Gendered patterns in voting and political participation | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 19, 2012 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, January 19, 2012

Gendered patterns in voting and political participation

IN the general election of 2008, almost equal number of women and men turned out to vote, but do women exercise the same level of political rights? According to The Daily Star Democracy Poll, 86.4% of women voted in the last election. A staggering 89.9% believe that they can make a difference through the power of the ballot. The election was hailed as a "coming of age" of women, where the Election Commission pulled off an effective campaign giving women not only the confidence to vote, but also to vote the way they wanted to without influence by male family members.
It is sadly true, however, that we tend to pay lip service to democracy, and the only thing that is meant by this word is elections. For democracy to really thrive, we have to take in its broader meaning to encompass diverse opinions and participation from all sections of the population. While the survey shows that an almost equal number of men (42.3%) and women (40.7%) believe that they have the freedom to participate in political activities and speak their mind, it has also shown that compared to men very few women participate in day-to-day politics and matters of state. An almost negligible number of women participated in protests, election/referendum campaigns or political meetings. Even women's organisations, which ranked third after the Parliament and the courts for their role in facilitating democracy, appear to have only 0.2% of women who have directly engaged in political activities. This makes to ponder why women are likely to come out in throngs to vote, but are just as likely to stay away from politics.
Our question is set against a wider concern that meaningful democratisation is not determined simply by the inclusion of women as voters but through access to social development and changes in patriarchal structures and norms which operate in stubborn and stark ways.
There have been attempts at facilitating the political participation of women. Most notable is the quota of reserved seats for women in the parliament. But how far has it really encouraged female participation in politics? These seats are traditionally viewed as a "vote bank." The female MPs from the reserved seats are considered ineffectual in parliament and hardly have the power to influence decision-making. Bangladeshi politics still prefers male candidates to win in elections and the view from the top is that nominating a woman for a seat is akin to losing it. Furthermore, women are generally employed in "soft" political areas such as social welfare, cultural affairs, health and family planning and so on.
Therefore, although there is almost a similar level of political awareness between men and women and indeed a history of female political leadership, these have been founded on a deeply embedded patriarchal system that cuts across the public as well as the domestic spheres. The Daily Star Survey shows that constraints to women's active participation in the public sphere of politics begin in their homes. 83.2% of respondents reported that they were housewives. Of them, the majority (41.7%) were primary school graduates with only 5.8% moving on to formal education and 1.6% to Masters level. This shows that despite the positive improvements in female literacy, Bangladesh is still caught up in patriarchal traditions with women's higher education and career regarded as less important than that of their male family members. Furthermore, when asked whether men and women should have equal rights, including in family matters and inheritance of property, 77.8% of women respondents agreed while 27.8 % male respondents as well as 12.4% female respondents disagreed.
That Bangladeshi democracy has patriarchal underpinnings emerged vividly in the volatile debate that took place over women's inheritance rights earlier this year. When, on the occasion of Women's Day, the prime minister implemented the Women's Development Policy, even pro- government Islamic parties opposed the policies. Others took to the streets claiming that the policy was anti-Quran when, in fact, over the years, the policy had regressed to offer rights over property that women had already inherited and did not contradict Muslim property laws. A more stark revelation of patriarchal influence is in the dismally low number of women who join the workforce. A recent World Bank report puts it down to the widespread violence against women, of which most take place in their own homes. Women who participate in political demonstrations are particularly more vulnerable to such abuse, even from the law enforcement agencies.
Bangladesh has made significant progress in women's reproductive health and literacy, and certainly it is to the credit of women that they have successfully mobilised for rights and development in political and civil society arenas. However, to achieve democracy where the second sex has an equal chance at political participation we need to probe deep into patriarchal biases that cut across all levels of public life, going all the way to our homes.

The writers are Research Associate, IGS and Head of Research, IGS, respectively.

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