Misrecognition of women’s roles


Marking the 14th Phulbari Day, transnational women climate justice activists under the banner of Phulbari Solidariry Coalition staged a unique green vigil and a silent human chain outside of London Stock Exchange on August 26, 2020. — Bishawzit Baidya, Phulbari Solidariry Group.

THE year 2020 has been phenomenal not only for loss of life from COVID-19, economic collapse of capitalist ventures, extreme levels of workers exploitation and job losses across industrial and third sectors but also for gendered, classist and racial injustice, increasing natural disasters during the outbreak, unremitting land grabbing and violations of peasants and indigenous rights, political abduction, torture and silencing of investigative journalists and widespread domestic violence against and rape of women across Bangladesh. All of these threaten democracy in any state. It is hard to decide which one to focus on when asked to write for a national outlet, although issues that stand as prominent to a woman earth defender are: ongoing gendered violence during the COVID-19 outbreak and gendered and racial injustice in the ecological struggle.

Violence against women has increased during the lockdown and rape of women continues to be on the rise with little attention from the government about how to prevent this. The latest report of Odikhar reveals that 322 women and girls were raped between July and September alone, and 58 percent of the victims are children. Meanwhile, an elected government officer, the UNO of Dinajpur, was as badly hammered by local thugs as to be admitted in the hospital in a critical condition. In the cases of rape, most of which have been committed by ruling party members, few media have covered the news and only a small group of civil society members have raised voices in public, which begs the question: does the word fairness or democracy apply for women in Bangladesh?

The discussion here focuses on women’s role in social movements for environmental justice. One reason for choosing this topic is that reflecting on how we mobilise within gendered spaces such as social movements for ecology and climate and on how we overcome patriarchal biases within the ecological struggle is a less complex task for this author. Another reason is the significance of the topic. Because the matter has never been discussed in any mainstream outlet, making it a topic in the margin of margin, this is so urgent.


Women and climate change campaign

CLIMATE change campaigns and social movements for the conservation of environment in Bangladesh are, likewise, a cutting-edge discussion. For years, democratic protests to save the mangrove forests, livelihood and environment from destructive coal projects and nuclear plants have been suppressed brutally which shocked climate change activists across the world. Many have asked, is there any democracy in this state?

Despite repression, the social movement for environment and climate justice has been growing in Bangladesh, where women have been playing an equally strong role as men against undemocratic decisions of the government and destructions. When campaigners were quashed by authorities in Dhaka and elsewhere, we saw women take a daring stand and challenge authorities from the frontline by engaging with police. Very rarely, women’s bold role is recognised even within the movement. Only a handful of media have covered news where women’s bold involvement in growing social movements against climate catastrophe and the repressive government is visible.

However, it is necessary to sketch out responses to the climate crisis in Bangladesh before talking about women’s contributions. This year being a crucial year for climate crisis because of cyclone Amphan that hit the country in early summer, leading to a four-month long flood and dramatic river erosions in north-central and northwest Bangladesh, our national media have widely covered stories that also highlighted social movements to prevent environmental devastation. News about an online rally against the Matarbari coal power plant, the Phulbari Day commemoration and online protests to save the Sundarbans gained wide coverage. Analytical news about the government’s plans to build devastating coal power projects across the south coast, how these projects would affect communities and what our energy experts and environmentalists have to say about these projects were published in leading newspapers.

The government did not hear Bangladesh’s climate campaigners who have been cautioning the government about the consequences of destruction of nature for decades, even though this year’s COVID-19 outbreak, unseasonal flood and the dreadful cyclone Amphan would have done the job for us. Many would think that the government has been warned by the wrath of nature to some extent. As Bangladesh’s prime minister has recently expressed concerns about how to tackle flood and natural disasters during an outbreak, it seems that she has heard the climate catastrophe.

‘Everyone should unite in working towards a common solution: a cleaner, greener and safer world,’ wrote prime minister in an article published in the Financial Times on September 28. The prime minister has eventually described climate change as a ‘common threat’ (to all) as she referred to the cyclone Amphan, flood, river erosions and the COVID-19 pandemic — calling these ‘wraths of nature’.

