Sheikh Hasina: An Icon for Women’s Empowerment in Bangladesh?


Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the only female leader among the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) 57 member countries, and the second female Prime Minister of Bangladesh. She’s regarded as one of the leading female political figures for women’s empowerment.

Women’s Education:

I believe that only the right kind of education can make a girl self-reliant economically, socially, and emotionally

Sheikh Hasina’s empowerment of Bangladeshi girls and women is evident in her education policies. Bangladesh has invested heavily in education at all levels. Firstly, primary education is compulsory and free of charge for everyone. As a result, overall enrolment in primary schools rose from 60% in 1990 to 98% in 2016. Hasina has placed an emphasis on girls’ education by providing the opportunity for girls to receive stipends and scholarships for schooling until the 12th grade. Consequently, women are now well represented in the classroom; the female-to-male high school enrollment ratio is now 53:47, a pronounced increase from the 35% to 65% divide prior to 2009. This, in turn, has resulted in marriage rates for girls under 15 dropping by more than 35%. Bangladesh also plans to eradicate this practice entirely by 2021.

Women’s Political Empowerment

Bangladesh is also famous for the political participation and empowerment of women. As well as Sheikh Hasina, now in her second term as Prime Minister, women hold 50 seats in Bangladesh’s National Parliament and 12,000 local political offices. Also, the opposition leader (Raushon Ershad), speaker and deputy speaker are women. It is unsurprising then, that the World Economic Forum ranks Bangladesh 7th in the world in the political empowerment of women.

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Of course, Sheikh Hasina being female doesn’t guarantee her as an all-virtuous figure of women’s empowerment. In 2014, her re-elections violated the Bangladeshi Constitution due to the Awami League’s (AWL) abolition of the caretaker government system which ensures a neutral body of technocrats oversee fair elections. In their response to protests against the 2014 re-election process, Hasina and The AWL have been accused of human right abuses from extra-judicial killings, to mass arrests and state-sponsored violence against opposition activists, including a concerning number of Bangladeshi women, and the house arrest of former Prime Minister and opposition leader Khaleda Zia (pictured below).

Credit: Antônio Milena/ABr, Khaleda Zia cropped 3by2, CC BY 3.0 BR; [Wikimedia Commons]
Moving on from 2014, sexual violence against women remains prevalent in Bangladesh with the county’s rate of women being raped 5 times higher than India’s. Despite Hasina aiming to eradicate formal child marriages by 2021 there are still laws that allow rapists to rape and then marry minors under the clause of special circumstance (for example, if the rape resulted in pre-marital pregnancy).

Although attacks on Bangladeshi atheists aren’t new, another distressing concern is the sexual violence against atheist women possibly committed by state forces. Female atheist blogger Nirala was gang-raped for 3 days by so-called investigators, premised on the excuse that she had been taken to be interrogated about her writing. If the rapists had any association with the AWL, this is hypocritical and shameful considering the AWL is a secular party. Moreover, there are concerns regarding the repatriation agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar, whereby refugees start to go back to Rakhine State in Myanmar, a home destroyed by state violence and mass rape for many women and children.

In conclusion, it is, of course, important for the women’s movement to see more women in positions of leadership. The more women in high-profile leadership roles, the more society gets used to women’s right to social participation and presence, and Sheikh Hasina is a clear example for Muslim women in particular. However, simply by virtue of their gender, not all women are feminist icons, nor are they necessarily more likely to be morally upright, or law-abiding. This is especially the case with Sheikh Hasina’s violation of the Bangladeshi Constitution in her 2014 elections, and reported state-orchestrated violence on civilians.


International Editor for 2018/19 | Writes mainly International/Opinion pieces

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