When equality meets reality (30/10/19)

Whether a government event or opposition, business, NGO, urban, rural,
 progressive, old or young makes little difference. 
Men outnumbering women on both the platform and in the audience 
is the norm, just as it often is on a bus or at a tea stall.

Niaz Alam, Dhaka Tribune op-ed 30 October 2019

All these things are true and more.

Bangladesh was ranked 48th out of 149 countries and highest within South Asia, in the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report.

The impact of requiring one-third of seats in the upazila parishad to be reserved for women also helped lift Bangladesh into the global top five on WEF’s sub-index for female political empowerment.

Yet, when you look at other indicators, it’s no surprise Bangladesh is only 142 out of 167 countries in the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security rankings.

Discrimination and harassment in public spaces too often go unchallenged. Physical abuse and sexual violence too often underreported.

We may all hope the swift legal response to the savage murder of Nusrat Jahan Rafi for publicly challenging her harassers can be a watershed moment, but in truth, the attitudes that enabled her murderers to kill her are so baked in, only time can tell.

The distance to travel can be measured by glimpsing a typical Dhaka TV news bulletin. Invariably, there will be a mix of press conferences, podium speeches, and seminar roundtables amid the clips.

Whether a government event or opposition, business, NGO, urban, rural, progressive, old or young makes little difference. Men outnumbering women on both the platform and in the audience is the norm, just as it often is on a bus, in the board room or at a tea stall.

Likewise, however you measure it, Bangladesh’s economy is consistently reaching new heights. But you don’t need to look very far to see how unevenly the fruits of GDP growth are distributed. Resilience not reward is what keeps most Bangladeshis going.

It is a truism that the positive and negative can co-exist in the same place. Even so, it is right for the media to concentrate more on the empty part of the half-full glass.

Journalism has a duty to examine how well or poorly those with the least authority, money, and power in the land are faring. Society needs to understand its mistakes to improve.

No doubt, Bangladesh has made great strides since independence. The evidence is diverse but simplest and most striking in matters of life and death. In 1969, the average life expectancy in East Pakistan was only 48 and several years lower than its western counterpart. Today it is 73, higher than Pakistan, and rising.

The passage of time makes the unity shown by the nation in 1971 seem even more remarkable. Especially because so much of the price of liberation was borne by people in villages incomparably poorer and more marginalized than today.

Their fortitude, solidarity, and sense of right and wrong in the face of pressures to collaborate with oppression, highlights the best of human instincts. It is disheartening that so many of today’s headlines remind us of the worst.

If only removing impunity from the thugs who beat Abrar Fahad to death at Buet was all that was needed to clean up so-called student politics? How much better land could Bangladesh be?

Convicting Nusrat’s killers could curb violence against women. Children would be listened to and sexual abuse behind closed doors and institutional cover-ups could become a thing of the past, not a daily horror to which many turn a blind eye.

Clamping down on those who incited communal division and attacks on innocent people in Bhola would be enough to end future violence against minorities. But simply saying or hoping something doesn’t make it so.

When people grow up seeing rule of law as more a slogan than a reality, it is that much easier for the bigoted, cynical, or greedy, to stoke the ignorance, prejudice, and patriarchy that lies all around, waiting to be exploited.

When extortion, chandabazi, patronage, “muscle,” and “dominating the streets” are part of common discourse, do ordinary people really believe it matters now how many “rotten apples” the government locks up or turfs out of the AL?

You do not have to be a pessimist to think no, others will take their place, or believe that changing governments or parties wouldn’t make much difference either.

For each step forward, like the High Court outlawing the demeaning use of the adjective “kumari” (virgin) in marriage certificates, there are many more to take ahead.

Attitudes and deeply rooted mindsets must also be tackled.

Politicians can argue their hands are tied by competing interests or claims of tradition, but this is precisely the sort of excuse that institutionalizes low expectations and complacency. It is the responsibility of those who get to stop the buck to set a good example before it starts moving.

Across the sub-continent, the colonial legacy has influenced all major political parties and bureaucracies to be over-centralized, controlling, and inherently resistant to change.

Edwardian attitudes are helped to persist across all parts of society, barely withered by time and independence.

Cultural cringe is one reason why — when it was revealed in 2018 that Oxfam had spent several years covering up sexual abuse by its aid workers in Haiti and had helped the most senior staff member involved move on to a lucrative post in Bangladesh with a different Western NGO — there was no public protest from the government.

Looked at in this light, its less surprising deference and sycophancy loom large in contemporary political culture.

Our land’s history of popular struggles for freedom and egalitarian ideals also entails being influenced by the attitudes and lifestyles of the viceroys, nawabs, and zamindars to whom people had to look up.

Easier said than done of course, but if fundamental issues like inequality are ever to be properly addressed, politics needs to become more inclusive, responsive, and accountable.

Numbers don’t help us. Canada and the UK have one MP for around every hundred thousand inhabitants; in Bangladesh it is pushing one for every half million. Despite the Brexit imbroglio, UK politics still has some behaviours worth emulating.

Down to earth Supreme Court judges, cabinet ministers carrying their own paperwork and on intensely busy days in the House of Commons, the sight of MPs being interviewed in corridors filled with chattering schoolchildren and confused tourists in the background.

Being able to say the same for Bangladesh might be a start in helping to restore public trust. For trust is what we need.

In 30 years’ time, it is estimated 220 million people may be living in our part of the delta and having to adapt to climate change.

Maximizing opportunity for all is the best way to get there. Failing to reduce inequality is a luxury we cannot afford.