Bangladesh is the world’s fourth most populous Muslim country. Here, women are taking charge - from grassroots up to government. Nowhere else do women occupy so many top political positions.
Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is accompanied by a female speaker, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury; her long-time rival and former prime minister Khaleda Zia headed the opposition in not too distant past.
Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the country’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is the incumbent prime minister. This is her third term as the premier. She is now the leader of the House.
Raushan Ershad, the wife of former president HM Ershad, is now the leader of the main opposition in parliament. Ruling Awami League’s (AL’s) Shirin Sharmin Choudhury has been elected as the Speaker of the current parliament. She was also elected Speaker of immediate past parliament.
Khaleda Zia, the widow of former president Ziaur Rahman, was prime minister for three terms since 1991. When she became prime minister for the first term in 1991, she was the first female prime minister in a Muslim-majority country in the world. She was the leader of the opposition in parliament twice.
Bangladesh witnesses significant rise of another female leader in local politics. In a small city like Narayanganj, Selina Hayat Ivy was elected mayor of the city corporation twice in the port town. Once she defeated the AL-backed candidate in the battle of ballots in 2011 and Khaleda-led BNP’s mayoral candidate in December 2016. Her honesty and clean image have put her in limelight in national politics also. Though she belongs to the AL camp, people irrespective of party affiliation laud her leadership.
The women leaders’ successes are clear depictions of just how far we have come since the march for women’s rights. The country is proud of its women leaders. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was featured distinctively in a book unveiled in the USA on June 28, this year as one of the 18 current women national leaders of the world.
The prime minister's photo along with six other world leaders was printed on the cover-page of the book "Women Presidents and Prime Ministers."
Leading US rights activist and educator Richard O'Brien authored the book unveiled at Woman's National Democratic Club (WNDC) at Washington DC in presence of foreign diplomats, women leaders and representatives of civil society. The author dedicated three pages to characterise Sheikh Hasina's dedication and hard struggle for restoration of democracy and voting rights, attempts on her life as well as historic achievements as the three-time prime minister of Bangladesh.
O'Brien praised the Bangladesh premier for dedicating herself to making Bangladesh "more stable, more democratic and less violent" referring to her remarks "When I have been able to establish Bangladesh as a poverty-free country, a hunger-free country, perhaps then I may say I am proud".
O'Brien recalled that Sheikh Hasina returned home in 1981 from exile when she stood against election fraud and oppression as she was elected to lead the AL but faced torture and repression and was put under house arrest in the 1980s.
In 2004, the author said, she was targeted in an assassination attempt in Dhaka that killed so many people. In 2007 she was arrested but released in time to stand for election in 2008. He also pointed out Sheikh Hasina's international recognition for promoting peace and democracy as she was awarded "Mother Teresa Award" and the "Gandhi Award", Richard wrote.
Women’s leadership has been created from the grassroots level also. In our military, air force, navy, army, there are women. In every sphere – even the police – posts started opening up for women.
On November 18, 2015, a Bangladeshi woman named Wasfia Nazreen climbed the top of Carstensz Pyramid, located in the western central highlands of the Papua Province in Indonesia.
By reaching the summit, she not only scaled the highest mountain in Australasia, she became the first Bangladeshi to climb all of the seven summits, the highest peaks on each continent of planet Earth.
Wasfia, the activist and mountaineer who uses sports diplomacy to bring awareness to issues like sustainability, indigenous culture and women’s rights around the globe. She dedicated her treks to the tops of mountains to the women of Bangladesh in particular.
Wasfia, who’d been climbing since 2006, created the Bangladesh on Seven Summits foundation in 2011, the overarching organisation that helped her move from peak to peak, striving to scale the rest of the world’s most famous mountains just in time for the 40th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence. Development experts point to the huge expansion of girls’ education in Bangladesh as fundamental to the sea change for women. Initiatives such as a tuition stipend for girls in rural areas mean that girls outnumber boys in primary education.
More girls in school, as well as improved maternal health services, have helped dramatically reduce the number of women and children dying at childbirth. Across Bangladesh, almost every village, island or slum is being organised and led by committees of women. Supported by aid agencies, development workers have taken advantage of government policies to provide contraceptives, nutrition advice and basic healthcare to women in their homes.
Moreover, a booming garment industry has provided thousands of women with employment.
Women now have the right to vote, the right to sue, and the right to every legal equality as men— considerable progress from previous days, when popular consensus was that women were biologically less intelligent than men. We have this opportunity to keep closing the gender gap. Women's empowerment is at the top of current government's agenda. Efforts are being made to seek solutions to gender inequality. It is time to redefine the role of women.
The writer is a journalist.