With the whole world entangled in the coronavirus pandemic, we have no other option but to shut down all work and fight to contain the deadly disease. Apart from the medical aspect of this battle involving doctors, health workers, physical facilities and equipment, it is also a massive social struggle with the people of the world coming together. In the midst of this unprecedented global crisis, with all public programmes cancelled, we have an occasion worth celebrating—the 50th anniversary of the founding of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. The struggle of Mahila Parishad to promote the rights of the women in Bangladesh is part of the global movement to establish a society where men and women are treated equally. It is both a national and global struggle, like the present one against the coronavirus, incorporating individuals, families, communities, the nation and the wider world out there.
Bangladesh Mahila Parishad was established on April 4, 1970, immediately after the mass uprising that toppled the decade-long military rule of General Ayub Khan. Women played a significant role in the movement; their massive participation was a new phenomenon, and in the end they created a platform of their own to promote the rights of women. Sufia Kamal, the respected poet and social activist, was the President and Maleka Begum was the General Secretary. Sufia Kamal was joined by a group of senior activists who had pioneered the women's movement in the early days of Pakistan. The bulk of the new members came from the student movement of the Sixties. They were vibrant and committed.
In a way, Mahila Parishad reflected the long journey of women's struggle in Bengal. Among others, Sufia Kamal was the junior-most associate of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Manorama Basu was a veteran of anti-colonial movement, Hena Das was a legendary leader of the peasants movement, etc. The large number of young activists formed the base with blessings from the veterans. There cannot be a better combination. The new organisation quickly expanded its branches but got engulfed in the great War of Liberation of the Bengali people. The nine-month long ordeal of the people made a big impact on society, especially on the women who contributed in many ways to become victors and suffered great pain as victims of sexual violence. The emergence of Bangladesh as a secular, democratic, national and liberal republic created great euphoria while Mahila Parishad started a new journey. Women's role in society can no longer be denied in the name of obscurantism or religious bigotry. The constitution adopted in 1972 recognised the equality of man and woman. As affirmative action, the victims of sexual violence during the war were recognised as "Birangana" (or war heroine), quota for women in government service was introduced, seats for women in Parliament were reserved as a temporary measure, etc. But such policies were few in number and symbolic in nature. The patriarchal society imposed its own dictum on the lives of women. The male-dominated society was not ready to accept women as equal in their rights. There existed a huge gap between constitutional proclamations and the policy and practices of the government. Moreover, the violence against women remained as widespread as before, if not more.
Against this backdrop, Mahila Parishad organised the women for the recognition of their rights and formulation of appropriate policies. It did its utmost to protest against violence and stand by the victims. In view of the widespread violence, the intervention of Mahila Parishad was selective but nonetheless made a big impact in society. Its quick, effective and persistent action brought many cases to the limelight, exposed the vulnerabilities of women, drew attention to the need for formulating proper policies and reforming the law. One can cite the example of Shabmeher whom the traffickers sold to the sex traders which ultimately led to her death by suicide. The brutal murder of Saleha by Dr Iqbal, or Sharmin Rima by Munir, both from the affluent educated class, showed how vulnerable women were irrespective of their social or educational background. The case of Noorjahan, a rural girl from Kamalganj, Moulvibazar, stoned to death following a fatwa by a local Maulana, shocked the nation. Similarly, the rape and subsequent murder of Yeasmin by a group of law enforcers in Dinajpur gave rise to massive protests where Mahila Parishad played a major role. In many such cases, Parishad activists had to launch sustained and persistent acts to ensure justice for the victims. The mural of Yeasmin erected by the local branch of Mahila Parishad on the road to Dinajpur reminds all of the victims and their struggle for justice.
Such acts highlighting the violence against women were a learning experience for BMP too. Gradually, the organisation developed an elaborate mechanism to provide legal support to persecuted women, establish Rokeya Sadan as a home for women victims and their children, advocate strongly for the enactment of law to protect women, adopt appropriate policy in support of victims, etc. As a result of such actions, the government enacted Act on Women and Child Abuse in 2010. Proper implementation of the law is the new challenge that requires many support mechanisms as well as reforms.
The holistic approach of Mahila Parishad has driven the organisation to adopt multifarious measures being carried out by the members of its wide-ranging network. BMP is lobbying for the adoption of a Uniform Family Code. As part of this effort, in conjunction with legal experts and civil society representatives, they formulated a draft law in 1997 and handed it over to the government. This is a forward-looking document that storms the citadel of patriarchy. The growing participation of women in the workforce has made it imperative for BMP to address the issues of their rights, protection, pay, health, support mechanism and other related issues.
The linkage of national struggle with the global march of women for their fundamental rights was part of BMP's goal right from the beginning. The close relation with the left-leaning World Federation of Democratic Women inspired BMP to introduce 8 March as the International Women's Day in Bangladesh as early as in 1972. The subsequent development within the UN to promote women's rights has opened up new opportunities for the organisation. The organisation is a strong partner in monitoring the implementation of CEDAW charter. It is also lobbying for the full ratification of CEDAW including clause 2 and 17A. Mahila Parishad is engaged in promoting gender perspective in both governmental and non-governmental policies and implementation. The content and form of women's movement are changing and BMP has to redefine itself in light of the new reality.
Sufia Kamal proclaimed in late Eighties that women's right is a human right. This is a globally recognised slogan to make women equal to men in every aspect of life. In Bangladesh, BMP became the embodiment of that struggle, with its widespread organisational network incorporating members from a broad spectrum of society, both rural and urban. The voluntary participation of women is the basis of the organisation and this is what makes BMP different from others. The organisation has transformed itself to meet the new challenges of life; it has expanded its organisational network, turned itself into the largest women organisation of the land, and at the same time it remains rooted in the nation's past and true to its core philosophy as an organisation linked to the great tradition of Rokeya and others, composed of members rendering voluntary service to the cause of the emancipation of women. The organisation has come a long way. We are confident that it will march forward to bring emancipation not only for women but men and women alike.
Mofidul Hoque is a war crimes researcher and trustee of the Liberation War Museum.