Bangabandhu was a charismatic leader with farsighted vision. His economic philosophy was progressive and always in favour of the disadvantaged and disempowered people. He also displayed his unflinching support for women's empowerment and prosperity right from his early political life.
In his travelogue, ‘The New China 1952’, Sheikh Mujib was seen to be deeply focused on the living conditions of the Chinese workers. Also, he was keen to understand the strategies of Mao’s government for the well-being of women who were badly exploited by the feudal lords and deep-rooted patriarchy. China was once notorious for its pervasive practice of unethical prostitution. Sheikh Mujib wrote about how the government of China had eradicated this curse from Chinese society.He had witnessed, during the famine of 1943, how Bengali girls were forced into prostitution just to earn some money to survive, and he vehemently opposed such exploitation. He wrote about the dowry system in our country and appealed to the girls to refuse any man’s hand in marriage if he insisted on dowry. He further wrote that domestic violence could be reduced if girls became educated and self-dependent.
When he visited China for the first time, he was just 32. His observations on the transformation of the society and economy of new China were indeed significant even at that age. He was introspective about the women who were marching on with confidence under the new circumstances. He wrote “The women of new China have been joining farms, factories and the armed forces in groups after groups. To be frank, if half of a nation’s people end up doing nothing but giving birth to children, they will never be able to attain any kind of status in the world. Since men and women have the same kind of rights in new China, the men of the species cannot treat its women unfairly. But consider the situation in our country.
Even though women and men have equal rights in the eyes of the law, not only illiterate people but also educated ones subscribe to the notion that for a woman heaven is under the His unflinching support for women empowermentman’s feet.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘New China 1952’, Bangla Academy, 2020, p. 132) Comparing the situations in Pakistan with those of China he wrote, “Men can do whatever they want to and women have to put up with all their whims since they keep hoping for heaven! But the most crucial point to keep in mind that the women have to depend on men’s income.”(ibid. p. 132). He continued, “I know a Moulana who married four times but who now lives with his youngest wife in Dhaka city. His other wives live in abject conditions in a village. They do not get to see their husband even once a year. The youngest wife, on the other hand, is with the husband the entire year. How is this man following God’s dictate then? The Quran has in so many words prohibited bigamy. New China has eradicated this practice; if a man does not like his wife, he can divorce her and marry someone else. However, he will have to come up with proof that he has reasons to divorce her.” (ibid. p. 133). Sheikh Mujib visited many mill factories, and government offices to observe the condition of women. He wrote, “I have seen women at work in the factories, industries and government offices that I have been to. In some places, the ratio of women to men was as high as 40%. The main reason why New China has developed so much by now is that both males and females have come forward to work for the country. They have responded in the same manner to the call to build the country. That is why the country is now well set on the path of development.” (ibid. p. 135). When young Sheikh Mujib was a law student at Dhaka University, he was arrested as he demanded the rights of the fourth-class employees in addition to his campaign for Bengali as one of the state languages of the country. Back then, he started believing that women could even be warriors. In his diaries, he wrote “We were put up in Ward 4. It was kept in a three-storied building. Outside the walls of the jail was Muslim Girls’ School. All the five days that we were in jail, the schoolgirls began their morning raising slogans from the school’s rooftop and ended their day doing the same at four in the afternoon. They seemed indefatigable as they cried out-- ‘The state language must be Bengali’, ‘Our brothers in prison must be freed’, ‘Police brutality must end’, and so on. I remember telling Mr Huq then, ‘See how even our sisters have come out in the open for our cause. Surely Bangla will be the state language after such an event. Mr Huq said, ‘I agree, Mujib’.