Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Vital Boost or Glass Ceiling?

June 24th, 2009 · No Comments

As we walked across Little Senegal this morning, a throng of devout Muslim men got us thinking about Bangladesh. That may sound like a non sequitur, but our internal logic went something like this: Though most Islamic societies obviously feature male-dominated governments (note, for example, that all of Iran’s mullahs are male), Bangladesh’s two leading politicians are female. Why is that?

The answer obviously has a lot to do with family connections, as both Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia are tied to political dynasties. So perhaps there’s not a great lesson to be learned here about Islamic political life. There is, however, a fascinating tale to be spun out of Bangladesh’s current attempts to encourage even more female political participation, using a system dreaded by so many Americans: quotas.

Bangladesh is already one of approximately 112 countries that use some sort of quota system to draw women into politics. Most of these quotas are mild in practice, often consisting of nothing more than mandates that a certain percentage of a political party’s candidates be female. But then there are countries like Bangladesh, which set aside a block of national parliamentary seats for females. And Bangladesh is now looking to increase that quota to 100 seats, out of a total of 330.

Such parliamentary quotas are a relatively new phenmenon, so the jury’s still out as to their effectiveness. A mountain of country-by-country case studies is available here; we were particularly struck by this balanced look (PDF) at Bangladesh’s experience, which concludes that the devil’s in the details:

Electoral and party history shows that, in the first election held in 1973, political parties used the reserved seats as the means to elect women. The quota was treated as the sole avenue for women’s entry into the legislature and the general seats as the monopoly of male politicians. This approach to reserved seats left electoral politics open to male domination and control, with women left to contest the reserved seats. Parties demonstrated no political commitment to share general seats with women.

While quotas ensure that a critical mass of women are elected, the quota moves beyond numbers and involves an expectation among those whose entry was facilitated by the quota to intervene in policy issues. By and large, women in Bangladesh have not served as advocates of women’s rights. The system by which women are elected into politics limits their possibility to become political actors in their own right, as well as their ability to function as advocates for women’s issues. Women who seek to introduce a gender perspective into politics risk their own position in the political establishment, and if a woman is elected through special measures she is also not seen as a full member of parliament.

In other words, the creation of special female-only seats was seen as diminishing those seats’ importance. Nations that view quotas as their only means of correcting a political gender imbalance must thus plan carefully, or risk creating nothing more than window dressing.

Meanwhile, as Bangladesh expands its quota system, conservatives in the Solomon Islands are putting the kibosh on a similar plan.

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