This is exactly the sort of message a nation would have wanted to hear from their prime minister. While her written message is ambitious, it is uncertain whether the government will now move to renewable energy as an immediate step to save our planet. Just about a month ago we heard that the government was not considering renewable energy. The government is embracing gas to meet energy needs instead.

The prime minister does not say that the government will halt the destructive projects in Rampal, Matarbari and Payra port where it plans to build coal power plants and hundreds of other industrial constructions. Prime minister Sheikh Hasina has rather given the responsibility of rescuing Bangladesh to other rich countries by saying:

G20 countries are responsible for about 80 per cent of emissions while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.5 per cent. The emitters have greater responsibility and must make larger contributions through the mitigation needed to cap the global temperature rise at 1.5C.

The prime minister then wrote that,

As the current president of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, Bangladesh is seeking more support from the international community and the G20 for increased finance and access to technology to speed adaptation for those countries most at risk.

As surreal as it might sound though, the prime minister claims, ‘In that group, Bangladesh is one of the best prepared for extreme weather.’ She wrote, ‘We are building sea walls, planting mangrove forests, embedding resilience in all governmental work.’

Who should remind the prime minister that by planting mangrove forests artificially after destroying the natural forest in the Sundarbans by building destructive coal-fired plants, and by building sea walls after letting Matarbari Phase-2 go ahead that would damage the coastal livelihood in Cox’s Bazaar, this government cannot stop the wrath of nature?

Even though the mangrove forest in the Sundarbans saved the country from cyclone Amphan, the 1,320MW Rampal coal-power plant is in progress and the associated constructions are being implemented. The ecosystem and Bangladesh’s coast are to be destroyed by the coal power plants in Matarbari and Payra port constructions. Although people’s resistance has put a halt to the Phulbari coal mine project, these latest projects are going ahead. A deep seaport for unloading coal is being built at Matarbari in Cox’s Bazaar with the Japanese corporation JICA’s funding. The Sumitomo of Japan, Toshiba and IHI Corporations are jointly working to build a 2,000MW coal-fired power plant across the coast.

This is absolutely undemocratic as the communities in Matarbari have not been consulted. They are feeling vulnerable as their land and livelihood are at risk. But our prime minister blames other states for climate crises in Bangladesh. This isn’t fairness.

As a climate campaigner myself who often criticises leaders of the capitalist world for how climate change in the global North have impacted landscapes and livelihoods in the global South, I found it embarrassing to read the article which scapegoated G20 for everything that our government fails to do. The written message of the prime minister at a critical time of climate breakdown brings in more work for all earth defenders though. Climate campaigners in Bangladesh and abroad should feel the urgency to take ever more strong actions now. I am certain that women climate activists are most likely to do so.


Gender dynamics of ecological struggle

FOR years, many of us have been at the forefront of challenging climate crisis and capitalist forces, particularly multinational corporations who wanted to approve the Phulbari coal project, who implemented Boropukuria shaft mining in north-west Bangladesh and who allowed violence in Bashkhali. We have opposed the Boropukuria mine, we have resisted the Phulbari coal project and Bashkhali coal plant and we have warned against the Rampal and Matarbari coal projects. In this fight to defend natural resources and the earth, both men and women have joined hands. Women, in particular, in Phulbari, Boropukuria and the Save Sundarbans movements have made invaluable contributions. Social movements against land grabbing and destructions of nature in Bangladesh have always been unconditionally supported by women.

But these women were never counted on when decisions were made, policies were formulated and teams for coordination and leadership were formed. In Phulbari, for example, women lost their children and fought a tremendous fight against the Bangladesh Rifles (now Border Guard Bangladesh), police and Rapid Action Battalion. But these incredibly courageous women were totally left out of the meeting room for negotiation on August 30, 2006. Between August 26 and August 30, thousands of women and children led by a young woman, namely Nurun Nahar, marched against the construction of the coal mine and the British corporation and resisted paramilitary forces pushing them out of the highway and making space for the National Committee organisers and male leaders to return to the town. Despite their huge contributions to the resistance movement, neither Nurun Nahar nor any other senior women were recognised at the negotiation table where the Phulbari agreement was signed between the government and a former mayor of Dinajpur.

