Lessons from the Women Development Policy Debacle

Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Forum (June 2008 )

As part of a program marking the International Women’s Day, the government announced a National Women Development Policy on March 8. The announced policy was condemned by a section of Muslim clerics as un-Islamic. Specifically, the clerics objected to any possible change to the inheritance laws such that women could get equal inheritance rights as men. On March 11, the government announced that it had no intention of passing any law that is “anti-Islam.”

On March 27, the government formed a 20-member committee to identify inconsistencies in the policy as per Islamic rules and suggest steps to remove any such inconsistencies. While the committee deliberated, the clerical opposition continued.


MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / DRIKNEWS

Following the Friday prayers on April 11, violent protests broke out in Dhaka’s Baitul Mukarram area. On April 17, the committee recommended that the government amend the announced policy, replacing any commitment to equality between the sexes with “just rights” for women.

Let me state here an unequivocal commitment to equal rights — irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, or faith — of all citizens, including equal property and inheritance rights for men and women.

This piece is not about commitments to these rights. Nor is it about theological discussions about what Islam has to say on the matter. Rather, it is about some lessons to be drawn from the developments described in the first paragraph.

Lesson 1:
Political imperatives reign

Was there any hidden political reason behind the Women Development Policy? The cynical chattering classes have been busy guessing. Maybe this was about some powerful quarter’s way of hoodwinking and co-opting the progressives? As if the progressives are that strong. No, it’s more likely that this was an issue to divert attention away from war crimes trial. As if the Islamists are that influential. Perhaps this is really the perfidious west and its local collaborators’ way of hurting Islam?

Or perhaps it is none of these. Perhaps the Women Development Policy is just what it claims to be — a commitment to women’s rights in every sphere of life. After all, this was the stated objective of women policies of the two previous governments, too. No one claimed that those governments had some ulterior motives.

Let’s give the government benefit of the doubt. But even if there were no ulterior motives, events have shown that as soon as there was an organised political resistance against the policy, the government compromised.

The Islamists, of course, have their own agenda. They oppose the very idea of gender equality on ideological grounds. And they saw an opportunity to project their strength, and gain “control” of the streets through their protests.

And even if there was no ulterior motive behind the policy as such, the government has other agenda — a peaceful election at the end of the year and the handover of power to an elected government is the stated one. And this stated agenda is more important to the government than the Women Policy. Political imperatives are always more important than specific policies.

Politics is supreme, that’s the lesson here. Anyone naive enough to think that a technocratic government will “do the right thing” without paying heed to political calculations should get their head out of sand.

Lesson 2:
No substitute for political coalition building.

If we want a durable Women Policy that gives the sexes equal property right, then we have to build a political coalition that supports the policy. There is no short cut here. Indeed, this is true for any policy. Whether we want to try the war criminals, protect the Sundarbans, or repeal the Enemy Property Act, we have to build political coalitions. It is only a political coalition that can garner the support of the majority that will make the policies stick.

Seminars and roundtables organised and attended by the elites in Dhaka’s posh locations are no substitute for political coalitions.

Lesson 3:
No substitute for public consultation

Let’s think about the possible reasons for apprehension that many Bangladeshis may have about the proposed policy. Many people might be under the impression that the proposed policy is indeed anti-Islamic. Under many standard interpretations of the Quran, gender equality might indeed be seen as un-Islamic.

So long as a substantial number of people follow such interpretations of the Quran, there will be many with apprehensions. The only way to assuage such apprehension is through open dialogue and active consultation that stresses that the proposed policy would not in any way stop anyone from practising their faith.


MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / DRIKNEWS

Lesson 4:
Political deficit means legitimacy deficit

When a technocratic government believes that it can formulate solutions to complex social, economic, or foreign policy issues based on good intentions and implement text-book prescriptions, they find out the inadequacy of that approach the hard way. If they push through their program in face of strong opposition, the program loses legitimacy in the eyes of the general population.

Specific to the case of Women Policy, let’s not make any assumption about the government’s popularity or forecast how the current political situation will unfold.

Instead, let’s consider this: if the current emergency ends in a political crisis, the successor government will feel compelled to move away from the policies enacted by this government, regardless of the policies’ merits as such.

As long as the opponents of the Women Policy remain organised and vocal, and the supporters remain confined to the seminars, the successor government will find it very easy to scrap the policy to distance itself from this government.

Indeed, even if a popularly elected government pushes through a controversial policy without appropriate coalition building and public consultation, the policy will probably be rescinded by some successor government.

While the above lessons apply to any major policy in Bangladesh and beyond, the following lessons are more specific to the current Bangladesh.

Lesson 5:
Mainstream parties need reform.
This may not appear to be related to the Women Policy. But think about it. The government announced a policy that is against the Islamists’ agenda. Islam-pasand parties organised, and forced the government to backtrack. The same government arrested leaders of the country’s largest political parties, and there was little protest. Again, the point here is not the rights and wrongs of the politics of Islamists, Awami League, or BNP. The point is that the decay that has set in AL and BNP is real, and these parties need genuine reforms.


STRINGER/ DRIKNEWS

Lesson 6:
The Islamists are organised.

And chattering classes are not even sure who the Islamists are. There is a tendency among the self-styled progressive circles to lump all the bearded and cap wearing folks as Jamaatis. We know that Jamaat was involved in the violence that swept the country in late October 2006. We know that Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a senior leader of Jamaat, has been vocal against the Women Policy. But we also know that a major leader of the anti-policy protest is Fazlul Haque Amini, whose politics differs from that of Jamaat on major doctrinal and organisational grounds. While the mainstream politics remains under embargo, what kind of realignment is going on in the Islam-pasand spheres?

Lesson 7:
Finally, while Awami League and BNP are rotting, and the Islam-pasand parties are getting organised, in the political vacuum that is the emergency, who benefits from political violence? The ingredients for violent protests are there — food prices, water shortages, power shortages, rising cost of transportation, a downturn in the manufacturing sector: this could be one long hot summer. But in this summer of discontent, cheering on the mayhem of April 11 as the first shot of a people’s uprising — as columnists like Farhad Mazhar have done — appears to be a rather naive thing to do. The last lesson then, is to beware the anti-imperialism of fools that Mr. Mazhar and his comrades prescribe.

1. An example of such a conversation can be found here: http ://rumiahm-ed.wordpress.com/2008/03/09/a-fight-we-can-not-afford-to-lose/

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