running the country, recognizing that women suffer disabilities when competing for office against men, reserved thirty seats for women in Parliament. The profiles of the women occupying these seats exemplied the subordinate positions of women in Bangladesh, even those occupying public offices. In the 1979 Parliament, fifteen women members were formerly housewives, and twenty-seven had no prior legislative experience. A study of women nominated to union councils revealed that 60 percent were less than 30 years of age, only 8 percent were over 40 years of age, and only 4 percent had college degrees.
Prior to the 1988 parliamentary elections, the provision for reserved seats for women had been allowed to lapse. The result was that women were left practically without representation at the national level, although there were other forums for political involvement at the local level. In mid-1988 three women sat on union and subdistrict councils. Municipal councils also included women, but the law precluded women from exceeding 10 percent of council membership. Some women's groups, such as the Jatiyo Mohila Sangstha (National Organization for Women), have held major conferences to discuss women's problems and mobilization strategies. Although these women's organizations were the province of middle-class women, they served as training grounds, as did local councils, for a new generation of politically active women.
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