In Khoirbari, one thousand women took to the street on August 28 forming a peaceful and long-lasting defence for the land and homes of people. The street action by women in Khoirbari was the news of the week. But these women are now totally forgotten. Misrecognition of Bangladeshi women in environmental and social movements is a common phenomenon. Women’s place in environmental movements in Bangladesh always has always been as a server or helper rather than a co-worker, collaborator or colleague.

Bangladeshi women do not only organise within Bangladesh. They are also working abroad and making valuable contributions to international climate campaign. Despite the COVID-19 outbreak, this summer has been eventful for Bangladeshi climate change campaigners who have been raising awareness about climate injustice and the need for renewable energies in Bangladesh and abroad. In August and September in particular, social movements including direct actions around ecological justice for Phulbari, Matarbair and Sundarbans sparked up in which Bangladeshi women campaigners across the world played remarkable roles. In Bangladesh, Germany, the United Kingdom and Australia, women campaigners of all ages took actions online and offline to respond to the government’s controversial energy policy, the destructive coal-power plants, the need to protect the Sundarbans, and the discriminatory flood relief system. These campaigners hardly get mentioned in Bangladeshi media. These actions are seen as micro actions within the hegemonic environmental movements led by men only.

Marking the second anniversary of Climate Action Week in September leading up to global School Strike for Climate, a British woman with Bangladeshi origin, Mya-Rose Craig, staged a climate action that she called the most northerly climate strike, in the far north Arctic Ocean which made a record in youth climate strike internationally and made headlines in a number of international media. On September 20, the 18-year-old anti-racist and youth climate striker said in her interview with Reuters Thomson that her family in Sunamgonj in Bangladesh ‘are already suffering because of climate breakdown. Her grandfather’s village had their rice crop swept away by unseasonal flooding. There are a million stories like this.’

And for this reason, Mya staged a unique climate action, standing alone on an Arctic ice floe and holding up a protest sign against the drastic melting of the ice around her. The story however was under-reported in Bangladeshi media. The image of Mya’s unique climate action made it to the Twenty Photographs of the Week in the Guardian, though the Friday’s for Future Bangladesh climate campaigners did not follow her updates. Instead of following Mya’s updates, Bangladesh based youth climate strikers at Friday’s for Future, who are mostly boys and young men, have followed the updates by a white Swedish youth climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who started the climate strike by skipping school to sit alone outside the Swedish parliament in 2018.

While there is no objection to follow Greta or any other non-racist Swedish woman, an indifference to actions of your own community, such as Mya’s strike, entails a colonial mentality and patriarchal approach. Our men and boys as colonised subjects would follow a white girl and would be loyal to non-Bengali women, but they would look down upon and talk down girls and women of their own kind as a custom.

This practice needs to be overcome if we want to fight climate injustice. Ecological struggles should recognise women’s role. Hegemonic environmentalism and patriarchy in ecological fights are harmful for climate justice and misrecognition of women’s roles in the fight for a just transition threatens fairness. As we talk about climate justice and democracy, we should also talk about gender, race and class equality within ecological struggles in Bangladesh.

Democracy is not just something that should be preserved and upheld by the government and authorities. Democracy in unpretentious words refers to fairness. It refers to a practice which enables everyone to enjoy equal shares of resources, have the right to speak and make decisions, share responsibilities, take leading roles in actions and have respect and recognition. If we cannot practice equality within our movements, and if we fail to uphold democracy ourselves, we cannot expect the government to do the same. Our environmentalists need to understand this and give women their right to take the lead in movements as we work hard to develop the campaigns and build solidarity with external groups. Hegemonic environmentalism and patriarchal structures of climate change movements will otherwise enable government inactions and corporate crimes to rise as they are thriving across the world and moving aggressively to ruin Bangladesh’s natural resources and the livelihood of the communities on the ground.


Dr Rumana Hashem is a political sociologist and an activist-academic. Currently based in the University of Warwick, she directs the Phulbari Solidarity Group and Community Women against Abuse.

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