Yes, the term is rather oxymoronic. How can discrimination, a negative phenomenon in itself, be positive? Allow me to tell you a story.
Say there is a country called Samata, where all citizens must use a new software profile for everything: Service, medicine, education, job, marriage, etc. The terms and conditions of the software are the same. Since all the software users have the same functions, buttons, options, and settings, theoretically, they have equal power to use the software.
Now, A has had a computer with an internet connection since birth, and has full time access to both WiFi and mobile data. C’s family does not let her use the internet without male supervision and she has no personal computer or cellphone. B has studied only till class 8.
Do you still think all the citizens can utilise the software equally to protect their interests?
Now, if Samata were Bangladesh, the software would be the law, the internet is public life, and A, B, and C are all citizens with “equal rights under law,” -- the picture becomes clearer. B and C are behind A because society has given them less privileges. Even though they all have the same software, their use will always be weaker because of diminished access.
Therefore, in order to really ensure that everybody can use the software equally, either B and C must be given access to computer, WiFi, and skills to become like A, or there must be offices to help only B and C but not A.
This “extra” privilege’ that allows them equal access to the software, is positive discrimination. This is discrimination done to bring about positive effects, a discrimination based on the correction of past wrongs, to bridge any existing gaps.
A right to fight for
Positive discrimination is our constitutional right under article 28(4). Also known as “affirmative action,” it refers to special measures for fostering greater equality by supporting groups who face/have faced entrenched discrimination so they can have similar access to opportunities as others in the community (according to the Australian Human Rights Commission).
It applies not only to women but to any disadvantaged section: Minorities, indigenous people, people with disabilities, children, etc. The UDHR 1948 mentions the principle, while President JF Kennedy first used this term in 1961.
It stems from the realisation that structural discrimination and centuries of historical injustice done to certain groups cannot be amended by simply giving equal rights now. Equal nutrition may turn the weak healthy, but while they grow healthy, the already healthy sect (men/majority) grows healthier, perpetuating the power gap. Equality helps only those who are already equal. To make the unequal equal, first you have to remove the gap with something extra.
What is ironic is that those who question women’s privileges in a bus or in parliament are not bothered when women get less property by inheritance, or enjoy lesser rights in divorce or guardianship
Every society has problems. But not all problems are talked about. Bangladesh has been talking about the female gender, but does it address the core? All the talk about patriarchy, discriminatory customs, stereotypes, taboos, etc have developed a women’s rights narrative that goes somewhat like this: “Women are also human, women have rights, women deserve equal pay, girl children should not be discriminated (thanks Meena), etc.
But, at the same time, an alternate narrative developed, which we bypassed: Eveteasing is bad (seldom admitting it’s a crime), girls can work late (but then they are not good girls), women can be leaders (because of their fathers or husbands), etc.
This alternate narrative acknowledges women rights, but does not believe in its essence.
A great hypocrisy
That is why theoretical equality of woman is ok, but when in reality woman claim equal public space, the notion of equality gets debated. Equal rights drowns under objections over special privileges that women enjoy, such as reserved bus seats, reserved parliament seats, quotas in various jobs, quotas in labor migration, stipends and scholarships for female students, and more.
Their logic is plain and simple: If indeed women are equal, why should they enjoy more? If indeed women are no less, why should men not enjoy similar privileges?
These questions cannot be taken lightly. As an ardent advocate human rights and its awareness, I have received this very question from as young as students of class six to as senior as superior teachers at colleges and high-level public officials.
Positive discrimination protects women in the public sphere -- unfortunately, we do not yet have discrimination law for private life. Domestic violence laws sometimes help.
What is ironic is that those who question women’s privileges in a bus or in parliament are not bothered when women get less property by inheritance, or enjoy lesser rights in divorce or guardianship.
If women are equal and must not enjoy more, then, my dear bhais
(and some apas
), why don’t you make a short film about men getting more property and shout your sanity off? So, we need to discuss, understand, and know about positive discrimination.
No matter how much we fight for women’s equality on the surface, we can never secure it unless we believe and accept that women are indeed subjugated. State-sponsored social safety nets benefitting the disadvantaged are not questioned. But replace them with women, and the reaction will change.
We must confess that we have trouble believing that women still face discrimination, that they deserve more till they are practically on-par with men.
Perhaps, the naysayers did not bother with positive discrimination earlier because women’s equality was less visible. But, today, with women conquering Everest, these conscientious objectors are being revived to fight with their last weapon: Ignorance and irrationality.
Arpeeta Shams Mizan teaches law at University of Dhaka, and is a socio-legal analyst.