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Zenana Republic

It's reigning women, much to the distress of the nation and its men

Zenana Republic
Zenana Republic
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Call it sexist, a contemptible manifestation of male chauvinism. But across the wide swathe of Bangladesh, whether you're engaged in a passionate roadside discussion or sipping cocktails at a diplomatic do, the conversation invariably turns to the unsavoury sniping between the two high priestesses of Bangladeshi politics, Begum Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Wajed. The verdict is usually unanimous: that their animosity has put the skids under Bangladesh's march to progress and that they are responsible for the nation's plight.

You could think of it as a male backlash, or the inevitable bitterness that seeps in at the crashing of hope. Nearly a year after Khaleda Zia swept into office, she's already alienated a large chunk of those who voted her bnp. Raging lawlessness and rampant corruption have made many prognosticate that she might be forced to step down before her term expires.

But what's the alternative: Sheikh Hasina? People can only recall her contempt for the rule of law and her inability to govern. Laments leading political commentator Prof Serajul Islam Chowdhury, "The nation seems to be pathetically caught between the whims of the two ladies. There's no credible alternative and people do not have much choice but to accept their leadership."

Other analysts agree, pointing to the vice-like grip the two have over their respective parties—and the improbability of them encountering any challenge to their leadership. This has many derisively remark that the bnp and Awami League (of Sheikh Hasina) have two men, the rest are all women.

Their misrule and ineptitude have provoked the male chauvinists into blaming the female gender as a whole, influenced as the men are by the deeply-ingrained notion of patriarchy. They forget the tradition of women leaders ruling the subcontinent—from Sirimavo Bandaranaike to Indira Gandhi to Benazir Bhutto.

The problem is, the perception isn't confined to men alone. Says college lecturer Rosy Rahman, "I hate to admit it but women are incapable of handling state affairs and the way they've handled things does not raise much hope." Some women's rights activists disagree, but reluctantly admit that the wrangling between the two women has bolstered the oft-repeated refrain that women are, by nature, quarrelsome and petty.

Maleka Banu, assistant secretary-general of the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, the largest women's rights group here, agrees that Begum Zia and Hasina are responsible for the rising anti-woman tide: "People seem genuinely fed up with them and blame their gender for misrule. This is unfortunate." She then counters, "I don't agree that women are inherently incapable of ruling. It's the system and political culture that is to be blamed." Another activist, Khushi Kabir, says that their rise to power is not courtesy their personal traits but because they are relatives of two powerful slain male leaders—Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Hasina's father) and Gen Ziaur Rahman (Begum Zia's husband). "They just happen to be women," says Banu. "The situation wouldn't have been different had there been male rulers."

But this isn't what Gen Hossain Mohd Ershad believes. Sensing a grand opportunity for his flagging political career (his Jatiya Party won 15 seats in the last election), he has been touring the country hoping to exploit the popular disenchantment against women. "People are already talking about getting rid of the two women. They want to be ruled by a man like me," the 75-year-old general has been boasting.

The irony is: Gen Ershad has been permanently barred from becoming prime minister because he has been convicted for corruption. No wonder his second wife, Bidisha, 43 years his junior, has begun nursing political ambition. Married recently after a prolonged, secret courtship, Bidisha told reporters she intended joining politics. His first wife, Raushan, 65, is already an MP. The men may not like it, but Bangladesh seems fated to be ruled by women in the future.

But what distresses political analysts is the danger implicit in the popular yearning for men at the helm. It could pave the way for an authoritarian military rule. And then they'll have no women to save them.
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