Bangladesh defies hardliners, elects first female speaker

Observers hail the election of Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury as a positive step for women's empowerment.

By Kamran R Chowdhury for Khabar South Asia in Dhaka

May 11, 2013
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Bangladesh has followed India and Pakistan as the third South Asian country to elect a woman as parliament speaker, defying a threat by the Hefajat-e-Islam organisation, which warned the government not to promote women.

  • Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, Bangladesh's first woman parliament speaker, places a wreath at the portrait of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on May 1st. She was elected speaker on April 30th. [Akhtaruzzaman Talukder/ Khabar]

    Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, Bangladesh's first woman parliament speaker, places a wreath at the portrait of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on May 1st. She was elected speaker on April 30th. [Akhtaruzzaman Talukder/ Khabar]

Hefajat-e-Islam on April 6th set a 30-day deadline for the government to abandon the policy of women's empowerment – which it described as "free mixing of men and women" -- or face a shutdown of Dhaka on May 5th.

But the ruling Awami League went ahead anyway, voting unanimously on April 30th to elect lawyer Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury as speaker of the unicameral Jatiya Sangsad after her predecessor Abdul Hamid was elected president.

"I am happy to be the first woman speaker," Chowdhury told Khabar South Asia at her office, calling the party's decision "historic" for women empowerment.

"I can guarantee that the opposition will be treated with honour; they will not be deprived of their rights on the floor," she added. "I will examine the reasons of the opposition boycott (of parliament) and try to address their problems to the extent possible."

A galaxy of women leaders

Many women hold leadership position in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. The prime minister, speaker, opposition leader, deputy leader of the house, agriculture minister, foreign minister, telecom minister, a parliament whip, and 59 lawmakers are women.

India's Meira Kumar and Pakistan's Fahmida Mirza are South Asia's other parliament speakers.

The ruling Awami League legislators elected Chowdhury as an MP in early 2009, for a seat reserved for women. Prior to the election as speaker, she was a junior minister at the Women and Children's Affairs Ministry; before that, a lawyer at the Supreme Court.

Academicians cautiously welcomed her promotion as the 13th Speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad.

"Hardline Islamists posed great challenges for women empowerment in Bangladesh. This is a commendable decision to elect a women speaker given the challenges," Professor Emeritus Nazma Chowdhury of Dhaka University's Department of Women and Gender Studies told Khabar.

She condemned the hardliners for their anti-women stance, saying, "The nation cannot march without women empowerment".

Prof Chowdhury, however, added that the newly elected speaker has gained the post a "little bit early" in her political career. Aged 46, she will be the youngest speaker in Bangladesh's history.

Some politicians in both the opposition and ruling party expressed concerns about whether she has enough experience for the job.

"She is an excellent lady with excellent academic feats, but she should not have consented to vie for the post as she is a newcomer in politics," A. M. A. Mahub Uddin Khokon, an MP of the main opposition BNP, told Khabar.

He said only a highly seasoned politician should run for speaker, which is "the symbol of national unity".

Mujibul Haque, a lawmaker aligned with the Jatiya Party, which is a member of the ruling coalition, had similar reservations.

"I think she could have done better had she taken 10 more years," Haque, told Khabar.

Bangladesh leads in South Asia

But others hailed the move as further evidence that Bangladesh is taking a lead in promoting the rights of South Asian women.

Political analyst Nizam Uddin Ahmed told Khabar that Chowdhury's elevation was a "step forward".

"Unlike … some other conservative Muslim nations, Bangladesh society has tolerant approach towards women empowerment. We have been steadily empowering women in all spheres," said Ahmed, an author and professor of Public Administration at Chittagong University.

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Reader Comments
  • esrat sharminMay 26, 2013 @ 02:05:37AM

    Women can do everything. And I think only a skilled person can run a country... And an honest person is required for that...

  • Sarath CoorayMay 11, 2013 @ 12:05:57AM

    An informative piece written objectively which I hope would be followed up with an in-depth analysis of empowerment of women in a wider South Asia context. Congrats/regards Sarath Cooray, Sr Lanka

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