Just weeks before the political parties are set to announce their candidates, aspirants everywhere are busy campaigning. The city-centres are strung up with garish posters bearing blown-up passport-size photos of the candidates, placed on a background of images ranging from satellites to bridges. But it is hard to locate a poster with a woman's face in the crowd of men in suits and Mujib coats.
In 1973, the number of women elected into the parliament was nil. A whole 45 years and one feminist movement later, this number, representing women who were elected—as in actually elected through voting instead of being selected in the reserved seats for women—is only 6.2 percent. In a political system, in which both the major parties—and even the current opposition party—are led by women, their participation in politics as represented by this statistic leaves a lot to be desired.
In numbers, this means out of 300 seats contested, only 22 are occupied by elected women representatives—and even in this small handful, three of them were actually promoted to their MP status after their husbands passed away during their tenure as a parliamentarian.
It is at this point that many are quick to state that the number of women in the parliament is actually higher because 50 reserved seats are kept for women for the sake of representation. However, experts argue that the 'reserved seats' are merely a token representation.
Why is it that more women don't contest elections, and why aren't reserved seats equal to actual representation?
“People do not want to elect women because they think we cannot work as hard as men, which is completely false,” says Sabina Akhter Tuhin, who is vying for nomination as an Awami League candidate for Mirpur in the upcoming national polls.
Tuhin is the only women whose face one would see plastered on walls and lamp posts in Gabtoli, Mazar Road and Mirpur Beribandh areas. She says she feels as though she has to overcompensate to break the mindset that women are not capable enough.
“Even if I get a call in the middle of the night, by someone who says they need to get their child taken to the hospital, I get out of the house and get it done. I don't want anyone to think I'm any less than a man. I can help them in the middle of the night if they need it.
“I am working hard, and I am hopeful about getting nominated as a candidate,” says Tuhin.
There are only a handful of female aspirants vying for candidacy in the 11th national polls. Aside from political heavyweights like Matia Chowdhury, Sahara Khatun, Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, Meher Afroz Chumki and Begum Monnuzan Sufian, how many of them will even make it past the primary nomination process remains to be seen.
“Male candidates have taken 30 to 35 years to build a name in their constituencies. They are not going to give that up just for the sake of equality,” states Ayesha Khanam, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. This is especially true in areas where there is already a strong male incumbent—rarely has a female candidate been chosen for a seat traditionally known as an AL-stronghold.
This is where reserved seats come in—they give women a chance at candidacy where they would not otherwise have clout. In addition to the 300 general seats, 50 seats in the parliament are kept specifically for women candidates just for the sake of representation. Except this system is riddled with discrepancies in such a way that token representation is all that the reserved seats have managed to achieve. They have not been able to give women any real power at all.
Experts argue that among other things, this discrimination begins from something as simple as the selection process. This is how it works: each party with seats in the parliament proposes a pool of candidates for the 50 seats. These seats are distributed—or rather overlaid—across existing constituencies. The MPs of those constituencies then decide which female candidate they want to see in the seats corresponding with their constituency.
Ideally, this is supposed to be a process where parties nominate multiple women for each reserved seat, and then the MPs can vote to decide who goes where. Unfortunately that is not the case—the parties have never nominated more than 50 candidates at a time for the 50 reserved seats, according to a research published by International Foundation for Electoral Systems in June 2016.
For the last parliament, too, the parties nominated 50 candidates exactly—41 of whom were from AL, and the rest from Jatiya Party, along with three independent candidates (who later pledged allegiance to AL). A 2014 research by Shujan (Shushanor Jonno Nagorik) claimed that one-fourth of the candidates were selected based on direct family ties with the MPs—and of them, nine were never active in politics.
The Shujan report also found another interesting fact—the reserved seat parliamentarians are mostly all businesswomen and are all very wealthy. Around 25 percent of these women are multimillionaires according to the affidavits they submitted. One of them, AL's Nilufer Zafar Ullah, has a net worth of Tk 6 crore 10 lakhs. Only six of these parliamentarians were worth less than Tk 2 lakh. These findings suggest that the MPs only choose those candidates who have the potential to be their best deep pocket allies.
What is the way out though?
