Notes from the Field

Are Bangladeshi Women Politicians Tokens in the Political Arena?

June 27, 2012

Headlines would have us believe that women’s political participation is flourishing in Bangladesh due to their key positions in government: the prime minister and leader of the opposition are both women who, collectively, have ruled back and forth for more than 20 years. There are also six female ministers and state ministers in the 44-member cabinet, including the leaders of important ministries such as defense, foreign, energy, agriculture and home. There are 69 women lawmakers in the parliament which is 19.7 percent of the total seats. Nineteen of these women were directly elected and 50 women were elected through the gender quota system. The deputy leader of the house is also a woman. Is this success a triumph for women overcoming past exclusion from the structures of power?

Other than the prime minister and opposition leader, there are few women in the top leadership positions of their political parties. Photo by Flickr user: The Prime Minister's Office

The reality is that regardless of the political gains that women have made in Bangladesh, there remains an unequal power relation in the political arena. It is significant that despite women being discouraged from entering the political world by the pre-existing social norms that associate leadership with men, the prime minister and opposition leader, who come from influential political families, have arrived at the top. Unfortunately, other than the prime minister, opposition leader and a few other women, the number of women in top leadership positions of their political parties is small. The top leaders decide who are chosen to run for political office and who become ministers once elected. These top leaders are critical power brokers, and are almost exclusively male. Thus while the faces of both parties are female, the party plans of both the ruling party and opposition party plans are not constructed by women. The two women have the final say but, as the whole system is male dominated, it can be difficult for these female leaders to always promote the interest of women in the face of other pressuring issues.

In a country like Bangladesh, with a patriarchal social structure reinforced by religious, economic and political norms, it is challenging to advance the cause of women. The primary role of women is associated with the family – as biological reproducers and nurturers. In addition, women are responsible for all the domestic household work but lack decision-making power within the household. Because of the strong patriarchal structure, political positions for women are a privilege rather than a right. In order for women to mobilize and empower women, according to Srilatha Batliwala, they need to go through a “the process of challenging existing power relations, and of gaining greater control over the sources of power.”

Bangladesh has used the gender-based quota system as a systematic tool to incorporate women in the political arena and help remove barriers and enable women to play on a level playing field. At the time of the framing of the Bangladesh constitution in 1972, a gender-based quota system was introduced at the national government level as the route for women’s entry into politics. At the national level, the Bangladesh Parliament (Jatiyo Sangsad) has 300 seats. Fifteen directly elected seats were reserved for women, for a total of 315 seats. The 15th constitutional amendment passed in June 2011 increased the number of directly reserved seats to 50. The reserved seats are divided amongst the political parties based on the proportion of seats they won in the election.

Women’s participation at the local level is also crucial to empowering and mobilizing women at the grassroots level so that they have a greater voice in decision making. A quota system was introduced in the local government (Union Parishad) elections in 1997. Each Union Parishad has nine constituencies and one chairperson position open for men and women to compete for. Each block of three constituencies has one reserved seat for directly elected women. Thus the reserved ratio is three reserved seats for women for every nine non-reserved seats – or 25 percent. A reserved woman’s constituency is three times bigger than that of a non-reserved representative. This system requires voters to vote for a candidate for the regular seats as well as a woman candidate representing three constituencies. Since women cover a larger area, voters often do not know and have no connection with the woman candidate. Women candidates are usually not well-acquainted with all three constituencies. This creates a setting where women do not have the same power and authority as those elected through regular seats. Their legitimacy is questioned, and further isolates women and keeps them out of the power structures where decisions are made.

The majority of the female lawmakers in Bangladesh have come through the gender-based quota system. The system has been designed because women do not have the same political resources as men. Therefore, the responsibility for dealing with the under-representation of women rests with the political institutions. In Bangladesh, the gender-based quota system has provided opportunities for them to shift social barriers and emerge as leaders. Research has found that higher numbers of women in legislative bodies increases the attention to gender equality in policy making. Many argue that participating through the quota system can empower women and help them change the very structures that disempowered them. Political participation allows women to demonstrate a degree of agency as they challenge the socially constructed patriarchal system to make and pursue decision-making goals. However, many argue that the system leads to tokenism and does not actually advance women’s rights and needs in the end because it favors women from elite backgrounds.

The Bangladesh Election Commission has taken a first step towards strengthening women’s political participation by imposing a 33 percent reservation for women in all political parties’ executive committee positions including the central committee by 2020. However, progress towards this goal has been slow. The quota system is a good temporary measure to address women’s under-representation. But fulfilling these quotas may not address the core issues. More focused measures may be needed to help women overcome the social barriers that suppress their voices and bring women to the forefront. Until this is done, women have to work within the prevailing structures of patriarchy in order to overcome the challenges to create a gender balance.

Editor’s note: This version has been edited slightly from the original.

The Asia Foundation and USAID are jointly convening a South Asia Women Parliamentarians’ Conference in Dhaka on July 8-11. Read more.

Rozana Majumdar is a consultant in The Asia Foundation’s Bangladesh office. She can be reached at rmajumdar@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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One comment on this post:

  1. shakib:

    “More focused measures may be needed to help women overcome the social barriers that suppress their voices and bring women who are truly representative of their communities to the forefront.” Which class is being addressed to overcome this structural barrier? the elite class. because historically its been the desired responsibility of the educated middle class to co-opt the women within their political visions. from the indian religious reform movements of vivekananda to begum rokeya’s jenana education, everywhere the forward classes impose their vision of a future to a perceived backward class. lets address this issue.

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