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, Liberation War Archive, UPL, p. 99). Also, he had firsthand experience of interacting lifelong with one such warrior. Begum Fazilatunnesa Mujib acted as a real-life warrior who supported and encouraged Bangabandhu to overcome every hurdle he encountered. Sheikh Mujib could not support the family financially much as he had no regular earnings. All his maintenance was provided either by his father Sheikh Lutfar Rahman or his wife Fazilatunnesa Mujib. He wrote, “From time to time, Renu also gave me some money. Whenever I went home, she would give me whatever she managed to raise so that I could meet my expenses. She would never say no to me and would not spend any money on herself. She used to stay in our village home and save everything for me.” (Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘The Unfinished Memoirs’, UPL, 2019, Fourth Impression, p. 26). Besides maintaining the family in the absence of her husband, Begum Mujib played the role of an adviser to Sheikh Mujib as well. During his political life, Mujib patronised many female political activists such as Amena Begum, Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury, and Zohra Tajuddin. After being arrested for demanding implementation of the six points, Sheikh Mujib appointed Amena Begum as the acting secretary of their party. One of his speeches proves how passionate he was for establishing the rights of women. In a gathering of approximately two million people at Racecourse Maidan following the landslide victory in the 1970’s election, Bangabandhu said “Women will get equal rights and they will no longer be treated as second class citizens.” (Translated from Bengali, Monayem Sarker, ‘Bangalir Kontho’, Bangabandhu Parishad, First Edition, 1998, p. 201). The Pakistani government never incorporated the well-being of women into their development agendas. We have seen how Bangabandhu vowed to establish a just society for all men and women immediately after independence. He prioritised the rights of women in the Constitution of Bangladesh. Under his close supervision, article 28 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh mentioned that: 1) The state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. 2) Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and public life. 3) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition concerning access to any place of public entertainment or resort, or admission to any educational institution. 4) Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens. As evident here, Bangabandhu’s constitution proclaimed equal rights for women in line with his pledge to empowering women in Bangladesh. Bangabandhu ensured 15 seats in the national parliament to ensure female representation in newly liberated Bangladesh, which has now been increased to 50. He planned for stipends and free schooling to encourage parents to send their daughters to school. He also invested in family planning to help women overcome the pressure of too many pregnancies. Thanks to his early intervention, the fertility rate has now come down to about two per eligible couple from about six in 1972. He also prioritised cottage industries so that rural women could become self-dependent and economically solvent. He was also open to non-governmental development engagements with support from development partners that mostly benefited disadvantaged women. What Bangabandhu said during his speech on 26th March 1972 to the girls of Azimpur Girls School is worth noting. He said, “I was pleased to watch your cultural performance. I hope that the future generations of boys and girls will walk on equal footing…We had confined half of the nation inside our houses due to our belief in age-old superstition. We treated our mothers and sisters like maids in the name of religion. Rest assured that in this independent Bangladesh, men and women will be equal. You must come forward. My young sisters, you must be educated. …In my life, I have seen that even when I stood in front of bullets, my wife did not stop me. I have spent 10-11 years of my life in prison, but she was never upset with me. Her contributions to my life are many. History is always written about men but not about women.” (Translated from Bengali, D.A.H. Khan, 'Jatir Pita Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon', Vol-2, Ekattor Prokashoni, p. 192). It is our misfortune that he did not have enough time. He had to do so much within such a short time. He assumed the power of running a new state when he was 51. And the enemies of Bangladesh did not let him live past 55. Otherwise, he would have done so much more to empower the women of Bangladesh. The speech he made in PG Hospital on 8th October 1972 portrays his dedication to ensuring the rights of women. He said that he was surprised by how nursing was presumed to be a lowly occupation by the people, while these majority-female nurses were doing so much for the wellbeing of the country. He emphasised the importance of nursing and said that he would take measures to attract educated girls towards the job. He asked for a plan from the doctors and spoke about improving the quality of nursing education in Bangladesh. (D.A.H. Khan, 'Jatir Janak Bangabandhur Nirbachito Bhashon', Vol-3, p. 192). Back in 1972, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman established ‘Women Rehabilitation Board’ for the welfare of the women who suffered during the war of liberation. This was the beginning of the state intervention in women's development in Bangladesh. And this progress in women's empowerment has accelerated as Bangladesh has matured, particularly during the last twelve years under the leadership of Bangabandhu’s daughter. The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]