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OP-ED: How to treat women equally

  • Published at 05:09 pm December 8th, 2020

Why positive action is necessary to equalize the playing field

By definition, equality means “the state of being equal.” Therefore, every time we come across the phrase “gender equality,” we think that treating men and women the same way ie equally, will bring equality. However, that is not the case.

For as long as the human race existed on planet Earth, women have been treated differently than men. Whilst a few years ago, women were not allowed to think of a life beyond household chores, 21st century “working” women are still living in an environment where they constantly have to face difficulties, challenges, and discrimination, be it at home or at work. Note that these challenges are rarely faced by men. Therefore, at a societal level, it is crucial that we understand that positive actions must be taken to make society more equal.

Many often confuse positive action with positive discrimination; however, the two have a discernible difference. Positive discrimination, as Eloise Barker explained, is the act of favouring someone based on a “protected characteristic” like age, sex, disability, etc. While it may be a good thing to positively discriminate, enabling the less represented community to enjoy a benefit, any sort of discrimination is still discrimination. 

Hence, it is considered wrong in some countries, while other countries like the UK have pronounced it illegal. On the other hand, positive action is “a way of changing society for the better, by making it more equal.”

In the case of Shamima Sultana vs Bangladesh, the court made an imperative statement regarding the need for positive action in our society and aptly pointed out that: “To eradicate the difficulties and the consequent evils of inequality faced continuously by a woman at home and in her daily life, a further leeway of leverage, in her favour, in order to balance these hindrances, is required otherwise, the constitutional commitments to bring in the fundamental rights of gender equality, as enshrined in the constitution, would be a mockery.”

Essentially, Article 28 (4) of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh states that: “Nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens,” while Article 29 (3) (a) states that: “Nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making special provision in favour of any backward section of citizens for the purpose of securing their adequate representation in the service of the republic.”

These articles, therefore, indicate that the constitution of our country allows and/or encourages the state to take positive actions that will prioritize representation of women and the advancement of women as a section of citizens. However, when these clauses are brought into action, many would love to argue that this is positive discrimination and therefore, wrong.

But again, as the court correctly pointed out in the aforementioned case, women are subjected to numerous hindrances that are uncommon to others, making women a less privileged section of people than they normally should be. To name a few of the problems (enumerated in a non-exhaustive list) that are generally faced by women -- workplace harassment (at or outside work), unequal wages for the same amount of work, unsafe and/or unhygienic environments, domestic violence, and so on. 

The most unfortunate part, however, is that, over the years, these hindrances have become so common that the unequal behaviour we have towards women became “the normal” kind of behaviour. Eventually, the level of differentiation between men and women became less transparent, leading us to think that giving women the same rights as men would be giving them equality. Nevertheless, the deeper we look into “the normal” behaviour towards women, the more we realize that same treatment can never eradicate the differentiation we created in the treatment of men and women.

Therefore, to change that “normal” to actual equality, positive action is a must, even if it amounts to positive discrimination like putting quotas at jobs, especially for women. In fact, Article 65 (3) of the Constitution of Bangladesh states that: “There shall be reserved 50 seats exclusively for women members.”

Because, we must remember, to balance years of inequality, an additional advantage as such, or special treatment towards women is important. Otherwise, the placards demanding gender equality will only be a lost effort.

Anusha Islam Raha is a graduate of LLB (Hons) from BPP University, UK. She is currently studying LLM and pursuing her career as a teacher.

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