Perspective

The state of anti-feminist backlash in Bangladesh

Our perspective on anti-feminist backlash in Bangladesh is based on understandings of structural, political, economic and social forces, and the dynamic power exchange between distinct groups which lead to progress or backlash. In this non-linear narrative of progress and backlash, different masculinities have emerged which are intersectional, multidimensional and non-essentialist. Multiple actors such as state and international power (e.g. international donors, neighboring countries) at the macro level, as well as, family and community at the micro-level play an important role in anti-feminist backlash in reproducing the notion of hegemonic and toxic masculinities.

The history of anti-feminist backlash in Bangladesh has been rooted in targeting state and non-state development interventions advancing women’s empowerment through education, employment and political participation, particularly in rural areas. In anti-feminist backlashes, NGOs and women’s rights groups were particularly targeted. In the contemporary backlash, the targets have been activists, intellectuals, writers and NGO professionals who challenged the gender norms and asked for women’s equality, freedom and choice in sexuality, family, property and political space. Certain areas including advancement of LGBT rights, women’s equal share in property, family laws and challenging of traditional concepts of modesty by feminist movements within the country have come under higher scrutiny and garnered negative attention from antifeminist agendas and movements.

Complex dynamics of masculinities with feminist agendas

The different forms of backlash were dominantly perpetuated by the prevailing patriarchal power structure, fringe religious groups and some community male leaders against women’s empowerment agendas. Many of the women empowerment agendas have been viewed as a sign of Western aggression and perceived as corrupting existing dominant culture and religious beliefs. Women’s greater presence in the public sphere, as well as, their economic and social independence through active employment have been undermined by resistance from patriarchal structures who are at unease with the increase in women’s agency and autonomy. However, these contentions of men about over representation and equality of women seems mythical and are debunked when we turn our eye to some serious violations of human rights and dignity against women.

On the other hand, a considerable number of male allies, activists and male-led organizations have acted as leaders, grassroot community workers and policy makers to develop interventions for women’s empowerment alongside women’s leaderships. Examples of male leadership include Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Dr. Muhammad Yunus who were pioneers in women’s microcredit programme and girl’s education through NGO’s interventions in Bangladesh.

Contested spaces for women’s advancement

Women are particularly targeted in the global trend of shrinking democratic spaces with laws that enforce discriminations like inheritance laws, absence of legal protection in issues such as marital rape, use of women’s ‘immoral character’ as defence in rape cases or cyberbullying that indirectly threaten women’s voices and freedom in both private and public space. Violence against women, rape, sexual harassment, attacks on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, and cyberbullying show increasing social and psychological vulnerability in this highly contested spaces where the voices and dignity of women and other vulnerable groups are constantly threatened.

On the other hand, we have witnessed the historical backlash against women’s education and empowerment in rural areas losing power over time due to various factors. These factors range from the changing gender expectations within these rural communities, increasing support from local communities for women’s advancement; the government’s strong determination and position as signatories to various global bodies (i.e. CEDAW); financial support and increasing pressures from donor communities; lastly the enormous contribution from NGOs and civil rights (i.e. women’s movements).

Engaging men in steps towards gender equality

Bangladesh has made remarkable strides towards gender equality on various fronts within a relatively short period; from significantly reducing maternal mortality, achieving increasing levels of secondary school enrollment by girls, increasing number of women in local government administration, justice sector and law enforcement agencies to the case of the recent rape law being passed which states death penalty for the perpetrator. In the Bangladeshi context, within recent decades, the development sector has attempted to activate ‘engage men and boys’ strategies into their programmatic approaches. This has largely been mobilised in order to create more effective methods in tackling issues of gender-based violence, maternal health, sexual and reproductive health outcomes. The inclusion of strategies to engage men and boys in development agendas have shown that there has been an increase in overall realisation of taking masculinity and men’s roles in women’s empowerment into account, without which women’s participation in development does not guarantee their empowerment, health, agency and welfare within a patriarchal society.