Bangladesh gets its first woman Speaker

May 1, 2013 at 12:03 AM
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DHAKA, Bangladesh, May 1 (UPI) -- Bangladesh's government has elected the first female speaker of Parliament, a move that could trigger a religious backlash.

The Awami League party voted unanimously for the appointment of Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, minister for Women and Children Affairs, to take over as speaker, a report by the New Age newspaper said.

The position of speaker fell vacant April 24 when Abdul Hamid, 69, became the country's president.

Hamid was speaker from January 2009 and became acting president after Zillur Rahman died in March in Singapore while being treated for kidney and respiratory problems.

Chowdhury, 47, also is the international affairs secretary of the Awami League and was elected to one of Parliament's reserved seats for women.

Her father Rafiqullah is a pharmaceutical consultant and her mother was an educational professor. Rafiqullah Chowdhury also was an associate of independence leader and former Prime Minister Sheik Mujibur Rahman, the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Just before the election of Chowdhury, Hasina had expressed her desire to see a woman as speaker, the New Age report said.

Chowdhury obtained a law degree from Dhaka University in 1989 and a doctorate on human rights and constitutional law, specializing on right-to-life issues, from Essex University in the United Kingdom in 2000.

"We are proud that the Awami League Parliamentary Party has nominated Shirin Sharmin for the post of the speaker, the third highest post of the country," AL General Secretary Syed Ashraful Islam said.

"Nomination of a female for the post of speaker would play an important role in the advancement of the women in the country as our prime minister, deputy leader of the House and leader of the opposition all are women."

But the political elevation of Chowdhury, who became a member of the Bangladesh Nari Samaj (women's coalition) in 2007, could spark protests from the religious right, a report by the BBC said.

BNPS, a registered non-government organization, is an activist women's group set up in 1986 to establish equality for women, from the family to the state level, BNPS says on its website.

Chowdhury helped write the government's policy to promote women's development, which, along with her activist work has been denounced by Islamist groups, the BBC said.

Her election will likely anger Islamist groups based in madrasas -- religious schools -- that have threatened to mobilize supporters in massive street demonstrations this coming weekend to demand an end to so-called "un-Islamic" laws.

In March Chowdhury told Bangladeshi media that the government has been working to improve equality for women but more needed to be done, a report by New Age said at the time.

The Awami League had increased from 45 to 50 the number of reserved seats for women in the 345-seat Jatiyo Shangshad but she said would like it to be 100.

She urged all political parties to emphasize women's representation at every level of political life.

Chowdhury also acknowledged the slowness of bringing to court cases of violence against women but she said it was more for lack of evidence than bureaucrats dragging their heels.

Retired Col. Shawkat Ali continues as deputy speaker of Parliament.

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