Their continued acceptance and predominance in our male dominated society is no doubt a remarkable achievement and a sign that their gender is not an issue.
Professor Rounaq Jahan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), Bangladesh. She obtained her Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University, USA in 1970. She has worked as a Professor of Political Science at Dhaka University, a Coordinator of the Women’s Program at the UN Asia-Pacific Development Center (UNAPDC) Kuala Lumpur, and the Head of the Program on Rural Women at the International Labor Office (ILO), Geneva. Professor Rounaq is the founder President of Women for Women, a board member of Research Initiative, Bangladesh (RIB) and a member of the advisory board of the Human Rights Watch: Asia. She has some internationally acclaimed publications. She was also the recipient of the Radcliffe Institute Graduate Society Award of Harvard University in 2008.
Throughout your career as a social scientist, you have observed the dynamics of women in society; what is your opinion of the drastic change they have achieved in Bangladesh?
In Bangladesh women had made steady progress since independence. Many factors and many players contributed to this shift. I believe the achievement of women stems from the Liberation War of 1971. During that time women and men had to take many decisions on their own; they took on initiatives which they had never thought of before. During and after the war, women realized that their traditional roles, such as being confined inside their households and depending on men for livelihood and protection, were no longer applicable. Many men died or deserted their wives leaving women vulnerable. With the extensive losses during the crisis, social dynamics and norms drastically changed; and it became easier to break down traditional social structures and practices. The non-government initiatives such as BRAC, Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) and Grameen Bank played a very significant catalytic role in the progress of women. They recognized women’s critical economic and social roles and started women-centered programs. The microfinance loans allowed women in rural areas to venture into economic activities. By mobilizing women to hold weekly meetings regarding financial matters, these initiatives instilled a sense of solidarity amongst women. This solidarity created a support system in the community for women to undertake non-traditional roles. Successive governments were also committed to women’s empowerment and initiated many programs in partnership with NGOs, particularly in social sectors, such as health, family planning, and education. These factors had a major impact on improving women’s health, well-being, and economic opportunities. Our continued progress will need collaborative efforts by women and men and government and NGOs.
What is your outlook regarding this transitional phase we are going through?
Transition always has positive as well as negative aspects. On the positive side, this change has ushered in a necessity for education amongst a wider population, in which education has become a priority that is not exclusively for the wealthy. It has also allowed for an absolute sense of decision-making for women. On the other hand, it has also led to a materialistic consumerism culture. This is apparent in many aspects of our cultural practices today. For example, these days we celebrate our various festivals in a more opulent manner than we did in the past.
The secular trend amongst Bengalis has created an Eastern Bengali agrarian society that does not have a caste system. Do you believe that there is a separation of classes?
In India, you will see the presence of a caste system, and in Pakistan, the prevalence of traditional feudal lords is remarkable. We do not have such systems or customs that conforms to that kind of rigidity. Through education and income people have been able to move up the social ladder more quickly. Nevertheless, there is a separation of wealth and income which exists in most societies. What is alarming is that wealth and income inequality is increasing. If this trend of inequality is allowed to grow unchecked, then, in the future we will not have opportunities for easy upward social movements.
Traditionally political bodies would consist of military regimes in Pakistan and Bangladesh. This trend is now changing with political powers being transferred to others. Is this the result of a paradigm shift?
After the overthrow of military rule in 1990 Bangladesh joined the ranks of electoral democracy. Over the years, there has been a change in the socio-economic background of our political leaders. For example in the 1970s, the majority of parliamentarians consisted of lawyers and other professionals, a dynamic that has currently shifted towards businessmen. At present nearly 60% of parliamentarians are businessmen. The dominance of money, and in some cases muscle power in electoral politics has proven detrimental to women who are interested in running for public office. Women are disadvantaged in having control of independent wealth and muscle power. This is why dynastic women leaders or women with family political connections do better in electoral and party politics. In the last parliament, only 19 women were directly elected to parliament and half of them were dynastic inheritors of their seats through the family connection.
We have had two successive female prime ministers. What impact do you think this has brought about?
Whereas many first world countries, including the USA, have yet to elect a woman president, we have had two female prime ministers who have rotated in power since 1991. Both the major political parties have been led by two women leaders for more than thirty years. Their continued acceptance and predominance in our male dominated society is no doubt a remarkable achievement and a sign that their gender is not an issue. When we evaluate these two female leaders, we talk about their qualities without referring to their gender. One significant impact of their continued leadership has been a general acceptance in society of women as top political leaders.