Today, the 28th of September, marks the birthday of a woman who has achieved prominence for the resilience and resolve she has displayed for the past three decades. One of the only 18 current female national leaders of the world, her career has been marred by a series of obstacles embedded viciously in her path—house arrest, slander, exile from her own nation,assassination attempts, political propaganda, slaughter of her supporters, and more. But she has risen above them all, countering the autocratic, fascist, and fundamentalist tides threatening to sweep away the accomplishments she has made. She has played a role of leadership in the democratization and industrialization of Bangladesh—throwing off the toxic vestiges of military rule, opening up Bangladesh to greater opportunities for multinational cooperation, encouraging private businesses and entrepreneurship to spur the economy, and building Bangladesh brick-by-brick as a democratic and flourishing regional power. Our Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina Wazed, is a lady who has demonstrated initiative and willpower throughout her crusades, and deserves nothing short of heartfelt recognition for the progress our nation has made under her leadership.
Her life and career can only be described as challenging. She has overcome hurdle upon hurdle, attack upon attack, and slander upon slander to climb where she has today—and it has, in fact, been a treacherous and dangerous climb, a climb that gains you enemies and those wishing you dead. But it was a climb that allowed her to hoist herself to the top, unshaken by the brutal slaughter of almost her entire family in 1975—a slaughter that would have ended her life too, had she not been living abroad at the time. The next half decade saw her living in exile in India, confronted by the danger of violent retaliation if she returned to her home country. She suffered detention and house arrest during the mid-1980s, as efforts by the Awami League as well as the BNP aimed to re-empower democratic government in Bangladesh and overthrow the autocratic military rule of General Ershad.
Even as Hasina gained the seat of national leader over a decade later, the threats to her safety and well-being did not cease—in fact, efforts to see her dead or out of power were ramped up. Assassination attempts placed her life in jeopardy, as 21 AL followers were slaughtered in a grenade attack in Dhaka in 2004. A plethora of more attacks followed, but at the end of the day, she emerged alive and strong, her resolve not diminished.
The moral of the story is not to embellish the dangers of becoming the leader of the nation, but rousing respect for how Sheikh Hasina has resiliently overcome them. She has not stooped low or hidden her head in face of adversity and opposition, but seems to have embraced them and used them as a platform for further spurring her voyage for a better Bangladesh. From building a better resistance to global warming, to helping resolve ethnic conflict in the Hill Tracts, to encouraging greater female representation in the government, to opening Bangladesh up to foreign engagement and multinational projects, Sheikh Hasina has truly changed the face of the nation. Fascists and fundamentalists would like to see her dead, and that is to be expected—figureheads of progress are always hated by those who oppose progress and enlightenment.
But it would be naïve and simply untrue to claim that the vision for a truly progressive and empowered Bangladesh has been fulfilled. Far from that. Our nation continues to find itself plagued by predicaments ranging from the stifling of freedom of speech to lack of gender equality. While there has been much progress in these fields, there is a long way to go until we can dare to call ourselves an enlightened, socially aware country.
One of the foremost goals on the Prime Minister’s agenda, since she has achieved international acclaim for being one of the very few female leaders and an icon of female leadership, is to ensure other girls and women can flourish in an environment that prizes their talents and prioritizes equal opportunity. It is vital that pushing for gender equality and addressing the lack of equal treatment available be high on the national to-do list, because the continuation of inequality and discrimination—as history teaches—can jeopardize the development of a nation and its people, robbing them of much of the resources and talent they have the potential to use. Stifling the abilities of women and girls will not accomplish except the satisfaction of the less enlightened citizens—the blindfolded minds who prefer that females work in the home and not grasp the tools of the outside world, who doubt that women can make a legitimate difference in the world’s affairs, who laugh at the idea that girls can truly be changemakers in society. These are the people who fear change, who fear progress, who fear equality, and who love repression and imbalance. These are the people who will be content with the current state of affairs for gender equality in Bangladesh, and these are the mindsets we have to combat in our journey for equality.
Achieving gender equality is not anywhere near as simple as it sounds. There are so many fields and sectors in which this equality is alarmingly clear that the efforts for achieving women empowerment have to be varied, coordinated, and above all, dedicated.
The Prime Minister must take steps to encourage a greater female presence in the world of science. Scientific research is the building block of the future—it is what technological progress is composed of. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields are the most promising areas in which advancement occurs, on an international basis. The ratio of male to female scientists is dismal. This ratio must change, and the government must do more to forward this initiative. Greater opportunities for both genders in the world of STEM must be made accessible for this progress to happen.
Leading the way for more women to join the workforce overall must also be on the agenda. Ladies across the nation are restricted from or feel reluctant to take up jobs due to the lower wages associated with the female gender and high possibility of abuse and harassment even in the office space, as well as social pressure to focus on family matters first. It is imperative that Bangladesh take measures to ensure a certain level of safety, ability to report harassment or sexual crimes, and install maternal leave opportunities for women wishing to balance both their work and family lives.
Child marriage and education are also contentious topics needed to be addressed head-on. Greater enforcement of marriage law and monitoring must be implemented in rural Bangladesh, which is where instances of child marriage most regularly occur. Greater access to education for girls must also be prioritized—schooling and literacy are some of the most indispensable factors for leading a wiser, more advanced population.
Another factor needed to be confronted is one of the saddest—the lack of safety. In a functioning civilization, the importance of safety need not even be stressed; it is one of the most integral and basic needs for a population to flourish. But Bangladesh does not prove to be a very safe place for all. The streets of the cities are menacing and a site for crime and abuse; rape and sexual harassment run amok. Ensuring a safe life for all citizens regardless of gender is not even a goal I need to explain—it should be self-explanatory, making it even more painful to have to write about why Bangladesh needs it.
Advocating for gender equality is not always praised. Online harassers and anti-feminists seem to busy themselves with bullying those who stand up for equality, labeling them “feminazis” and such for the mere act of promoting equality. Not only is Bangladesh lacking the necessary platforms for furthering gender equity, but much of its populace is actively adverse to it.
All in all, progress has been made in Bangladesh, but there is much to be done. Accomplishing this task will need resolve, initiative, and leadership, and Bangladesh has demonstrated that its people’s achievements can be boundless if their efforts reflect their energy. On our Prime Minister’s birthday today, let us look back to how far we have come, and also look forward to what we still can do.
Adeeb Chowdhury is a student of William Carey Academy.He is a fan of writing, researching and debating, focusing mostly on social issues, human rights, and global affairs. His multiplicity of interests include Model UN, international matters, and science, and his writings have been published on sites such as the Women Chapter, Mukto-Mona, Shuddashar Magazine, The Bangladeshi Humanist, BornoMala News, and more. He is also the Co-Founder and Vice President of the William Carey Academy Model United Nations Club.