Women’s policy: what is the fuss about?

WHY so much noise about a policy which does no
more than reaffirm commitments of earlier
documents? The protests by a few religious
clerics surrounding the declaration of the policy
by the chief advisor give rise to suspicions of
political machinations. The responses of some
members of the advisory council also suggest, at
the least, a lack of cohesiveness or coordination
in decision making by the Council of Advisors.
These events have diverted us from considering
the content of the policy and its continuity with
previous state commitments, and from formulating
an action plan.

Let us first dissect the protests, which started
a few days before the announcement. How is it
that the ulema were threatening street action,
using the mosque to incite hatred against the
government and against women, even before they
had seen the policy? Their claim was that the
policy provided for equal rights to inheritance,
and thus violated religious norms and codes. The
protests have continued even after the policy has
been published and made available, and after it
is quite clear that it makes no reference to
inheritance laws!

Islam is a religion of peace. And yet the ulema
are deliberately breaking the peace by use of
vituperative language and seditious threats of
“civil war.” An ever-ready madrassah brigade has
been summoned into street action and, what is
even more surprising, the Khatib of Baitul
Mukaram mosque seems to have forgotten his
official responsibilities. We are familiar with
similar forms of destabilisation used in the past.

In 1961, for example, the ulema supported the
right-wing parties in opposing the Muslim Family
Laws Ordinance. The government, at that time,
took a strong stand against the trouble makers,
and the law has remained on our statute books for
four decades and is in daily use throughout the
country, benefiting millions of men, women and
children in the process. The uniformity of
messages emanating from khutbas in certain
mosques, their instigation to political rallies,
and the op-eds in the right-wing media suggest
considerable planning behind the scenes.

So, we need to figure out, is all this really
about a rejection of a national commitment to
gender equality? Is it really about any threat to
religion or religious practice? Or is it
something more calculated, and intended to serve
the interests of certain groups — is it merely a
diversionary tactic from the political movement
for the trial of war criminals, or just another
way of mounting a further challenge to the
present government?

We presume that the caretaker government follows
some official procedures for collective decision
making, and that, when the chief advisor
announced the policy on March 8, it had already
been discussed and approved by the council. Does
this imply that the chief advisor has gone back
on the previous decision taken collectively by
the council. Or have the four advisors acted on
their own initiative to visit the Islamic
Foundation, offer apologies and set up a "review
committee." What is the validity of any decisions
taken by such a committee?

There is nothing new in the policy itself, and,
in fact, these commitments had been made earlier
in the Constitution, in CEDAW, in the Beijing
Plan of Action, the MDG and NSRP. Let us examine
what the policy says.

Section 1 of the policy reviews official
decisions and commitments to women’s equality.

Section 2 lists the purpose and aims of the
policy to ensure equality, security, empowerment,
human rights, to address poverty of women,
recognise their economic and social
contributions, facilitate participation in public
decision making and access to education, health
and skill development, and protection for
vulnerable women. These aims have never been in
dispute, and different ministries have been
mandated since the early seventies to implement
programs in accordance with them.

Section 3 reiterates implementation of CEDAW
through review and reform of laws, prevention of
misuse of laws or misinterpretation of religion
contrary to women’s interests, creation of
awareness of rights, identification of children
by both parents, including in voter identity
cards. (It is unfortunate that the Election
Commission has failed to observe this government
rule, and women voters have been identified by
their spouses.)

Sections 4 and 5 refer to legal and policy
deterrents to violence against women.

Sections 7, 8, 12 and 13 refer to expanding
access to education, health and shelter or
housing, to creating opportunities for
participation in sports and culture.

Section 9 recognises women’s economic
contribution, the need for expanding
opportunities, and eliminating gender
discrimination; it also refers to the need for
safety nets and other facilities for working
women. Political participation is to be
facilitated through directly held elections to
reserved seats in Parliament, and lateral entry
of women in public services, diplomatic services,
maintaining quotas in public employment. In
acknowledging the government’s responsibility for
implementing the policy, section 17 reiterates
provisions for monitoring mechanisms, which have
already been in place.

The rightist frenzy is apparently over the right
to property, which is referred to in section 9.13
as providing for "equal rights to and control
over all moveable and immoveable property
acquired through the market." This is a statement
of the law as it stands in Bangladesh, and is not
a re-statement of it or any advance! At least,
that is true in theory. In practice, many women
are deprived of their legal share in family
property, and have little access to commercial
loans, etc.

It is difficult to see the rationale for the
objection to this section. And it is even more
difficult to understand what drove the four
advisors to go to the ulema if they had already
read the policy and were aware of its provisions.
Consultations on policy matters are a good
precedent, but only when they are held in a
rational atmosphere, and with constituencies that
are to be directly affected by such policies. The
National Policy for Women’s Development is an
outcome of a national consensus on the need to
eliminate gender inequality and to ensure women’s
advancement so that they can contribute more
effectively to economic and social development.

The government’s energy should now be directed to
work out time-lined action plans, and allocate
budgetary support. Ministries need to be mandated
with specific goals and targets, which can be
monitored effectively. It is time that
governments stand by their words and make sure
that equality and non-discrimination are
maintained as guidelines for laws, policies and
programs of action. Bangladesh needs to move
forward into thefuture. Let us not forget that
women’s labour today sustains the Bangladesh
economy, women’s social capital maintains family
well being. Recognising their rights will be a
step in furthering their effective contribution
to society.

P.S.

* From The Daily Star, April 6, 2008. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | April 10-11, 2008 | Dispatch No. 2502 - Year 10 running.

* Hameeda Hossain is a freelance contributor to The Daily Star.