Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ’s hartal PART III

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By rahnuma ahmed

Apnader naamte hobe, had said my friend.

We were discussing the Women Development Policy and both he and Nurul Kabir were astonished. Women’s organisations had not taken to the streets. They had not protested against Islami Oikyo Jote leader Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini’s fabrication, nor against the Awami League-led government’s shocking betrayal of women’s rights

The Policy contains anti-Islamic provisions, said Amini. Equal shares to inheritance are against the Quran and Sunnah, these should be scrapped, its implementation would destroy “family values and social norms.” It would encourage the “breakup of families and [lead to] illegitimate births” (bdnewslive, April 21, 2011). 

The lie was used by the Islami Ain Bastobayon Committee (Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Law, or ILIC) to call a daylong countrywide hartal, which, in all likelihood, benefitted the government. It gave credence to Sheikh Hasina’s allegation that the previous BNP-Jamaat led government (2001-2006) in which the IOJ was an alliance partner, had “smeared” the name of Islam, had turned the country into “a haven for terrorists and militants.” (I myself think that the situation is more complex than it is made to appear, for reasons which I’d mentioned previously: the ties between some of the militant Islamically-oriented parties and state intelligence agencies are unclear, as are the reasons as to why Sheikh Hasina has agreed to setting up the regional Counter-Terrorism Centre (for South Asia) in Dhaka, for which the European Union is reportedly providing 1.5 million euros along with technological assistance. And while we are on the topic, I think it’s worth mentioning that American soldiers recently landed at Dhaka airport in a special aircraft with “arms and tools.” According to news reports, they were `disarmed’ by airport customs; apparently, Bangladesh army personnel receiving them had been unaware of customs laws; hurriedly-dispatched home-ministry-authorised documents ensured the release of the armaments which had been brought by visiting US soldiers “to train [the] Bangladesh army” (New Age, April 21, 2011). 

Interestingly enough, Sheikh Hasina’s government seemed to assist the hartal. Summons’ and arrest warrants issued against Amini by a Dhaka court on March 31, 2011—sedition and defamation cases filed respectively by Sammilita Islami Jote, and Jananetri Parishad—were swiftly retracted by the magistrate on the advice of the chief metropolitan magistrate Being not under lock-and-key must have helped Amini organise the April 4 hartal.

It was a lie because the cabinet had passed, not the 1997 draft, but a revised version which says women should “exercise full control” over their earnings, inheritance, credit, land, and income derived from commerce. No mention of Muslim women getting equal shares of their inheritance. The Awami league-led government has betrayed the women’s cause, my friends insisted (see my previous columns, April 11, April 18, 2011). Why aren’t women’s organisations rallying?

Rally, they did, but in support of the government and the Women Development Policy (it now awaits parliamentary approval). On 28 April, at a mass rally at Shaheed Minar, attended by thousands, organised by the Samajik Pratirodh Committee—a platform of 67 women, development, and human rights organisations, and NGOs—speakers called upon the government to “immediately” chalk up programmes for the full implementation of the policy Although the National Women Development Policy 2011 does not include equal inheritance, says the SPC leaflet, long demanded by Bangladeshi women, by women’s and human rights movements, yet “we support this policy and demand its full implementation.” Why? Because it contains programmes aimed at improving women’s socio-economic condition: measures for reducing women’s poverty, for enhancing women’s economic and political empowerment—food security, health and nutrition, education and training, employment—improving the status of the girl child, resisting violence against women, in addition to undertaking special measures for indigenous women, and women who are handicapped.

(© Sanaul Hoque/New Age) Speakers at Shaheed Minar's rally, organised by Samajik Pratirodh Committee, the banner reads, `Take immediate steps to implement the National Women Development Policy 2011,' Dhaka, 28 April 2011.

Despite having badly wanted to go to the rally, I was unable to (for the same reasons for which I missed writing my regular column, due on April 25, sorry, dear readers, the next however fell on May day, not my fault!), hence I rely on press reports, the SPC leaflet, and accounts of friends who were present at the rally to piece together what happened.

Amini, IOJ and ILIC were severely chastised. But were questions raised about the government’s swift retraction of warrants against Amini? No, not from what I’ve learnt (of course, I’d be happy to stand corrected).

Nor were demands raised that constitutional reforms presently being publicly debated should consider revising Part III Fundamental Rights, Section 28 (2) of the Constitution which states, “Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life.” That it should be amended to include the family, i.e., “in all spheres of the State and of public life, and family [or personal] life.”

Although the government’s initiative for constitutional reforms stems from the desire to “restore the original spirit” of the 1972 Constitution, according to news reports, Suranjit Sengupta, co-chairman of the special parliamentary committee for constitution amendment (SPCCA) has promised that rights of the indigenous community will be recognised (Indigenous people to get constitutional recognition, says Suranjit, The Daily Star, October 20, 2010). That all “good things that were left out from the Constitution of 1972” will be incorporated (www.indigenousportal.com October 21, 2010). 

Since personal laws cover issues of marriage, divorce, maintenance, guardianship of children, and inheritance (as opposed to the general law which covers penal codes, civil and criminal procedure codes, evidence act etc.), is it not reasonable to expect that women’s organisations would take this opportunity to raise the issue? Another good thing that got left out from the 1972 Constitution?

