Seuty Sabur: Did “NGOization” deradicalize the women’s movement?

Did “NGOization” deradicalize the women’s movement?
by Seuty Sabur for [please do not reprint without permission]

I thought of writing this essay on 11thMay itself, after attending the Women’s Grand Rally. But we had to finish cataloging the missing persons’ photos from the Rana Plaza collapse, and tabulate their data for the archives. We, meaning the Chobbishe April (April 24) collective – activist anthropologists, sociologist, journalists and photographers – had to continue to count the bodies. While counting, I was also keenly looking for news, analysis, or any reactions to the demands presented in the May 11th rally. As assumed, there were none, except for the reports covering the event. It may seem passé to talk about the Grand Rally after weeks; but the lack of it is eating me from inside.

In newspaper reports: “In a declaration, the women leaders placed a 10-point demand that includes taking legal action against those who want to curb women rights, implementation of all national and international charters for women development, restoration of the constitution of 1972, arrangements for compensation and rehabilitation to all victim garment workers and their families, including those of Rana Plaza collapse, and ensuring security to indigenous and religious minorities.” (The Daily Star, 12 May2013).

Except for the first demand, none really engaged with Hefazat-e-Islam’s 13-point demand. Whereas this mass gathering was organized to show the strength of various women’s organizations and resist any threat posed to women. Not that I am against the demands of May 11th. But it is perplexing to believe that these 10-point demands to government are beyond any critique. As if it speaks to all in the same language, which is hard to believe after being there.

I reached the venue little after 3pm. I didn’t bother to coordinate with anyone, as I knew I would find all my allies there. After crossing the tight security in front of CIRDAP, I was ushered by the volunteers to the venue. They directed me to walk a few hundred meters straight to the Topkhana roundabout just to be counted as part of the “GRAND RALLY”, which was just on the other side of the road divider. Now, I am not a lover of regimentation when it is imposed like this, so I stood alone near the newspaper stand, examining the crowd from a distance. My effort to stay at a distance proved to be futile, as my eyes were meeting familiar eyes. Yet, I tried to concentrate on speeches, and especially on the composition of the crowd.

The strength that I was promised on Facebook was not there: neither in their speeches, nor amongst the crowd. I blame it, in some ways, on those first few weeks of Shahbag uprising. After experiencing that heightened spirit of Shahbag, being among hundreds of thousands of people, this new gathering seem dull and boring. Any wise person with a minimum consciousness would feel the absence of spirit at the least.

Each speech was condemning the “fundamentalist” forces: Hefazat-e-Islam in this case. Each celebrated the secular ‘Bengali’ nationalism fashionably. Many of the attendees said that shifting dates of the rally may have dampened the mood. Maybe they were right. But it may also be the crackdown of state agencies on the Hefazat rally that made this grand rally irrelevant. That irrelevance translated to the crowd, making them look like a congregation of spiritless, disembodied seculars. A group of free-floating individuals were there to fulfill their rituals. Maybe they were there just to see and be seen.

I have been a member of Mahila Parishad for twenty years now. I know from my heart that these activists truly believe that they need to resist any rightist, anti-woman force. They have been working hard for more than four decades to establish women’s rights as a basic human right. As a result of their struggles, I am able to enjoy my independence as a woman in Bangladesh. I am proudly embodying their legacy.

But with all due respect, I would dare say that in the process of achieving empowerment, we have lost our edge as activists.

Most of these organizations started off as movement based, grassroots organizations. During the 70s and early 80s, activism remained real, organically evolving to address the women’s issues in newly founded Bangladesh. The increased visibility of women in the public work sphere was necessitated to reframe the women’s question beyond its nationalist discourse of ‘mother/sisters sacrificing their honor for independence’. They had to organize themselves to find their voice and fight for their demands. It was not yet driven by the United Nations (U.N.) or donor agency mandate.

Later, women’s organizations had to respond to the global forces, like the collapse of socialist blocs, bureaucratization of U.N. agencies, and an ever-growing neoliberal economy. They also had to register as an NGO for their very legal existence in Bangladesh. Transnational forces contoured the feminist movement that we see now. It is hard for women’s organizations to escape the donor driven activism, or even to legally exist without the structure of NGO. I acknowledge the need for these changes. Yet at the same time, one unintended consequence of this formalization has been to make parts of the feminist movement spiritless, catering only to immediate needs.

The ‘NGOization’ of the women’s movement created new hierarchies amongst leaders, volunteers, and paid employees. They were further divided by their class, age/generations, ethnicity, and locale (urban/rural). As we entered the new millennium, we saw highly professional gender specialists, entering the field, catering to the need of Donor agencies and NGOS. These added another level of complicacy in hierarchy. Women’s organization has been closely working with academics and professionals. But there is major disjuncture in understanding, which resulted in passivity among young feminists. The Feminist organization wants these young feminists to take over their batons, and the new generations of feminist do want to be involved, yet almost every feminist organization has been suffering from a gap between the old and new guards. Their irreconcilable differences charted new path of (dis)engagement on the ground. There has been an unavoidable vacuum in leadership; hence we end up seeing same old faces everywhere.

