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Feminism


Feminism as a world movement originated from France in the 1880s and was introduced in the UK in the 1890s, and in the USA in the early twentieth century. Feminism is a belief in sexual equality between man and woman combined with a commitment to eradicate domination of man over woman and to transform society into a safe haven for men and women to live as equal human beings having equal rights and obligations. Feminism is the idea that women should have political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic rights equally with those of men. Feminism stands for bringing about changes in a wide range of areas, where women are discriminated and degraded in relation to men. Feminist activists campaign for women's legal rights (rights of contract, property rights, marriage rights, voting rights); for women's right to bodily integrity, autonomy and freedom of movement; for reproductive rights (including access to contraception, decision regarding number of children and quality prenatal care); for protection of women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape; promotion of women's active role' in government; promotion of' women's participation' in private sector, in job market, in business and trade; for women's' workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay; for enjoyment of all human rights by women;' women's right to education at all levels. Faminists campaign against other forms of gender-specific discrimination against women, whereever such discrimination exists or crops up.

The Feminist Movement has brought about salient changes primarily in Western society. These changes include' voting right; access to education; right to work and more nearly equitable pay with men; the right to initiate divorce proceedings; the right of women to make individual decisions regarding pregnancy (including access to contraceptives and abortion); as well as the right to own property. But the painful reality is that inequality and discrimination exist not only in' the developing countries but also in the developed countries.

Feminist movement developed in three stages. In the first stage, feminism was active in the United Kingdom and the United States. At this stage, agitations were organized for' the promotion of equal rights for women' to' enter into contract and to own and enjoy property. In the second phase, it was articulated that women's cultural and political inequalities were inseparably connected with one another. They encouraged women to understand that' their personal lives have been grossly politicized by men and moulded by the power structures of the existing man-dominated social system. 'The Personal is Political' became a feminist slogan.

In 1963, Betty Friedan published her' book, The Feminine Mystique, echoing the' discontent and disillusionment felt by educated' women graduating from college' who did not get job and were pushed into' the' household for doing domestic chores, cooking and home making. She' criticized the idea that fulfillment of women lies in' childrearing and housework. She articulated that women were victims of a false belief system that forced' them to find identity and meaning in their lives through their husbands and children. Such a system causes women to completely surrender' their identity in that of their family. This new interpretation of women's role in society gave signal to Women's Liberation. 'Liberation' became' associated with women's aspirations. The phrase 'Women's Liberation' was first used in 1964 (Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon in Sarachild, Kathie, Feminist Revolution, New York, 1978). From the 1960s,' the Women's Liberation movement campaigned for equality: the same pay as men, equal rights in law,' freedom to plan their families, etc. Issues commonly associated with notions of Women's Liberation' include, though are not limited to: the right to bodily integrity, autonomy, free movement; to vote (universal suffrage); to hold public office; to work; to fair wages and equal pay; to own property; to education; to serve in the military; to enter into legal contracts; and to have marital, parental and religious rights. Though the term Women's Liberation had captured the popular imagination, the' term Women's Movement is used just as frequently, meaning the same thing. Two basic components of the Second Wave Feminism are 'The Personal is Political' and 'Women's Liberation'.

The third phase of Feminism challenged the definition of women in the image of white woman in the second phase, and rejected its over-emphasis on the experiences of upper middle-class white women, especially the universalization of white female experience. The attack came from women of the former colonies and the third world. It is argued that oppression relating to the colonial experience, particularly racial, class, and ethnic oppression, has marginalized women in postcolonial societies and the assumption that gender oppression is due mainly to' patriarchy is not true for these socieites which have been' oppressed by the West. Postcolonial feminists object to portrayals of women of non-western societies as passive and voiceless victims and the portrayal of western women as modern, educated and empowered.

Third world feminism criticizes Western Feminism on the grounds that Western Feminism bases its understanding of women on 'internal racism, classism and homophobia' and fails to take into account the unique experiences of women of the' third-world countries. Western Feminism is further accused of totally ignoring the existence of feminism originating and developing in the' third-world countries through the efforts of third world women. White feminism never cared to listen to or appreciate the problems and issues of women in the non-white world. To cite from Bangladesh, experience of Rokeya is no doubt feminist experience, but is different from the West. It is now increasingly recognised that every country, every region must' struggle to fight gender oppression, inequality and discrimination within their own cultural mooring rather than through external pressure.

Third phase of faminism is characterised by the realization that 'women' are of many races, ethnicities, nationalities, faiths and cultural backgrounds. This phase embraces all contradictions and conflict,' accommodates diversity and change, and' challenges the second phase's paradigm as to what is, or is not, good for women. All over the world, developed and developing, young women are increasingly educated in college or high school,' they are employed and earn from work, participate in labour market, use voting rights, exert influence in family decisions,' utilise the newly acquired freedom of movement in social and cultural activities. Equipped with an unique experience, they are challenging some of the received wisdom of the past decades of feminism. They do not want to' pursue' feminism in the way the' feminists of the seventies believed and acted. With the newly acquired liberation, they do not like to remain confined to' the earliar situation; they want to' expand, move beyond to find fulfilment in a way that is genuine to their own generation of liberated women. Another direction to which the third phase has moved forward is violence. It brought attention to the ongoing presence of violence at home and sexual harassment in the workplace.

