I met Sultana Begum, a homemaker from a small village in Comilla district, during my research into democratic ideals and the realities of political participation in Bangladesh. During our interview, she unknowingly summarised the essence of women’s experience of democratisation in the country. As she pulled her sari’s anchal tightly over her head and tucked it behind her ear as many women in Bangladesh do, she smiled and gently asked me:
Why are you talking to me about this? I am a woman, and these are men’s matters. We might vote sometimes and have an older sister running things, but she is different. Some of the women have taken part in the local parishad, but it’s very hard for them. What can they do? They try, but this is how things are for us. We still have to bribe, ask for favours from the big men and just hope we can feed our children.
Over time, Bangladeshi women’s representation in politics and elected office has increased manifold. But it has not been transformed into true participation and agency. Their desire to partake in the political process is clear – millions have queued at polling booths for hours in the baking sun and monsoon rain and thousands have surpassed formidable barriers to put their names on ballots and serve their communities. However, though they believe strongly in democratic values, their view of the patriarchal social structure and political system is clear-eyed. While democratisation may allow women to participate in elections as voters and candidates, their ability to exercise political power is tempered by the inaccessibility of education, financial resources and mobility. They are deeply aware of the corruption, weak institutions and the zero-sum game of ‘resource capture’ played out by the victors after every election. They understand that with the exception of a very small elite, the majority of both female citizens and politicians do not have entry to the types of power networks, decision-making processes and policy implementation that create systemic socio-political change. In a patronage-driven political system predicated on the existence of a few powerful individuals hoarding resources meant for the many (‘elite capture’) and traditional hierarchies of power, the female political leaders of both main parties and their narrow coteries have no interest in widening women’s access to politics. They would rather consolidate their power and perpetuate a duopolistic system that rewards undemocratic behaviour.