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  • Sustaining Advocacy for Women's Empowerment for Four Decades
  • Rounaq Jahan (bio)

I was perhaps a feminist all my life, although when I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s in Bangladesh, the terms "feminist" and "feminism" were not in vogue. I recall from early childhood that I was acutely aware of the discrimination a girl child faced in our society, and I was determined to make my choices about my life and not let others dictate my choices. Fortunately my parents were very supportive, particularly my father. Despite my personal commitment to the goals of gender equality and women's empowerment, when I did my graduate studies at Harvard in the late 1960s I did not choose to specialize in women's issues. I did my Ph.D. in comparative politics and when I returned to Bangladesh in 1972, my early research was focused on Bangladesh politics.

I was initially drawn to research and writing on women and gender issues primarily for advocacy purposes. During the 1971 war of national liberation in Bangladesh, thousands of women were raped by Pakistani military and later abandoned by their own families and this drew a lot of international media attention. I was then teaching at Harvard and was invited by various women's groups to talk about women's roles and status in Bangladesh. During 1972 to 1975, side by side with research on Bangladesh politics, I started writing and speaking out on women's issues because at that time no other person in Bangladesh was writing and speaking from a feminist perspective. In 1973, I formed an informal study group to encourage research and writing on women. The group met once a week in my house. Our plan was to write a book on various aspects of women's lives in Bangladesh and publish it in 1975, which had been declared International Women's Year (IWY) by the United Nations (UN).1 We registered ourselves as a non-government organization (NGO) in 1975 calling our group "Women for Women." It is still functioning as one of the leading feminist advocacy organizations in the region.

From 1973 onwards, I also was increasingly drawn to the emerging international women's movement, as I was invited to speak at various international conferences. In 1973, I received an invitation to speak at the ninth International Anthropological Association meeting in Chicago. In 1974, I was invited as a panelist at the NGO Forum of the UN Conference on Population and Development in Bucharest. In 1975, I was invited to chair the two plenary sessions of the first day of the NGO Forum of the International Women's Year Conference in Mexico City. [End Page 208]

The Mexico City conference left a deep imprint on me as it was the first time I was exposed to the passions of the global feminist movement. I met feminist scholars and activists from countries around the world, many of whom still remain my good friends. I learned about the wide ranging concerns of the global women's movement, many of which were new to me. I also witnessed the sharp differences in perspective and priorities of the feminists from the North and the South. I wrote an article about my experiences in Mexico City; at that time, I identified the three sub-themes of the IWY conference as reflecting the priorities of three regions: equality highlighted by the North, peace by the East, and development by the South.2

After Mexico City, I was invited to many international conferences on women which were marked by contestation between feminists from the North and South. I remember spending hours late at night in various caucuses clarifying our different positions, and engaging in lively debates with feminists from other parts of the world. I participated in various panels of the NGO Forum of the Second UN Conference on Women in Copenhagen in 1980. I also organized several national and regional conferences and participated in global negotiations. In 1977, I organized a major South and South East Asian conference on "Women and Development" in Bangladesh. That year I was also a member of the Bangladesh delegation to the UN and participated in...


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