If women in the Islamic Republic of Iran can petition against the Iranian constitution’s denial of women’s rights, can launch a One Million Signatures campaign in support of their petition (August 27, 2006), can raise the slogan, “Equal rights is our minimum demand,” can demand equal rights to inheritance—along with equal rights in marriage, equal right to divorce, end to polygamy and temporary marriage (muta marriage, specific to Shias), and the right for women to pass on nationality to their children—surely, women’s organisations in Bangladesh, are better-positioned to do so? I’m sure women’s organisations and activists here think so. Interestingly, the Iranian campaign, signed by 90 women’s groups, is the largest independent women’s coalition since the Islamic Revolution, it includes both secular and pious women, those who distance themselves from the term feminist, “Islamic feminists” who argue that women’s rights can be provided from within the framework of Muslim law, “Muslim feminists” who come from religious backgrounds but do not use Islamic law as their point of reference, and feminists who would rather not see the republic in Iran be an “Islamic” one (Our inheritances, New Age, April 28, 2008).

On the face of it, there’s little in the Policy that women and human rights activists could object to—health, education, employment, lateral entry, safety nets, increasing budgetary allocation etc., etc. But one would have expected leading women’s organisations and seasoned activists to not be taken in by government and ruling party rhetoric. Ridding women’s poverty is a mirage so long as Structural Adjustment Programmes, uniformly pursued the world over at the insistence of international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, ADB) are adhered to, one that has led to, what activists and feminists have termed, the deepening, and feminisation, of poverty. To provide a few instances: in neigbouring India, the government’s adoption of SAP policies has reduced India’s commitment to primary health care, leading to the collapse of the public health system (Mohan Rao). Similar trends have been repeatedly pointed out by medical activists in Bangladesh (Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury, Dr Qazi Quamruzzaman). SAP policies have negatively impacted women in Latin America, the Middle East and Africa. In Nigeria, they have possibly led to early marriage as girls and women increasingly find themselves impoverished with the removal of subsisdies on health, education and food items (Gloria Thomas-Emeagwali). In Egypt, adherence to these programmes has led to rising inflation, a deteriorating job market ; the privatisation of health, education and social services has made the situation of poor households more precarious which has disproportionately affected women (Kamran Asdar Ali). Similar trend have been noted, surprisingly enough, in Russia and China too, with adverse consequences for health in general, and women’s health in particular.

The situation in Bangladesh is grave enough to have led even the finance minister to admit recently, the rich are getting richer, while the poor are becoming poorer.

But despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, both in Bangladesh, and in the rest of the world, leaders and activists of women’s and human rights organisations as pioneering, as significant, as Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, Nijera Kori, Naripokkho, Karmojibi Nari, Ain o Salish Kendra, Women for Women, Nari Grontho Probortona, by urging the “immediate” implementation of WDP, seem to be unable to differentiate between government/international financial rhetoric, and what is occurring in reality, that too, for the last two decades. What is one to make of that?

After the present government won a landslide victory in December 2008 elections, I had noticed linguistic elisions occur when AL parliamentarians spoke of promised trials of 1971 war criminals. The present seemed to be carried over into the past, the past seemed to slip into the present. Those who had collaborated in the Pakistan army’s genocide take on Bush-ian overtones: rajakars are religious extremists are Islamic militants are `terrorists’ (Elections 2008. Victory, impunity and terror, New Age, Jan 7, 2009). 

A similar seepage, with Bush-ian overtones, “you are either with us or against us,” seems to be occurring in the case of the WDP, newspaper accounts report speakers at the SPC rally as having said, those who oppose WDP are “religious zealots.” They do not believe in democracy. These same forces opposed the war of independence in 1971. All democratic and progressive political parties should take a “united stand in defence of” WDP 2011. What gets left out in this all-exclusive talk of “religious zealots” is the role of the US during the 1971 crisis, and of arch war-criminal Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state.

Recent feminist scholarship has argued that the Cold War provided the context for the integration of women into the international development establishment, that women were considered to be “valuable allies” in the fight against socialism, that gender and development theory does not fundamentally challenge the capitalist model nor does it seriously consider a class-based analysis of women’s oppression. That the women involved did not look upon themselves as “tools against communism,” which is all the more reason for us to shift our focus to the US government (Kristen Ghodsee, And if the shoe doesn’t fit? (wear it anyway), 2003). While another piece of scholarship, a doctoral study by a Bangladeshi scholar, argues that although Bangladesh has been rich in civil society activity, from the 1990s onwards, donors have favored certain civil society actors over others, that the civil society in Bangladesh has subtly been crowded out through the dominance of big NGOs since independence, that heavy donor support and a local secular-oriented power elite have falsely constructed an opposition between so-called secularists and Islamists, which has reduced the prospects of a plural civil society (Tasmia Mesbahuddin).

What I find striking is how few women’s organisations, human rights activists and cultural activists are willing to publicly condemn the war on terror zealots as they do, the religious zealots. Is it odd for me to ask, what holds them back?

[concluding part, next week]

Published in New Age, Monday May 09, 2011

http://newagebd.com/newspaper1/editorial/17975.html

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