Feb 11, 2011
By Frédéric Bobin
Letter from Asia
he community centre, its corrugated iron walls set into a dirt floor, is jam-packed. It’s collection day in Atalora, a village about 50 kilometres from Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. The “banker” is here, one hand on her accounts book and the other on her calculator, as she sits opposite about 30 women cloaked in their shawls. One after another, they get up and come to give a small wad of notes to the employee of the Grameen Bank, the “bank for the poor” devised by professor Mohammad Yunus, microcredit pioneer and winner of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.
Outside, a cock is crowing. Taslima Begum hands over 3 665 takas (37 euros) as repayment for the loan she took out to buy her fruit stall. Mofida, on the other hand, went into debt to put up a henhouse. Asia Begum opened a cosmetics and jewellery business. Just one figure sums it all up: 97% of the 8.3 million borrowers from the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh are women. “Now, my husband consults me on managing the family’s affairs”, says Asia Begum. “And I’m proud of that” The Grameen Bank is not the only one that prefers to deal with women, who are considered to be “safer” than men. The other microcredit institutions (Brac, Asa, etc.) do the same.
Bangladesh goes against the clichéd image. Here is a Muslim country – or 90% Muslim – where the women are the agents of a genuine silent revolution. From the remote villages to the palace in Dhaka, they can be seen. Sheikh Hasina is in her second term as prime minister. And if she were to lose power at the next election, her place would be taken by another woman, Khaleda Zia, leader of the opposition, who has already been at the head of government on two occasions.
Of course, these “two begums” derive their legitimacy from men. They are respectively the orphan and the widow of a great man. Sheikh Hasina’s father was none other than Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the “father of the nation”, assassinated in 1975. And Khaleda Zia is the widow of Ziaur Rahman, another hero of independence, assassinated in 1981. Bangladesh is no exception to the dynastic approach at work throughout South Asia. Women there carry the torch for the clan as in Pakistan (Bhutto), India (Nehru-Gandhi) and Sri Lanka (Bandaranaike).
However, Bangladesh remains special, particularly in terms of its membership of the Muslim world. In contrast to Pakistan, where Benazir Bhutto scarcely sought to overthrow male hegemony in Islamabad, the government of Dhaka is much more open to women. Today, in addition to being at the head of the executive, women are leading important ministries such as the ministries for foreign affairs, the interior and agriculture. And this is only the visible part of a more pervasive present in society as a whole. According to Unicef’s figures, the rate of school attendance by girls at primary school in Bangladesh is higher than in Pakistan or India. The same applies to the literacy rate for adult women.
This special feature is related to the very circumstances of the foundation of Bangladesh, born in 1971-1972 of a violent separation from Pakistan. The war was very bloody and, according to the official figures, left approximately 3 million dead from among the Bangladeshi – most of them men. “So, the widows took responsibility for the country” explains Sultana Kamal, one of the most prominent feminists in Bangladesh.
This eruption of women into the public sphere only reinforced the secular dimension inscribed in the ideological “DNA” of the new State. In fact, Bangladeshi cultural nationalism, rather than Islam, is at the root of national identity. Of course, the country then experienced developments similar to those in Pakistan, where the army planted the seeds of Islamisation. The dying convulsions of this tendency were seen in the explosion of fundamentalism in the early 1990s, culminating in the violent campaigns against the feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, who was forced into exile for “blasphemy”.
However, the secular faction was able to resist. Heir to this tradition, the Awami League, currently in power in Dhaka, is carrying out a resolute campaign by the judiciary and the police against fundamentalist movements. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, who is herself the target of plans for Islamist attacks, has not yielded to pressure. It is in this context that in July 2010 Dhaka’s High Court declared that the fatwas pronounced by village mullahs were “illegal”. “The climate for women has become much more relaxed”, acknowledges Sultana Kamal.
However, there is a snag. For even this government, led by the Awami League, champion of a secular approach, seems now to be attacking another sphere, non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Mohammad Yunus, who comes from this sector, is the target of a ferocious political conspiracy. The Grameen Bank, like other NGOs, has generously served the interests of women in Bangladesh. “It is sadly ironic to see women in power attacking a sphere which has made the advancement of women possible”, laments Sara Hossein, Professor Yunus’s lawyer, and erstwhile lawyer for Taslima Nasreen. Half of the Bangladeshi sky has its share of clouds.