"We are all warriors in our own small orbits and these efforts will lead us toward a society free of religious obstacles, bring freedom from hunger, and end all kinds of discrimination."
Shirin Banu was born in 1951 in a liberal, well-known, and politically-active family in Pabna. Both Shirin's father and mother were members of the Communist Party, as were some of her uncles. Her mother, Selina Banu, was elected to the legislative assembly of Pakistan, and appointed the first female whip of the parliamentary party in 1954. She was also the first general secretary of the Mahila Awami League (the women's wing of the Awami League).
Naturally, politics called Shirin: she was active in student politics and in Bangladesh's liberation struggle against Pakistan. (While still a student in college, she joined the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, the pioneering and largest women's human rights organization in Bangladesh.)
Many women who fought during the 1971 war barricaded the movement of Pakistani soldiers and provided information, food, and shelter to Bangladeshi fighters. There were, however, social restrictions against women joining the war at the frontlines.
The proscription irked Shirin so much that she disguised herself as a male soldier, took her brother's name, and pitched in. Only her closest associates knew her secret. The going was tough - she could neither bathe with the other soldiers nor go to the toilet during the day for fear of being unmasked.
When the war was over, she was among the many who believed that all their dreams would come true. But the reality turned sour. The secular constitution was replaced by an Islamic one and the people did not, Shirin says, "get freedom of religion, freedom from hunger, or freedom from discrimination".
After independence, Shirin got a scholarship to study in the then Soviet Union. On her return, she briefly considered rejoining politics but then joined BARD (Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development) - a semi-governmental institution working on agriculture and rural development - as deputy director of its women's development program. The spirit of the woman in rural Bangladesh stirred her and left a lasting impression. She realized that even the most miniscule support could catalyze women to overcome Herculean obstacles.
In 1998, Shirin left BARD and joined the Bangladesh Nari Progoti Sangha, working with women living on the islands in southern Bangladesh. Around the same year, she joined the PRIP Trust and worked as a local-level political activist among women in rural Bangladesh. At this juncture, the government passed a Bill that gave village women the right to contest in direct elections at the local-government level. Since women are nominated - not elected - by the ruling party to Parliament, the legislation was a step forward for rural women. Shirin now works with rural women leaders.
For the past 23 years, she has been networking, using advocacy, and writing in the media. Shirin brought together elected women in the Union Parishad (the smallest legislative unit in Bangladesh). She also built a forum that afforded elected representatives the wherewithal to collectively bargain for their rights and power. Developing the capability of women to stand against discrimination is an integral part of her work.
Predictably, Shirin faced, and continues to face, tremendous opposition from fundamentalist groups. Religious leaders often pass gratuitous fatwas against village women who move out of their private perimeters and into public spaces to take part in meetings and rallies, a development that has gripped the villages. Shirin understood that it was possible to fight these fundamentalists if the community stood together and spoke as one. Working towards uniting women in rural Bangladesh to fight against fundamentalism, Shirin has created local women's groups.
She continues to strive for the Bangladesh that the freedom-fighters had once dreamt of. "We are all warriors in our own small orbits and these small efforts will lead us towards a society free of religious obstacles, bring freedom from hunger, and end all kinds of discrimination," she says.
Shirin Banu comes from a liberal, politically active background. Both her parents were active members of the communist party. Her mother was the first female whip of the parliamentary party and the first general secretary of the Mahila Awami League. It obviously led to Shirin being politically active from her student days.
One of the country's best-known freedom-fighters, Shirin was perturbed that women were denied the opportunity to fight on the frontlines. Therefore, she disguised herself as a man and joined the war, living daily with the fear of being unmasked. Postwar reality was a big disappointment. Bangladesh's secular constitution was replaced by an Islamic one and the people did not, Shirin says, "get freedom of religion, freedom from hunger, or freedom from discrimination."
Shirin's work with the women's development program of the Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development set the course for her life's work. The spirit of the women in rural Bangladesh stirred her, leaving a lasting impression. Around 1998, she joined the Prip Trust. She now works with women leaders in rural Bangladesh, her most remarkable achievement being the setting up of a forum of elected women in the Union Parishad (Bangladesh's smallest legislative unit), who would work together to assert their inalienable rights and power.
Predictably, Shirin faced raucous opposition from fundamentalist groups. But she knew that if the community stood together and raised its voice, it would stymie the fundamentalists. It was to this end that she created several local women's organizations. "We are all warriors in our own small orbits and these small efforts will lead us toward a society free of religious obstacles, bring freedom from hunger, and end all kinds of discrimination," she says.
Women's groups in Bangladesh are fighting for women's right to direct election to parliament, which has the ruling party nominating women to it. In 1998, the government passed a bill that gave village women the right to contest in direct elections at the local-government level.
South Asia | Bangladesh