The Bangladesh parliament is comprised of 350 seats. Of these seats, 50 have been reserved for women since 2010, in an attempt to increase the representation of women in politics. In December 2018, Bangladesh’s parliament saw the highest number of women to be directly elected to the Lower House – though skepticism remained about the level of influence female members of parliament would actually have in a nation with staunchly patriarchal values. Less than two months after an election result that women greeted with cautious optimism, it has been announced that biologically male transgender-identified people will be permitted to take seats allotted to women.
The most generous estimates indicate that transgender individuals compromise between 0.8 and 0.16% of the population of Bangladesh. It has been confirmed that eight “Hijras” – men who identify as women – will be vying for political seats in an election that is scheduled to be announced on February 17, 2019. If all eight of the individuals enter parliament, the trans population will hold nearly 2.3% seats in parliament, which is several times greater than their proportion of the general population.
“There are 300 seats but we only have 22 women MPs [members of parliament],” Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the Women’s Desk at the Catholic Bishops Conference of Bangladesh, pointed out to Ucanews when discussing women’s constant under-representation in parliament. “Half of the population is female, so women deserve at least one-third of the seats in a direct election.”
Most Bangladeshis frown upon their female family members entering politics. In Bangladeshi tradition, leadership in both domestic and public spheres is regarded as the man’s role, while the woman’s time-honored place is in the home, with her role being to reproduce and nurture the family. This is systematically reinforced by religious, political and cultural norms.
While Bangladesh ranks 89th worldwide in terms of female parliamentary representation, and women hold many of the most important leadership positions, the political power is more symbolic than actual.
Hazera Khatun, who holds a reserved women’s Parliament seat (RSWP) for the Worker’s Party, stated:
Negative bias against women still exists in the political parties. Our male colleagues do not want to see us rise, and we face discriminatory attitudes even from our leaders.
“Some of them tease us as parliament’s ‘call girls,'” said another RSWP. “It is really sad that many of our elected male colleagues do not look upon [us] with respect.”
The 50 women who fill parliamentary seats reserved for women are not taken as seriously as the 300 elected parliamentary members, who are primarily men. RSWPs are allotted only one-third of the 400 million in funds that elected members of parliament receive toward development each year. Councils are required to seek the opinion of elected members, but not of RSWPs. RSWPs are not given as much access to the electorate, and are not taken as seriously by their constituency. In addition, when elected parliamentary members and RSWPs share a constituency, the elected official is often hostile to the RSWP.
In at least one case, an elected male parliamentary member threatened an RSWP, whom he discovered had visited their constituency while he was abroad. His supporters attacked a prize-giving ceremony she intended, leading to the injury of many children, the February 4, 2016 issue of daily national newspaper the Bangladesh Pratidin reported.
A RSWP remarked in a February 10, 2016 in-depth focus group discussion:
Men and women MPs are [formally] equal. But … women get less time [to speak] and are allowed to speak at less important time … You’ve to turn to the Chief Whip [and whips] almost begging for time. But they will go to other [male] MPs and request: ‘you speak’, ‘you speak.’
When women in parliament do gain political successes, such as getting amendments passed, the women’s proactive approach is shamed by fellow party members as “overactivism.”
However, the Prime Minister prohibits women in reserved seats from running for general seats, thus keeping the majority of women in parliament politically stunted.
Bangladesh is not the only nation in which men may now fill the few political seats allotted to women after centuries of women being closed out of politics in most nations around the world.
On August 23, 2018, the Democratic National Committee of the United States passed a charter that will have the effect of opening seats reserved for women to men who identify as women or “non-binary” (a term for those who identify as neither male nor female). The seats had previously been reserved for women in order to ensure parity between the sexes. As in Bangladesh, American women had just scored major political gains, with a record number of women entering Congress.
In the United Kingdom, a teen boy who identifies as a transgender woman was selected by Labour party members in 2017 to represent women’s voices in the role of Women’s Officer. The boy, Lily Madigan, immediately used the position to drive women out of politics. Several women were fired from the party or forced to resign due to what they claimed was an ongoing campaign of harassment. On his Twitter account, Mr. Madigan has openly advocated for “cis-free” panels, admitting that “all-cis women politics panels” bring him “sadness.” (A “cis woman” is the term gender identity ideologues use to indicate biologically female adults.)
In Mexico, 15 men pretended to identify as women for the sole purpose of taking the few political seats designated for women. The men were later disqualified once the scheme was uncovered.
In a country like Bangladesh, which is rife with subjugation and violence against women, and in which women’s fight for human rights has barely made headway, it seems to be a bad time for men, regardless of personal identity, to have the opportunity to erase women’s legal identity and usurp women’s already limited political voices.
If anything, women’s parliamentary representation could be increased to match women’s percentage of the population, while the work on getting women’s voices respected continues. Separate seats could be set aside for transgender-identifying individuals, proportionate to the proportion of the population that identifies as transgender.
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For the first time in Bangladesh’s history, transgender candidates who identify as women can vie for the 50 seats reserved for women in the upcoming elections in the Jatiya Sansad or National Parliament.
Women’s representation in Bangladesh Parliament may seem satisfactory in terms of number, but when it comes to active participation in policy-making and public service, the picture is quite different.