Feminist Lessons to Learn from Muslim Nation of Bangladesh

By Jerin Arifa, Co-Chair, Young Feminist Task Force

On April 9, 2012, the New York Times published an article about the strides women are making in Bangladesh — my birth country. It has not been an easy journey for the nation, plagued by both natural and man-made adversities. Natural disasters devastate the small country on a regular basis; as one of the poorest and most densely populated nations in the world, it has few resources to respond to the crises. It is below sea level and losing land every year due to global climate change. Bangladesh has suffered colonialism for centuries — first at the hands of the British and then Pakistan; it gained independence only 41 years ago after a bloody war in which Pakistani forces killed three million people through genocide. Despite the obstacles, Bangladesh has three percent more women in elected positions than the United States. In addition, it has had female heads of state for decades — an advancement the U.S. has not been able to make during its 200-plus years of independence.

There are a few reasons why Bangladesh has progressed further in electing women than the U.S. First, Bangladesh has a quota system reserving seats for women in the parliament. You might argue against affirmative action, but in the U.S., we are just not getting there without that extra push.

Second, Bangladeshi girls can look up to Bengali women in leadership positions in the past and present. It makes a difference when the leaders of the two most powerful political parties in Bangladesh are women, each of whom has served as the head of state. In the U.S., however, women who run or serve in political office are subject to increasingly hostile gender-based double standards and slurs. During the 2008 presidential elections — just when things should have been getting better, not worse — Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin endured some of the most vicious attacks in recent history.

Third, Bangladeshi women are not constantly bombarded with news reports of how bad women have it in other nations. The U.S. media love to talk about the oppression of women in other cultures, particularly Muslim women. The implication is that gender-based violence is something that happens to other women. Many Americans — even those working in the anti-violence field — use the term “honor killings” to describe domestic violence incidents in Muslim communities, suggesting the inevitability of these acts, since they are supposedly part of Islam.

But violence against women is a problem in every country and in every culture; in fact, at least three women die each day in the U.S. due to domestic violence. There has been a lot of talk about the sexual assaults of women involved with the Arab Spring, but the story that did not receive as much national coverage was of a Syrian imam who told rape victims that they deserve to be honored. Creating the false notion that other cultures treat women worse sets up U.S. women to stop fighting sexism at home, because it makes us believe we have it much better than those “backward” countries. As a young feminist, I have heard too many of my American peers tell me that feminism is irrelevant because we have already achieved equality.

By no means are the countries I mentioned safe havens for women. As feminists, we should care about every woman on this planet. However, we must not allow the other side to make us complacent about the sexist abuses in our own backyard. We must learn lessons from our global peers on how to bring more women to the decision-making table. Only then can we achieve true equality.

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