“We have been campaigning to change the system of election to reserved seats. To make this a democratic process reserved seat MPs should also be chosen by the general public. Voters would cast two votes each—one for the MP, who can be either male or female, and one for the reserved seat MP. That way the public will choose who their representatives are,” says Ayesha Khanam.
Meghna Guhathakurta, executive director of Research Initiatives Bangladesh also adds that the number of reserved seats should be increased. “With 50 reserved seats women are still a minority. The number should be 100.”
However this system is unlikely to change anytime soon because the Cabinet Division decided in January that reserved seats for women will stay the way it is for the next 25 years. This was decided according to the 17th Constitution Bill.
“Since women parliamentarians in the reserved seats are 'indirectly elected', they have not been able to emerge as a political force capable of playing any meaningful role in the decision-making process,” argues Ayesha Khanam.
Khanam's argument is supported by the latest report of the Parliament Watch series produced by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), which states that only two women participated in the “lawmaking process by raising objections and proposing the need for taking public opinion on proposed bills”. The two women belonged to the main opposition (reserved seats), while the reserved seat MPs of the ruling party simply kept quiet. In another Parliament Watch report observing the parliament sessions of 2014, TIB found that only four women participated in the law-making process. Their participation amounted to only 23 minutes of the 21.35 hours spent on law-making.
“Very little time is spent on law-creation in the parliament to begin with, and women participation in the process is even less,” says Mohammed Rafiqul Islam, director of research and policy at TIB.
On the first day of the ongoing 23rd session of the Jatiya Sangsad, only three reserved seat parliamentarians raised issues specific to their constituencies during the question-and-answer round with ministers. The topic of the day was local government and youth opportunities. One talked about building a small bridge in an upazila in Savar, one wanted a training centre in Hatiya, and the other wanted to see if the microloan cap for women could be raised in Gopalganj. The rest raised general issues—and according to Parliament Watch's latest report, their total participation constituted only 10 percent of the total. In contrast, the men raised questions pertaining to specific mega development projects. This includes stadiums, roads etc.
“This is because the reserved seat women are not given big development projects to take care of. All these projects are under the general seat (usually male) MP's jurisdiction,” says Meghna Guhathakurta.
Reserved seat parliamentarian Mahjabeen Khaled from seat-18, which is in Jamalpur, admits that they don't have to deal with big projects. “Instead we devote our time to political canvassing. I go from door to door asking people what their problems are and I hold frequent meetings in homestead courtyards. I distribute money from discretionary funds to those in need,” she says.
Meghna Guhathakurta has an explanation for why women MPs have a different set of 'job responsibilities' than their male counterparts. “The women do not want to clash with the (male) MPs in their constituency because it is ultimately these MPs who vote them into the parliament,” she states.
“The women are not chosen by the general public, and since they do not have a constituency, they do not have to visit the areas that their seats cover. They have no accountability towards the residents,” adds Guhathakurta.
Since reserved seat women parliamentarians do not have a constituency per se, they cannot even work to garner supporters for direct election to general seats in the future, believe experts.
Some of the parliamentarians, however, disagree. Mahjabeen Khaled is running for the 11th national polls and has used her time as a reserved seat MP to canvass for her campaign. “I have been going to the area very regularly for the past two years in preparation of this moment,” she says.
The Mirpur candidate Sabina Akhter Tuhin, too, is currently occupying a reserved seat (seat 35) and is using that to gather supporters. She is of the opinion that the reserved seat gave her the chance to test her waters.
“I have been doing politics in Mirpur from the age of 11 when I organised a protest at my school. I was active with the Bangladesh Chhatra League Unit of Mirpur College where I studied. But a lot of my work went unnoticed because I was a woman, especially by the media,” she says.
“Being in the reserved seat gave me the platform I needed.”
And that is where affirmative action succeeded in empowering women. There is no doubt that reserved seats are important for women in politics. This is especially true in the case of women doing local politics—only 0.3 percent of the general seats at the upazila level belong to women, and in the union parishad levels, that percentage is an appalling 0.1 percent. Compared to these figures, the parliament is in a much better condition. But this is still a far cry from what the situation should ideally be. We actually have a law called Representation of the People Order (RPO) 1972 that mandates female participation to be at a 33 percent—but that right now, seems like a dream.