Information on women and politics, part 4 of 6: Women's organizations [BGD21349.EX]

According to Najma Chowdhury, author of "Bangladesh: Gender Issues and Politics in a Patriarchy,"

[A] discussion of the informal political process [must] include[] a review of women's organizations whose aim is to raise women's status, create awareness of women's issues, and build platforms from which women's demands can be made. In seeking to find a public voice with which to demand change, these ostensibly nonpolitical organizations do in fact venture into the realm of politics. ... Women's voluntary groups ... provide women an important venue for making their demands known and for transforming the so-called social issues into matters of public policy (1994, 95).

In addition to raising awareness of women's issues and articulating them in a public forum, women's organizations can also serve as a training ground for future women political leaders (Journal of Social Studies 1985, 50).

One observer has identified three phases in the development of women's organizations in Bengal and Bangladesh (Jahan 1975, 23). The first period, 1910-1947, was led by women from the Calcutta-based landlord class who questioned strict observance of purdah and demanded improvements in female school enrolment and literacy (ibid.; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 42). The movement apparently disbanded in the 1930s and 1940s when leadership passed to a group of less committed Muslim literary women (Jahan 1975, 23; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 42).

In the second period, 1947-1970, a number of women's organizations were established (Jahan 1975, 24; Ahmed 1987, 7). In general these organizations were urban-based, were led and supported by educated middle-class and elite women, focused on charity and social welfare activities, and tended to function "more as social clubs than as political organizations designed to achieve women's rights" (Jahan 1982b, 13; Quader 1987, 162; Chowdhury 1994, 102). They worked to raise awareness of women's issues, although their orientation was toward education and legal reform, areas of concern mainly to middle-class women (Jahan 1982b, 13; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 45).

Foremost among the women's organizations that developed during this period was the All Pakistan Women's Association (APWA), which was founded in 1949 (Ahmed 1987, 7; Islam 1979, 352; Jahan 1975, 24), and eventually had branches in all districts and subdivisions (ibid.). The APWA membership and leadership were drawn from the urban elite, generally the wives of powerful military, administrative and political figures (ibid.; Ahmed 1987, 7; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 44; Islam 1979, 353). Membership in the APWA was linked to the status of one's husband, not to education, organizing ability or commitment to a particular cause (ibid.). Although the APWA functioned primarily as a neighbourhood "social club of elite women" that arranged "social and cultural get-togethers" (Jahan 1975, 24; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 44), and its activities were largely "limited to supporting welfare and charity-oriented programs through bazaars, fashion shows, and cultural evenings" (Ahmed 1987, 7; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 44; Islam 1979, 353), one notable political success was the promulgation of the 1961 Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, which significantly improved women's legal status (ibid.; Journal of Social Studies 1985, 45). After independence (1971) the Bangladesh APWA was reconstituted as the Bangladesh Mahila Samity (BMS), which continued to offer education and skills training programmes to destitute women (Ahmed 1987, 7; United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 22; Encyclopedia of Women's Associations Worldwide 1993, 47).

At least nine other women's organizations were formed in Dhaka in the 1950s and 1960s, and most, including Gandaria Mahila Samity (1950), Wari Mahila Samity (1954) and Purana Paltan Ladies Club, were similar to the APWA; neighbourhood women's clubs of "'enlightened ladies' ... want[ing] to improve the socioeconomic condition of lower-middle-class and poor women," but demonstrating little interest in political action (Jahan 1975, 26; Ahmed 1987, 7). Similar organizations include the Women's Voluntary Association (WVA), the Lionesses, the Rotary, Zonta International, Qaibandha, Azimpur Ladies Club and the Young Women's Christian Associations (ibid., 9; Jahan 1975, 27; Chowdhury 1994, 102).

A second category of women's groups, professional organizations for business and career women, was established in the 1960s and 1970s. These organizations also were urban-based, but were well-funded and had specific goals and programmes that appealed to westernized career women (Ahmed 1987, 9; Jahan 1975, 27). Among these groups are the Business and Career Women's Club, Bangladesh Federation of Business and Professional Women, Bangladesh Federation of University Women, and Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (ibid.; Ahmed 1987, 9; Kabeer 1991, 138; Encyclopedia of Women's Associations Worldwide 1993, 47-48; United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 21-22). In general, these organizations also draw their membership and leadership from the elite and have a social service or welfarist orientation (ibid.; Chowdhury 1994, 102).

The third phase in the development of women's organizations began in the post-liberation period (Jahan 1975, 28). Three new types of women's organizations emerged in these years.