Most of the leaders’ volunteerism/activism has become the part of their everyday rituals. This ritualistic life may contribute to the continuation of their work that they have started ages ago. But it does not add anything new to the existing feminist movement. Having organizations in almost every district doesn’t necessarily decentralize the bureaucracy. Therefore, leaders or even small workers in a city or central remain more powerful than the grassroots workers. The urban middle classes’ hegemonic idea of freedom is translated by the local leader (organic intellectuals) in a form of TOT (Training for Trainers). Empowerment may trickle down as a handout of legal or medical aid, but that doesn’t automatically translate into autonomy.

Hence we witness all the leaders (who were not on the stage) sitting on chairs off the stage next to the journalists, while all the members were sitting on the ground, especially those who were representing the working class in the grand rally. We see various professional organization like ‘Pharmaceutical Employee’s Association’ led by a man acting as a shepherd, leading the way of working women. Hence, we see left leaders (read father figures) watching over everything from a distance.

The Grand Rally’s allegiance to the ruling party made matters worse. ‘Joy bangla’ (which we thought we reclaimed from BAL after Shahabag, but soon found BAL snatched back from us) sounded out of place. So was the token presence of ethnic community minorities.

I am sure many of my comrades are nodding their heads in disagreement. Well, I seriously think this engagement with Islamists was useless especially after the crackdown. If Shahbag was the thesis, Jamat/Hefazat was the antithesis, and the crackdown was the synthesis orchestrated by the state – it is a simple dialectical process.

By allowing the ruling party’s women’s organization to intervene into the Grand Rally, our feminist leaders showed their loyalty to the government. Who is then left to critique the repressive nature of State machineries? Or, were they too relieved that the state fought their fight? So that they don’t have to encounter those “medieval mollahs” and actually have to struggle? Finally, they could sigh in relief that they were able to restore their finesse of class, preserve their core values, and go on with their safe lives.

This rally did not question Hefazat’s position in any form but used it as a cause for class solidarity. It also ensured a particular form of secular celebration which doesn’t concern other classes. Or else there would be few hundreds of thousands of women turning up for the rally, women whose lives would be jeopardized if the 13-point of Hefazat were met. Even many of my beloved Facebook enthusiasts who created virtual storm after the release of the 13-point demand, were absent in the rally.

Garments workers federation’s leader Nazma, very boldly said in a talk show after the Savar collapse, that she and her sisters working in the factories are neither afraid of Hefazat, nor the Islamic politics. They send their children to madrassah for education and safety, while they are away at work. And that is their class reality.

It is the state and the middle/affluent class who have more stake involved in Hefazat’s uprising. And yet they are the class that is least able to imagine a new politics that would be an adequate response to the rise of Hefazat.

My question is how long will the middle class cherish their dancing Shiva/laughing Buddha next to the statue of Lenin/Mao, and keep the “wazifa” shelved? When would they realize it’s not fundamentalism that they should be worried about, but the question of multiple identities (class-gender-religion-ethnicity) within democracy– something that they have not spent enough time discussing, debating, and thinking through. If you do not think it through, and build a new articulation for it, simply raising slogans and appealing to the state will not establish anything.

How long will women’s bodies be used as tools to manifest secular or religious politics, or for that matter neo liberal coercion?

It is necessary for us to identify the forces that are stealing/sapping the spirit out of the women’s movement. It is our turn to reinvent the feminist movement once again and reclaim it from the State and from a patronage and institutionalization that neuters it.

Seuty Sabur is Assistant Professor of Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University, Dhaka. She blogs on

12 thoughts on “Seuty Sabur: Did “NGOization” deradicalize the women’s movement?

  1. i dont know if u noticed that women came in droves brought in by their organizations. not sure if they knew why they were there. so its difficult to call this a feminist rally or even a women’s rights rally. its mass mobilization the way political parties do it

    1. Precisely. They were brought by their organizations which claim to figh for a feminist cause. That is the point I am have been trying to make. I have talked to some of these women who were led to the procession. Some of them clearly said they were there as part of the city committee or para committee of the organization just to show their presence (hajira). They did not seem very convinced. And many of them do not see Hefazat as threat. I do not want to generalize this statement but this surely manifests the difference among the participants and echos certain hierarchy.

      When leading feminist organization congregate to demonize Islamist forces and brand them as anti women, identify them as common enemy/threat to the feminist movement….what would you call them?

  2. Fantastic, No you are not wrong to write this later. You said exactly what I could not articulate at the time as I watched on from my sick bed, feeling uncomfortable about it all. It did entertain me on TV when it looked like all the women were telling the Hefajat off with sponge sandals in their hands when the reruns showed the speeches one by one. Rejuvenated feminist movement for our generation – yes. Pushing women from different classes to talk – yes, different voices, different angles. No one is wrong and respect to the women who have paved the way and been stalwart battle axes – theres no blaming but others have got to get up, stand up.

