If for no other reason, merely by being who they are and doing what they have done, they have changed the social landscape for all Bangladeshi women.
Yes, you read that right.
Now it is true that it seems I seldom have complimentary things to say about the PM and the ex-PM, but I would like to think, and believe that the record would show, that, while a tough critic, I am happy to give credit where credit is due and quick to praise when it is warranted.
There is no getting away from the fact that these two formidable women have dominated the political landscape for over two decades and remain magisterially in place, bestriding the nation like colossi. Love them or hate them, on this day it is worth acknowledging all that they have achieved and the message of inspiration they send to every girl and woman in the land.
I know that people will say that one is only where she is courtesy of her late father and the other courtesy of her late husband, and that their ascension is no sign of women’s empowerment, and will point to the likes of Matia Chowdhury as a better example of a woman who has reached the top due to pure merit.
Others will suggest, not without accuracy, that neither of the two women has done nearly enough for women’s empowerment, and the fact that we have had woman prime ministers has not had the impact on the position and status of women in general in society and the economy that one would hope and expect.
Well, it is true that both inherited their crowns, but it is worth remembering that this was over 30 years ago, the first decade of which was spent in the political wilderness of army rule. No one then would have given much odds that these two women would topple the dictatorship they then faced and then continue to control both their parties and the country for two decades more.
But, for better or for worse, here they still are. They have proved tougher and shrewder and bolder and braver than any of the pretenders to their throne. Whatever you say about the two ladies, you cannot say that they lack steel. So there they sit, unchallenged in their mastery of all they survey.
On this International Women’s Day, that alone is surely worth a tip of the hat and an acknowledgment of respect.
In one way, their domination of the political scene speaks well for Bangladeshis as a nation. After the last 30 years, it is no longer possible to credibly argue that women cannot lead and that they cannot be in charge of things. No one questions that a man can take an order from a woman.
If they have done nothing else for women, they have done this. They have completely obliterated from the face of this nation the notion that there is such a thing as women’s work and that women cannot compete with and best any man on any stage that the country has to offer.
You might not have liked them, either, but it was also true of Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi, as it is true for any woman leader anywhere in the world. Each one of them, if for nothing else, deserves respect and honour for the part she has played in the never-ending struggle for women’s rights, dignity, and empowerment.
And so, too, for the PM and the ex-PM. If for no other reason, merely by being who they are and doing what they have done, they have changed the social landscape for all Bangladeshi women, irrevocably and emphatically for the better.
I have to believe that the fact that the chief executive of the country is a woman and that one before her was one too, that they were both elected to the highest post in the land more than once and the solicitousness with which the men under them dance in attendance has got to impact the outlook and confidence of every young girl in every corner of the country.
Every Bangladeshi girl goes to sleep at night knowing that it is a woman like her who calls the shots and runs the country. It is a woman like her who is the most powerful and important personage of the land. That knowledge does more for every Bangladeshi girl’s sense of self-worth and dignity than a hundred classes, lectures, or programs.
We should be proud of the fact that we have been able to have a woman at the helm of affairs for over two decades, and we should never underestimate the positive impact this has had on the nation as a whole.
This is not an endorsement of either or both of the two ladies. I am making no judgment about their policies and how ably they have exercised their power. That is a discussion for another time.
But it seems to me that we rarely acknowledge – much less celebrate – the wonder that is the fact that we live in a country where our leaders can be and are women.
Today, for once, let us celebrate it. And let us celebrate our two remarkable matriarchs. My salaams, ladies.