Feminism in UN System Feminist movement has been supported by the United Nations System. In 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights asserting equal rights of men and women. Since 1975 the UN has held a series of world conferences on women's issues. The process started with the World Conference of the International Women's Year in Mexico City, which declared the years 1975-1985 as United Nations Decade of Reforms. The conference and the Decade activities brought together women all over the world and afforded opportunities for promoting women's causes in successive conferences in Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985). In' Nairobi, realisation dawned that feminism is not monolithic and must recognise' the concerns and interests of women from different regions, classes, nationalities, races and ethnicities. There is and must be a diversity of feminisms responsive to the different needs and concerns of women. The fourth conference was held in Beijing in 1995. At this conference the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA) was signed and a commitment to achieve 'gender equality and the empowerment of women' was vowed by all the countries including Bangladesh. The important strategy to realise the commitment was defined as 'gender mainstreaming' which meant that both women and men should experience equal conditions for realising their full human rights, and have the opportunity to contribute and benefit from national, political, economic, social and cultural development. To crown all, The Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly (1979). Described as an international Bill of Rights for women, it came into force on 3 September 1981.

All these actions and policy adoptions in global level have boosted Feminism and Feminist Movement. In spite of differences among themselves, all women and all theoreticians are unanimous in their assumptions that women are victims of discrimination, inequalities, injustice, and movement to correct the situation is a cause, just and righteous.

The United Nations Human Development Report 2004 estimated that when both paid employment and unpaid household tasks are accounted for, on average women work more than men. In rural areas of' developing countries women performed an average of 20% more work than men. At the UN's Pan Pacific Southeast Asia Women's Association 21st International Conference in 2001 it was stated that 'in the world as a whole, women comprise 51% of the population, do 66% of the work, receive 10% of the income and own less than one percent of the property'. Feminism stands against such blatant inequality and discrimination and works for achieving equality and eradicating' such discrimination.

Feminism in Bangladesh Bangladesh is a third world country. Culture, tradition, customs and social attitudes of Bangladesh women differ substantially from those of western women, and as such western feminist configurations do not fit into nor are applicable to Bangladesh. In spite of western claim of origin of Feminism, Bangladesh had produced feminism of its own, which is' completely detached from the West. Begum Rokeya had proclaimed that women are human beings;' they' must speak loudly for themselves in one voice as no one else will take up their cause. Rokeya had no western education nor was she aware of western Feminism nor acquainted with white feminists. The book Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain (1924) showed that a wonderful, equal, women-directed Utopian feminist world, free from exploitation, is possible. Sultana's struggle for existence and her work for women's emancipation is an example of feminism. Rokeya wrote on social prejudice, adverse effects of the veil system, religious orthodoxy, women's education, social repression on women, women's rights and her progressive views of women's awakening. She also wrote against the tradition of childhood marriage and polygamy. An early example of a proponent for women's rights is Prophet Muhammad (sm) who is identified by some historians as 'one of the world's first feminists'. He is given credit for advancing rights concerning marriage, divorce, and inheritance to women during the 7th century, long before women had those rights outside Arabia.'

Feminism, as noted earlier, received stimulus in the last century from the UN role. Bangladesh women did not fall behind. As early as 1973, some Bangladesh women founded the Women For Women Research and Study Group for engaging in and promoting research' and study on women of Bangladesh, their problems, issues, inequalities and discriminations. The Group pioneered publications on women and has a long list of publications on women in Bangladesh. It also established a documentation centre where reading materials on feminism were collected. The basic objective of the group was to bring into focus special issues and problems of the women of Bangladesh.

Influenced by feminist researches, a number of organisations grew to foster feminist movement. Women organisations like Bangladesh Mahila Parishad were involved actively as early as 1970s in promoting women's concerns and interests. However, more organisations got involved in the 1980s. They include bangladesh mahila samity, mahila ainjibi samity, naripaksha, ain-o-shalish kendra, nijera kari, mahila atmaraksa samiti, Amrao Pari, Nari Pragati Sangha and many others. Though all of them work to promote women's rights, canvas for elimination of inequalities and' resist discrimination against women, they do not openly claim to be feminist.

Feminist activists in Bangladesh identify themselves with women's movement though objectives and goals are same as women's liberation. This distinction is promted by the local conditions, and is in line with the third phase of feminism that recognises the concerns and interests of women from different regions, classes, nationalities, ethnicities and cultures. Women's movement in Bangladesh has no doubt been influenced by west-led feminism, but women of Bangladesh are striving to secure' the women's goals and women's causes in a way most suited under the local conditions. [Mahmuda Islam]

Bibliography Nancy F. Cott, 'The Grounding of Modern Feminism', Yale University Press, 1987; Kathie Sarachild, 'Consciousness-Raising: A Radical Weapon' (1978); Chandra Talpade Mohanty, 'Third World women and the politics of feminism', Indiana University Press 1991; Hunt Robert A and Aslandogan, Yuksel A. ed, 'Muslim Citizens of the Globalized World: Contributions of the Gulen Movement',' 2007.