  3. Seuty apu, lovely piece. My beef with the Bangladesh OBR campaign wast the same. The NGOization and moddhobitto-ization of the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh really has created an uneven playing field where our women leaders (young and old, online and offline) instead trying to create a platform try to become the voice of women of all classes–esp the classes they/we do not represent. I remember asking questions about representation of different working classes at this rally before. I’m not surprised that the rally was not movement of women conscious that their rights are always under threat, even from the State.
    Thanks for writing this!

  4. Thanks Seuty, ur analysis of both the event and the mechanism of empowering women proved powerful.

    I have one point to differ and one to elaborate. U wrote,

    ‘Shahbag was the thesis, Jamat/Hefazat was the antithesis, and the crackdown was the synthesis orchestrated by the state”

    Coercion on Shapla was intended to destroy both Shahbag and Hefajot with same blow. and that was achieved. Remember the very night Shapla was disbanded Shahbag Stage was also removed from the sight in same haste. Now neither Shapla nor Shahbag exists to question the ‘Power’ in any way. So by driving hefajoti out of the city and from the political landscape, the force behind the state was able to rule out any posssibility of synthesis between Shahbag and Shapla, i.e. 71 and Islam. (I’m not suggesting that two historic blocks continuing to thrive in peoples mind formatted by two historical struggle: one against the Zaminders and another against Pakistani bourgeoisie are not essentially opposite to each other_ Same leadership with different slogan lead those movements_ rather later is political consequence of the former. But in ultra-secularist imagination they r bound to collide. For that reason, a synthesis needed for national solidarity. Shahbag and Shapla imagined and felt two nation within one and in fifth scene of the drama they both left without finishing their role to make space for new Hero.

    So, dialectics between two camp cannot flourished, so it is hard to see any synthesis, rather a short parenthesis, an interval.

    MY second point here:
    There is a lacuna in your narrative. The pro-Moscow left had taken the role of unintentional fool who was used as midwife for depoliticizing the Women’s movement. They were the main operatives to build NGO network which will usurp their base and transform their mass organizations into semi-NGO. bankruptcy of these organizations were quicker by posing women’s question not as a social-political question, but as legal-rights question with individualistic approach. So the question of social change which will eventually make condition for women to fight for more freedom were abandoned. Still it is out of sight of our so-called progressive factions, still they are out of mind of those subaltern women who needs them most. So who needs this variety of women movement and this versions of secularism? Driving force of subjugation of women under capitalist development, answers: U r for US.

    This is just an elaboration, u made us trace contour of this regression perfectly.

    thanks again.

  5. The paragraph on the ritualization of feminist politics is wonderful, in an excellent piece. Loved the line: “The urban middle classes’ hegemonic idea of freedom is translated by the local leader (organic intellectuals) in a form of TOT (Training for Trainers).” Apart from the middle classes’ hegemonic idea of freedom, I have been continually surprised at how many people I know— generally caring, intelligent creatures– compulsively ridiculed Hefajat, not just due to their perhaps ludicrous demands ( which can be argued), but even at the bread and water in their bags. Why did this not arouse sympathy? Why is it a source of ridicule? A kind of perverse cultural elitism….perhaps similar to a religious rural hegemony of the male elite in a village when they ridicule transgressing women….or not.

  6. Why do we need a radical feminist movement?

    For 40 years we had organizational and social movements (yes NGOs of all stripes) working for women’s issues and only someone willfully blind will deny that we have not made tremendous progress on women’s issues.

    In most of the developed world, women university students outnumber male students. In most major metropolitan areas of USA, women’s average earning is higher than men. This change is just not confined to middle and upper echelons of society. Recently a news is causing great upheaval among the opinion makers in USA. 40% of US household now have women as the main breadwinner. ( Society is changing rapidly and women are gaining control. Read Hanna Rosin’s End of Men,

    These changes came because of women participating in politics, organizations, movements, lobbying etc in very conventional way. Also the prime mover is inexorable evolution of society and economy with technology.

    What has this got to do with Bangladesh? Well whatever happens in the west will happen in Bangladesh in the future (unless Islamists derail the train). Even the best defense against the looming Islamist threat is patient organizational movement not radical feminism, which may only inflame those forces.

    I agree with the article wholeheartedly but not with the title. I see that the title can be magnet for many revolutionaries. We do not need a radical women’s movement. Democratic organizational activity is the way to go. If there is dissatisfaction with the present course of organizations, you are free to set up new organizations with new goals and new patrons (or no patrons).

    The NGO movement deserves many criticism from many angles but nothing from romantic revolutionaries. The loser revolutionaries have been complaining for three decades that green revolution, market economy, consumerism, NGOs etc are taking the revolutionary impulses of the masses away. Such views are beneath contemptible. People holding that kind of view channel their psychological and intellectual inadequacies through nihilistic dreams.

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