Be proud of yourself and your achievements
Bangladesh has made impressive strides in empowering women in recent decades. Today, women are better educated and holding top positions at government and corporate offices. But Mubina Asaf, head of legal and external affairs at BAT Bangladesh, thinks more needs to be done so that we can create an inclusive and sustainable future.
The Daily Star (TDS): Women empowerment has been a buzzword in recent times. How do you define it? How has the role of women in Bangladesh evolved over the years?
Mubina Asaf: Women empowerment, to me, means to be able to recognise your own power and capabilities regardless of the barriers that come your way. The empowerment should be attained from self-confidence and resilience and the mindset that failure is instrumental part of success.
It gives me immense pride and happiness to see our very own Bangladeshi women thriving in all sectors and also exploring unknown territories and making a mark there as well in 2021. Kishwar Chowdhury, Azmeri Haque Badhon and Rabab Fatima were among those who are achieving international success due to their own merit and hard work. This is how women are breaking barriers.
Even a little over 50 years back, our mothers and grandmothers did not have many options to choose from. The Liberation War was a turning point for us. The efforts of our women freedom fighters such as Bir Protik Taramon Bibi, Dr Captain (retd) Sitara Begum and Hena Das, who had such heroic contributions during our Liberation War, did not go in vain. They showed us the path and now I take pride in saying our girls are outshining in every sector. As we venture further into the 21st century, we find ourselves living in a world with more opportunities than ever before.
Our political empowerment is on the rise. The current parliament of Bangladesh contains 350 seats, out of which 277 are male and 73 are female, which is almost 21 per cent. We are ahead of India and Pakistan when it comes to the percentage of elected women representatives in national parliaments.
I think as a society we have come a long way. Nowadays we see more women in leading roles than ever before. We need to strive for the highest stature and never give up. We should always remember that hard work takes you places, and if you are passionate about your craft then just go for it and grab the opportunity that comes your way.
TDS: Let's talk about your early career days which were about 30 years ago. You entered a very male-dominated professional world. How did you navigate through the situation?
Mubina Asaf: Historically, the legal profession is an extremely male-dominated one and truth be told, it has not been easy.
I completed both my Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws from the University of Dhaka. I began my career as an associate at Rokanuddin Mahmud & Associates. Afterwards, I worked in the attorney general's office of the government, first as an assistant attorney general and then as a deputy attorney general.
I also enrolled as an advocate of the Dhaka District Court, the High Court Division and the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court.
Every profession has its own challenges, but we must overcome those. To have a successful career, hard work and resilience is must. There are also various infrastructural barriers, such as female washrooms, in workplace. There is room for improvement. We should all work together to mitigate those.
TDS: Shifting careers is regarded as a bold move. What was the defining moment that pushed you to take up the challenge?
Mubina Asaf: I was passionate about being a lawyer and I worked hard to be a successful one. However, I was at a crossroad when I took the decision to shift my career.
As a lawyer, I could wait for the opportunity to become a High Court judge. That could take years too and was an uncertain road. However, when I got this opportunity, to be the head of legal of BAT Bangladesh and be a part of the corporate sector, I instantly took up the opportunity because I had complete faith in my craft.
I knew I would excel in legal matters because I am a lawyer and have experience. But I would have to learn a new skillset in the corporate world as well. So, I took a leap of faith and took up the challenge.
It was certainly a great opportunity. However, shifting from an established career to a different field can be quite intimidating. I gradually overcame my challenges using my leadership skills and by enriching my knowledge about the business. After eight years in the business, I am proud to say it was one the best decisions that I took.
TDS: Bangladesh has been a role model of women's empowerment in South Asia in the last 50 years. What are the changes you would like to see in the country that would enable greater empowerment of women?
Mubina Asaf: According to the Global Gender Gap report, Bangladesh has been the best performing country in South Asia for seven times in a row. Bangladesh is the only country where women have held the head of the government position (27 years) longer than men in the past 50 years. The political empowerment is on the rise and government policies and laws are testament to that.
There are many laws. However, what I feel is missing is the enforcement and awareness. It is necessary that women are made aware of these policies and the rights that they have. Changes must be brought to inheritance laws.
Another very important aspect is security of women. It is necessary to ensure safety in all areas, including the workplace. We must also fight against discrimination, domestic abuse, sexual violence, early marriage, and patriarchy.
I believe empowerment starts from home. Being the eldest amongst the siblings, I was always empowered to take responsibility from a very young age. My parents never discriminated amongst the brothers and sisters. We were always enrolled to play the same sport, whether it is boxing or football. The girls and boys were always given the same options.
TDS: What role can the corporate sector play in driving such change?
Mubina Asaf: Our government has laid the foundation. Now, it is essential that we build on it and implement the policies. Corporations can come up with activities and initiatives that reach out to women in rural areas to further educate them on their rights and provide resources.
At BAT Bangladesh, we provide six months paid maternity leave and we also provide paternity leave. We provide childcare facilities so that working mothers and fathers can bring their children to the office. We also have multiple initiatives in relation to our Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) frameworks to empower women across different functions.
If we work hand in hand with the government and make a collective effort, then we will become much stronger as a nation. Change will not happen overnight but the conversation needs to be triggered from now on so that we can set the standard.
Women are the backbone of a family and a society and their presence needs to be recognised more so that we can create an inclusive and sustainable future for the next generation leaders.