Whither Equal Rights for Women?

Kamrun Nahar of NewsNetwork

 There are still some villages in Bangladesh, where conservative reigious leaders prevent women from voting in elections, writes


While the adult men went to vote, the women stayed home. This happened at a remote village in Patuakhali on June 12, 1996 during the 7th general elections. Not that the women did not like to vote. They did not go to the polling centres because some mullahs said voting was bad for women.

"Never in my life I could cast vote in any election. So happened with my mother-in-law. Our religious leaders say voting by women is a sin," Sakhina Begum, a 45-year-old housewife of Pangashia union of the district.

Although the situation has changed a bit since then, many women in impoverished villages of the country's Madaripur, Rangpur, Barisal, Cox's Bazar, Chittagong and Noakhali districts still cannot exercise their franchise in elections.

Talking to the News Network correspondent, a schoolteacher disclosed that over 26,000 women in nine unions of two upazilas in Patuakhali never exercised their franchise in any elections. He blames this distressing phenomenon on illiteracy and superstition and edicts of moulanas (clergymen) and village headmen.

Abdul Mannan Hawlader, chairman of the Pangashia union, recognised the fact and said female voters in his union refrain from voting due mainly to superstition and illiteracy. "Prior to any election, an agreement is always signed between the candidates and local headmen to keep the women at bay," he said.

He said village headmen and clerics think voting by women is against Islam and they should not be brought out of their houses in the name of election. "Besides, the husbands rarely encourage their wives to go out to vote," the chairman added.

Deputy Commissioner S Habibullah and Police Super A K M Enaytullah Dewan of the district told an inquiry team of Mohila Ainjibi Samity, "As a matter of fact, village headmen control rural women in remote rural areas and the women hardly dare violate their decisions. So, the administration fails to take them to polling centres."

The problem cropped up when a pir (religious preacher), Moulana Hatem Ali of the Pangashia union pronounced a decree barring the women from voting. The pir convinced the village headmen that voting by women is contrary to Islam. Since then, local headmen have been forcing the women to abstain from casting votes.

Hundreds of women in two unions of Madaripur district also cannot cast their votes since Pakistan period. Prior to any election, the candidates here make commitment to each other that they would not persuade the women to go to polling centres.

More women in 11 centres of Musapur union in Noakhali district are also the victims of such superstition. Even the women candidates from reserved seats here did not exercise their franchise in the 6th national election. Local headmen and candidates here had reached an agreement preventing the women from casting votes.

A large number of women in some remote villages of Barisal district, who once could not cast their votes due to a decree of renowned pir of Charmonai, started casting votes since the 6th general election upon an order from the District Commissioner.

According to competent sources, female inhabitants of 12 squalid villages in Surat union of Jhenidah district could not ever exercise their franchise in any elections.

In the 1997 UP election, two fanatic village headmen - Shamsu Zilani and Sheikh Yunus of East Meghal area in Hathazari thana of Chittagong district - threatened the female candidates to outcast them if they tried to launch election campaign in their area, according to a report published in a section of vernacular press.

Apart from fanaticism, a large number of women in the country voluntarily refrain from casting votes in elections for various reasons like shyness, fear of breaking pardah, distance of polling centre and poor communication network and lack of awareness. Some women are also there whose voting solely depends on their husbands' wills.

"Although casting of vote is a constitutional right of every person, women in Bangladesh like in many least developed countries had to go a long way in their fight to establish their voting right," said a Dhaka University teacher, who declined to be identified. Articles 27, 28, 29 and 65(3) of the Constitution speak of gender equality and give voting rights to all to elect their public representatives through election, he said.

However, Barrister Amirul Islam, addressing a workshop in Dhaka on October 22,2000 said "In fact there is no definite provision in the Constitution to safeguard the fundamental rights of women and it is also silent regarding the private law of citizens and thus widened the discrimination against the country's women".

In 1917, Bangiya Nari Samaj, a women's organisation, launched a campaign to establish the right of women to vote. But they had to wait until 1926 when the country's women were first allowed to cast their votes.

"Country's women are not only being denied their voting right, they are also being victims of widespread discrimination in every sector from education to health service," the DU teacher said.

Although half the country's population are women, only seven women, including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, out of total 300 seats, were elected in the seventh general elections in 1996. Besides, there are 30 reserved seats for women. The number of women members in the present Cabinet is only four out of 38. Besides, there are 4,296 UP chairmen in the country and of them only 20 are women.

"Even though our Constitution speaks of gender equality, the relevant laws formulated during Pakistan and British periods have not yet been changed. To ensure women's rights in all spheres of life, the government will have to come up with more effective steps," the teacher said.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, January 24 ,  2001
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