The Women's Movement of Southern Asia

By Sobhan, Salma | Canadian Dimension, January-February 2003 | Go to article overview

The Women's Movement of Southern Asia


Sobhan, Salma, Canadian Dimension


While it is common to say that the world changed after the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001, for most women it had, in fact, changed much earlier. I would date this change from the collapse of the U.S.S.R. The economic status of most women was critically affected by the collapse of the U.S.S.R. because, while the West concentrated more on civil and political rights, the Soviet bloc espoused social and economic rights. Without the opposition of this bloc, the economic policies favoured by the West had a free run. This has resulted in a variety of problems for women in developing countries. Ironically the war against terrorism has resulted in civil and political liberties threatened in the West itself. The position of the south Asian women's movement today is like that of a small craft caught in turbulent seas. What course is the movement trying to steer?

Although not all women who are politically active are a part of it -- choosing instead to belong to the women's fronts of various political parties, including those based on religion -- it is possible to identify a mainstream south Asian women's movement that cuts across national boundaries. The rights that women in south Asia are fighting for run the gamut from issues of elementary human rights and equality rights to issues that will decide whether or not this world survives. If these demands of the south Asian women's movement are not taken up, the results will he catastrophic for parliaments and families, for the environment and biodiversity, and for the economic well-being and dignity of human beings on a global scale.

The Political Geography of South Asia

The five south Asian countries are India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The area is vast. The Indian subcontinent, which is made up of the present-day states of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and Nepal, is a densely populated area as large as Europe. India has more than one billion citizens. Bangladesh, which is smaller than Saskatchewan, itself has more than 120 million people, Pakistan slightly more than 130 million.

India won its political independence in 1947, when, after 200 years of colonial domination, Britain withdrew from the subcontinent. At the time India was partitioned into two countries: India and Pakistan, the latter of which had two separate wings -- West Pakistan to India's west, sharing borders with Iran and Afghanistan, and East Pakistan to India's east, sharing borders with Myanmar (Burma). In 1971, after a nine month liberation war, East Pakistan was reborn as Bangladesh. What was West Pakistan is now simply Pakistan.

On paper, the constitutions of all the south Asian countries provide for equal political participation for men and women. Some countries like Bangladesh indeed have quotas of reserved seats for women. Unfortunately, it was the elected members of parliament who were the electorate for such sears; in other words, women won seats that simply went along party lines. For this reason, the debate in all these countries is how to ensure that women's seats do not simply become objects of political patronage. One of the better suggestions is that at least one-third of the candidates for election from each political party should be women.

However, south Asian women are not merely interested in seeing the numbers of women in parliament increased. They are also concerned to reclaim the parliamentary process itself. As things stand today, candidates without independent financial means increasingly stand a much poorer chance of being returned to office. The use of political violence has also become a significant issue. These things work against women, who tend to be both less wealthy and more loath to resort to bully-boy tactics. Thus, the campaign for women's seats goes beyond a demand merely for a share of power, to the demand that the process of campaigning be cleaned up.

Equal Legal Rights: The Demand for a Uniform Family Code

The demand for a uniform family code is a life issue in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. …

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