The first category, although not comprising women's groups specifically, consists of NGOs that promote women's emancipation with action-oriented development initiatives, including skills training, health services, cooperatives and provision of credit for self-employment (Kabeer 1991, 138; Ahmed 1987, 9). Among these organizations are Karika (Bangladesh Handicrafts Cooperative Federation), Shoptogram Nari Swanirvar Parishad (Shoptogram Women's Self-Reliant Council), Swanirbhar Women's Program, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Proshikha, Nijeri Kori and several others (ibid.; United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 28-29; Kabeer 1991, 138). Primarily rural-based grassroots organizations, these NGOs "represent an important break" with urban-based women's organizations because they reach out to the vast majority of the population, focus on the long-term empowerment of the poor and landless rather than just their immediate needs, and employ a "collective rather than individual concept of empowerment" (ibid.). For example, Proshikha organizes landless and poor rural men and women into groups and encourages them to use their own savings to fund income-generating schemes United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 28-29). These activities are supplemented by a revolving loan fund that provides preferential terms and interest rates to women (ibid.). Other groups have similar types of rural loan and credit programmes (ibid.).

The second category consists of research and/or women's consciousness-raising organizations. In general these organizations are "middle class, ... actively pro-feminist" and view the situation of women in Bangladesh as basically a political issue (Chowdhury 1994, 102). Because of their interest articulation and activist orientation, however, they appeal only to "limited sectors of society" (ibid.)

One of the oldest and most prominent of these groups is Women for Women, a research and study group that was established in 1973 by a group of women academics. It seeks to raise awareness of women's issues, influence public policy and foster "communication and exchange between women's groups and the government" (Encyclopedia of Women's Associations Worldwide 1993, 48; Chowdhury 1994, 102; United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 21). Women for Women also holds workshops and seminars, offers training in social science research methods, and has produced about 30 books and 4 documentary films on women's issues (ibid.; Ahmed 1987, 9; Encyclopedia of Women's Associations Worldwide 1993, 48). A 1993 source puts the organization's membership at 46, its staff at 5 and its budget at about US$30,000 (ibid.).

Another such group is UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternatives), a left-leaning organization of about 120 researchers, mainly women, founded in 1984 (Ahmed 1987, 9; Women's Movements of the World 1988, 19-20). Opposed to "patriarchy and imperialism" and "dedicated to the formulation of alternative development policies" (ibid.), UBINIG is active in bio-medical research issues such as contraception, sterilization and drug testing, export-oriented industries and their impact on women workers, community and preventive health care and violence against women (ibid.). The organization has several publications and is affiliated to international organizations with similar aims and objectives (ibid.). A similar organization is Nari Shonghoti (Women's Solidarity), established in 1985 by a group of young social scientists and affiliated to the Asian Research and Action Network (Ahmed 1987, 9; Kabeer 1991, 138).

Naripokkho (pro-woman) is a group of about 200 professional and career women "committed to the feminist philosophy and democratic principles" that works to raise consciousness among women through weekly meetings and monthly workshops (Ahmed 1987, 9; United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 21). Naripokkho seeks to raise awareness in society about sexism, women's legal rights and dowry problems, and organizes women to collectively pressure the government on public policy issues (ibid.; Ahmed 1987, 9). For example, Naripokkho was in the forefront of opposition to the Eighth Amendment, the Ershad regime's successful effort in 1988 to have Islam declared the state religion (ibid.; Kabeer 1991, 139).

The third type of organization to emerge in the post-liberation period is the women's front or umbrella organization, of which there are several. One of the earliest was the Jatiya Mahila Sangstha (JMS, or National Women's Organization), a state-directed organization established in early 1976 under the auspices of the Ministry of Women's Affairs (Chowdhury 1994, 102; Islam 1979, 360-61). As originally envisioned, the Sangstha was to be a grassroots organization with branches in every thana (smallest administrative unit) that would mobilize women, represent their interests and "ensure their social, economic, educational and cultural welfare" through various research, motivational, vocational training and education programmes (ibid., 360; Chowdhury 1994, 102). However, it is not clear how successful the Sangstha was in attaining its goals. Despite setting up branches at the district and subdivision levels, nearly three years after founding it had still to open offices in half of the thanas (Islam 1979, 360). Further, because of the Sangstha's close ties to the state it is under government administrative and budgetary control and at one time the national chairman and executive committee were all government appointees it has often supported the government's policies related to women, but "its contribution to gender awareness and the articulation of women's needs and concerns has been marginal" (Chowdhury 1994, 102-03; Islam 1979, 361).

