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Bangladesh, Women and Democracy

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Message Janice G. Raymond


Janice G. Raymond


Most of South Asia’s female leaders have ended up dead or in detention. Indira Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Benazir Bhutto and now, in Bangladesh, former Prime Ministers, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed.


January, 2008 marked the one year anniversary of a state of emergency in Bangladesh. The recent history of Bangladesh, the former East Pakistan, is what some have called the “Pakistanization” of the country: a military-backed government, a judiciary under siege, the suspension of democratic values and the imprisoning of former Prime Ministers.


In January, 2007, after violent clashes between political parties in the streets, a military-controlled civilian caretaker government was installed promising elections within several months, which have not yet been held.  Fundamental rights and freedoms were suspended, including massive arrests without warrant, deprivation of bail, and the setting up of special courts. A Special Powers Act imposed a ban on political activities, applied also to in-house meetings of four persons, designated as “indoor politics.” There have been considerable numbers of detentions -- by some estimates, 250,000 or more – and many reports of custodial torture.


Women continue to be the victims of extreme forms of violence and sexual exploitation. Rape and acid violence are common. As the June 2007 US State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report noted, Bangladesh continues to be a source and transit country for trafficking in women and children, most trafficked into sexual slavery in India and Pakistan.


The present government’s  unwritten policy of “Minus Two” has put the major blame for the corrupt and chaotic politics of Bangladesh squarely on the shoulders of its two former Prime Ministers, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wazed, who have traded  power for the last 15 years. In an attempt to “disappear” these women from any future political leadership role, the government implemented its “minus the two begums (ladies)” goal by attempting to prevent Sheikh Hasina from returning to the country and force Khaleda Zia into exile in Saudi Arabia.  Hasina demanded that she be allowed to return, and Zia refused to leave. 


Odhikar, a prominent Bangladeshi human rights organization that publishes frequent reports on Bangladesh, has noted the simplistic “anti-women politics” of singularly blaming these two leaders for the political, social and economic problems of Bangladesh. The intractable problems of the country have, in fact, been dominated by the costly failures of development agendas, the challenges faced by a young and struggling democracy, and the endemic poverty of the country. It remains to be seen whether the two begums will be blamed for Bangladesh’s recurring catastrophic floods! 


As representatives of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), I and a colleague traveled to Bangladesh several weeks ago on a fact-finding mission occasioned by the arrest, jailing and sentencing of Sigma Huda. Huda is the former head of our organization there, and a well-known human rights lawyer and activist. Huda’s health problems are multiple and major, and her physician has stated that she is at “imminent risk of death.” 


Huda was sentenced in August, 2007 to a three year jail term on charges of aiding and abetting the alleged corruption of her husband, Nazmul, a former Minister of Parliament and cabinet minister. Many wives of prominent politicians have been jailed as accomplices in their husbands’ alleged wrongdoing. In Sigma Huda’s case, however, she is a national and international force in her own right. Long a topnotch lawyer who has been willing to challenge powerful institutions in the society, including abuses occurring under her husband’s government, she has also waged legal battle with corruption in the police. For the last three years, she has been the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons. In an apparent twist of her fate, she stands condemned as an appendage of her husband’s alleged crimes.  But it appears that Sigma Huda is being additionally penalized because she has been an independent and outspoken woman with the international standing to spotlight the abuses of the current Bangladeshi regime.


Disparate treatment can be illustrated by comparing the custodial environment of Nazmul to that of Sigma.  Nazmul has his own room, an area where he can walk and exercise, sanitary facilities and the society of other male prisoners with whom he is allowed to converse.  In contrast, Sigma is incarcerated in filthy conditions in a common area with multiple women who share one toilet that constantly overflows, has no space to walk, and cannot talk at length with other women.


Bangladesh has persistent problems. It is the most corrupt country in the world. However, the western embassies in Bangladesh seem to have endorsed this government’s fiction of fighting corruption by using the most repressive measures. Meaningful reforms cannot happen when due process is suspended, or when the courts are politicized. The current government has violated human rights and allowed political extremism in the form of velvet-gloved militarism to strengthen its hold on the country. The situation of women in Bangladesh is emblematic of the regime’s widespread repression of the democratic process.

  Janice G. Raymond is Professor Emerita at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the Board of Directors of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW).
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Janice G. Raymond is Professor Emerita of Women's Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst (USA). She has been Visiting Professor at the University of Linkoping in Sweden, Visiting Research Scholar at the (more...)

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