A woman is Bangladesh’s PM, but starkly few Bangladeshi women are politicians

Oyon Aman
A woman is Bangladesh’s PM, but starkly few Bangladeshi women are politicians A female activist with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leads the party faithful in chanting slogans during a rally in Dhaka, July 28, 2023.
[Munir uz Zaman/AFP]

Two prominent female figures have dominated the landscape of politics in Bangladesh for more than three decades, but women in the South Asian nation still lag far behind men in political participation. 

Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League party are expected to clinch a fourth consecutive term in next month’s general election, a staggeringly small number of contenders – 5% of 1,895 people vying for 300 parliamentary seats – are women, according to data from the  Election Commission analyzed by BenarNews.

“This figure is simply not acceptable to us – especially after 52 years of independence,” Khushi Kabir, a prominent feminist, said in an interview with BenarNews. “This just goes to show that the patriarchal mentality still lingers in the minds of many in key positions.”

Among the 263 candidates nominated by the ruling party, only 20 are women, the data show. The Jatiya Party, the only other notable contestant in the election – the main opposition party is boycotting the polls – has less than 4% of female candidates on its slate.

Activists of ruling party Bangladesh Awami League shout slogans as they try to attack lawyers loyal to Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami during a protest in front of the Supreme Court in Dhaka, Dec. 30, 2013. [Andrew Biraj/Reuters]

This big gender gap in politics, however, contrasts starkly with the progress that Bangladeshi women have made in education and other socioeconomic indicators in the country. 

Girls have a higher enrollment rate in schools and consistently outperform boys in exams. In April, a survey by Mastercard revealed that approximately one-third of the country’s entrepreneurs are women.

Bangladesh’s economic backbone, the ready-made garment industry, employs over 2 million people, with more than  90% being women. 

The share of women participating in the labor workforce is greater in Bangladesh than peers in South Asia, according to data from the World Bank.

Despite these advancements, women remain vastly underrepresented in government and political leadership positions.

“What we see in politics is a reflection of wider societal norms,” explained Shantanu Majumder, a professor of political science at Dhaka University, in an interview with BenarNews. “As a nation, we can tolerate women working for social organizations or private companies, but most people would not accept more women leading in politics.”

Both major political parties – the Awami League and the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – count millions among their members. 

Partisan activists typically rise through street politics to assume more senior roles within the party. Such a political culture inherently favors men over women, Majumder said.

“By default, women are kept busy taking care of household affairs. When they are involved with a party, they are often subjected to ridicule,” he said. 

“Furthermore, success in politics often demands muscle power and financial resources, making it challenging for women to compete on an equal footing with men.”

Trainees work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018. [A.M. Ahad/AP file photo]

Government rules encourage political parties to appoint 33% of women to their leadership posts, but no political parties currently meet this voluntary provision. 

“Parties do not nominate women. If women are not involved in decision-making for political empowerment, discrimination against women will persist,” said Sima Moslem, joint general secretary at Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, an organization promoting women’s rights.

Inherited power

Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country, has mostly been ruled by two women since 1991 when Khaleda Zia – currently the opposition’s top leader – became the first woman here to hold the office of prime minister. 

Prime Minister Hasina, Zia’s arch-rival, has held uninterrupted power for close to 15 years.

Both women inherited their political roles from males in their family circles who were assassinated.

In 1975, a military coup claimed the life of Hasina’s father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding president, who was gunned down along with other close family members who were considered Rahman’s potential successors. Hasina assumed control of the Awami League in 1981 after bitter infighting within the party’s rank and files. 

Bangladeshi Muslims pray underneath posters of election candidates hanging over a street in Dhaka, Dec. 28, 2018. [Munir uz Zaman / AFP]

Zia, for her part, reluctantly took the helm of the BNP when her husband and the party’s founder, President Ziaur Rahman, was assassinated in a coup d’état in 1981. Their eldest son, Tarique Rahman, now the party’s de facto leader, was a teenager at the time.

However, these women’s prominence in the bruising and confrontational world of Bangladesh politics has not inspired many girls to follow in their footsteps and run for public office.

“My father was a freedom fighter, and I belong to a family of political activists. But I did not want to join politics because of the dismal state of the political situation in the country,” said Uroshi Mhafila Fateha, an entrepreneur. “But I do have an interest in entering politics if a respectful environment is created.”


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