There have also been several autonomous umbrella organizations. Nari Nirjaton O Shamajik Onachar Protirodh Committee (committee for the prevention of social injustice and violence against women), established in 1985, is a federation of about 100 organizations fighting violence against women (Ahmed 1987, 9). Bangladesh Nari Odhikar Andolon (Bangladesh Women's Rights Movement), a similar organization founded in 1984, is "committed to upholding women's rights against social and economic exploitation" (ibid.). Information on the current circumstances of these specific organizations is not available among the sources consulted, but Chowdhury, who describes the early 1980s as years of "tentative coalition building," states that "such alliances proved short lived" (1994, 103).

The late 1980s proved more favourable to the establishment of a lasting, broad-based coalition of women's groups (ibid.). In preparation for a proposed world conference on women to be held in Moscow in June 1987, about 20 Bangladeshi women's organizations established a national committee to work out a common programme (ibid.). Later the same year 14 of these groups formed the Oikkyo Baddha Nari Samaj (United Women's Forum), which in February 1988 presented a 17-point programme demanding equal rights for women on a number of legal, economic and social issues (ibid.). The forum coordinated opposition to the previously mentioned 1988 Eighth Amendment Bill, participated in several programmes during the final stages of the democracy movement in 1990, and during the transitional period following Ershad's fall submitted to the acting president a list of demands from its 1988 platform (ibid.).

At last count the number of United Women's Forum member organizations had increased to about 20 (ibid.), of which the Mahila Parishad (Women's Council) is the largest, with an estimated membership in 1991 of about 35,000, strongest and most politically active (ibid., 103-04, 111; Jahan 1975, 28; Ahmed 1987, 7; Kabeer 1991, 137; New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 119). According to Chowdhury, Mahila Parishad's objectives and strategies typify those of the current group of women's organizations that are fighting gender discrimination, raising awareness of women's issues and organizing women politically (1994, 104).

Mahila Parishad was founded in 1969-70 by progressive APWA women, Awami League women and Communist Party of Bangladesh (CPB) activists in the midst of the student movements, general political unrest and rising nationalism that culminated in the 1971 war of liberation (Journal of Social Studies 1985, 47; Chowdhury 1994, 104; New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 119; Kabeer 1991, 137). Established to mobilize women for the liberation struggle, following independence Mahila Parishad began working for the political and socioeconomic advancement of women (United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 21; Ahmed 1987, 7). Mahila Parishad has fought for the rights of female factory and office workers, pressured the government to implement a 10 per cent quota for women in government employment and has opposed the practice of reserved seats for women in parliament (Kabeer 1991, 137; New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 119). In 1980 Mahila Parishad took a leading role in pressuring the government to draft antidowry legislation (Kabeer 1991, 137; Chowdhury 1994, 104), and in 1984-1985, through public meetings, rallies and press conferences, mobilized women and public opinion in general in support of government ratification of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) (ibid.). In the mid-1980s Mahila Parishad led a campaign against violence against women, and opened shelters and established legal aid for women victims of violence (ibid., 105; Kabeer 1991, 137; New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 120-21; United Nations 8 Apr. 1993, 21). In recent years Mahila Parishad has worked for the protection and rehabilitation of prostitutes (ibid.; Chowdhury 1994, 105-06), and has organized opposition to conservative Islamist groups such as the Un-Islamic Activities Resistance Committee (UARC) (ibid.). In 1994 Mahila Parishad was providing legal help to women who had been flogged under fatwahs (religious edicts) issued by conservative Muslim clerics (DPA 17 Nov. 1994; BBC Summary 1 July 1994).

For further information on Mahila Parishad, please refer to the following sources: Chowdhury 1994, 104-05; New Left Review Mar.-Apr. 1988, 119-21; Kabeer 1991, 137-38; and Jahan 1975, 28. All of these documents are attached to Response to Information Request BGD21346.EX of 6 October 1995.

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the DIRB within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References


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BBC Summary of World Broadcasts. 1 July 1994. "Teenage Girl Sentenced to 1,000 Broom-Strokes; Women Protest Over Fatwahs." (NEXIS)

Chowdhury, Najma. 1994. "Bangladesh: Gender Issues and Politics in a Patriarchy," Women and Politics Worldwide. Edited by Barbara J. Nelson and Najma Chowdhury. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA). 17 November 1995. BC Cycle. "Bangla Police Look for Moslem Cleric Who Flogged Girl." (NEXIS)

Encyclopedia of Women's Associations Worldwide. 1993. Edited by Jacqueline K. Barrett. London: Gale Research International.

Halim, Sadeka. PhD candidate specializing in women and development issues in Bangladesh and India, Department of Sociology, McGill University, Montréal. 30 May 1995. Telephone interview.

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