Story and photo by Sujatha Fernandes
DHAKA — In Bangladesh, the awareness about women's rights and the need to fight for them can be seen by the variety of the women's movement. On March 8, International Women's Day, and beforehand, a number of women's organisations planned rallies and demonstrations.
The International Women's Day Committee, consisting of 19 different women's organisations, planned a Reclaim the Night march on Tuesday, March 7. On Wednesday they organised marches and discussions in 10 different districts outside Dhaka, and on Friday a rally with singing, dancing and theatre in a large park.
The rallies were vibrant, militant and enthusiastic. This is probably because they were organised independently of any mainstream party, and the main organisers were young women.
The Reclaim the Night march began with singing and chanting. Every one of the 300 women carried a lighted torch, making it a visually spectacular event. As the women marched they chanted loudly in Bengali:"Raater Bera Bhangbo, Shadin Bhabe Chalbo" (We will break the darkness of the night, we will exercise out right to move freely).
Violence against women, especially under the sanction of fundamentalist Islam, means that women are afraid to go out after dark and many are even prohibited. In Dhaka University, women students went on strike against archaic rules that forbid them to leave their hostels before sunrise and after sunset.
The anger of the march was not, however, directed at men. In fact, men marched along the sides and the at the back — the only men who were unwelcome were the row of highly fortified police units armed with guns and sticks.
The rally was organised by middle class women, but attended by a broad layer of women including slum women, schoolgirls and working class women. It was clear that violence is faced by all women.
On International Women's Day, there was a rally in the morning, organised by the ruling party. Bus loads of women from government departments were brought to join the march, which was led by a female MP of the Bangladesh National Party. The government provided banners and placards which read, "The hand that rocks the cradle, is the hand that rules the country" — implying that women can have an influence in society by bearing children.
Although the rally was attended by more than 2000 women, there was no chanting or spirit, only the MP yelling loudly into a microphone. At the other end, the rally was addressed by the prime minister.
Despite the reactionary nature of this rally, the fact that the government was forced to organise a rally to maintain its electoral support shows the sympathy for feminist ideas in the country.