DHAKA — The two most powerful women in Bangladesh — Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader, Bangladesh National Party chairperson Khaleda Zia — have made international headlines this month as elections in the troubled nation resulted in violence.
Despite this, some Westerners are surprised to learn that Bengali women have vibrant and influential leadership roles that are helping shape the nation’s future. It’s a predominantly Islamic nation with constant calls to prayer and laws restricting the sale of alcohol.
“There is a misconception of women in Bangladesh,” said Farida Akhter, executive director of Policy Research for Development Alternative.
Akhter is a leader of the women’s movement in Bangladesh as well as a prominent environmental activist. She said many people in Western nations believe women of Bangladesh are backward, but that’s not true.
“Even if you meet a woman with a veil, if you talk to her, you will see she is very strong,” Akhter said.
Differences in dress required by social and cultural constraints doesn’t mean women in Bangladesh don’t have opinions and strength.
“Women have to come out for economic reasons,” Akhter said. “We can’t just sit at home and depend on our husbands for bread-winning.”
Akhter said 25 percent of Bangladeshi women are the female head of household.
“Women are the breadwinner of those households,” she said.
In some cases, there are no men or men are too old to work in those households. The rate of women as head of household is even higher if you count the many women supporting and protecting their families while their men are working overseas.
In addition to earning a living, many women, such as Akhter, are actively working to improve their nation. A women’s leader and environmental activist, Akhter said human rights and environmental protections are interconnected.