The idea of a woman leader in politics is no longer particularly strange. After 20-odd years of two major parties headed by women, it is safe to say that the viability of women as potential leaders in Bangladesh has reached a seminal point. While progress for women within the political realm and society as a whole has been less than stellar, it has never remained static. And for a rapidly developing country undergoing the birthing pains of democratization, this is no small feat. Despite cultural and religious segregation and other structural barriers, women in Bangladesh have slowly but surely started to carve out a place of their own and the political sphere is not immune to such incremental but steady liberalization.
Ever since the fall of the Ershad regime, we have had prime ministers of the ‘fairer’ sex running this country, at times well, at times poorly, but running it nonetheless. But the fact of their gender was incidental and their political success was not a product of structural liberalization. In the last 10 years, however, women have played a far greater role in politics than before. Even if we disregard the current and former prime ministers on the grounds that their power derived from family dynasties, we have produced some strong female voices without the luxury of a Sheikh or a Zia name. On top of that, donor organizations and foreign donors have actively suggested promoting and introducing more women into politics to stem the constant erosion of public confidence. The rationale behind such recommendations is founded on the assumption that the participation of more women tends to mitigate corruption. But is that really the case? Are women in fact better leaders and less corrupt?
The general tone of The World Bank, the UN, and other donors has been that we need to introduce more women within the political infrastructure to lessen corruption and allay fears of a complete disintegration of a rather fragile democracy, which rests heavily on public confidence in the governmental structure. So this is an issue that affects not only our own society but also the way we are viewed by the people who loan us money.
Before we go out and start proclaiming donor recommendations as infallible facts, we must first examine and understand what the actual experts are saying about this much-publicized positive relationship between more women and less corruption. A significant number of scholars who deal with this issue have tried to establish an empirical relationship between corruption and gender equity. One of the primary hypotheses on this matter have come from scholars A. Swamy, S. Knack, Y. Lee and O. Azfar, who argued that corruption and gender equity are closely related and more importantly, that a higher number of women in the government is likely to translate into a lower level of corruption. This assessment led to the assumption now commonly held by both international organizations and domestic politicians that the idea of gender equity in government should be promoted not as a fundamental right, but as an instrument against governmental corruption. This hypothesis, however, inadvertently suggests that corruption is a male dominated phenomenon, and there are some glaring inconsistencies regarding this matter that have not been addressed in the discussion.
In any assessment of gender roles and its impact on corruption, it is necessary to understand how we assess the ‘role-impact’ of the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’. While the biological differences are distinct, the socio-economic position and political might of men and women vary according to their status within their societies, not only as binary biological attributes, but also through other extensive and intricate socio-economic markers, like education, family standing, or geographical location. Therefore, to view the phenomenon of corruption as a dependent variable affected by gender would be to ignore these other and arguably more important extraneous factors. For instance, a man from the Australian outback is less likely to be exposed to university education than a woman who grew up in Sydney; a man who is a rickshaw-puller in Dhaka has less political influence than the daughter of an industrialist. As a result, education and socio-economic status would supersede gender in specific situations if we were looking at social capital and political influence. So if we are being frank (and I hope we are), socio-economic status dictates where you stand, with whom you associate, and what you are exposed to.
One of the sub-claims of gender’s impact on levels of corruption stems from the idea that when more women are introduced within the government structure, the corruption level tends to subside. But this understanding of corruption is invalidated by the mere fact that due to the male dominated nature of networks, women are not able to indulge in corruption themselves, but can easily be involved with the process through a male intermediary. Social custom, not a lack of intent, plays a more prominent role in this matter. This is quite evident right now with regard to the current government and its ongoing tussle with the World Bank after the Padma Shetu fallout.
It is worth noting that countries that have a high level of female participation suffer from less corruption not necessarily due to the presence of women, but due to the transparency of liberal societies. If socio-economic prosperity tends to correlate with more participation of women within the government this does not necessarily imply that women are the mitigating factor for corruption. Nor is the issue strictly and economic one either, since countries with economic wealth are not immune to corruption. Rather, it is a socioeconomic issue where both culture and economic status play a symbiotic role in deciding a society’s willingness to accept corruption as a norm. So, giving out the Premier’s phone number may be relevant in asking her out for Iftar at your house, but does not help fight corruption or societal acceptance of it.
So we might as well settle in for the long haul and focus on liberalizing the structure where gender plays no prominent role in the progress of development and poverty alleviation but is an incidental attribute. It does not matter if you are a woman or a man of Bangladeshi identity, it matters what that Bangladeshi identity stands for. So let us avoid the pitfalls of adopting untested and misleading faith-based ideas and focus on a more rational approach which acknowledges that we have a less than transparent system of governance and introducing women as a counter-measure will fall flat on its face if the other more important issues are not addressed.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a War Theorist and a Visiting Researcher at Center for Sustainable Development.