Are 'battling begums' keeping Bangladesh back?

Corruption charges threaten to worsen the animosity between the two women who have run the country for the past 20 years. Political instability is hurting economic growth.

Former Bangladeshi prime minister Khaleda Zia, center, arrives to appear before a court in Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 19, 2014. Zia was indicted in two related corruption cases Wednesday that could further complicate the country's tense political situation.

One woman wears oversized sunglasses and gossamer veils; the other favors print patterns and thin spectacles. Their nickname is the “battling begums,” a reference to their positions as Muslim women of stature. 

On Wednesday, the political rivalry between these two women who have alternated running Bangladesh for the past 20 years, flared again. A Dhaka court brought corruption charges against former prime minister Khaleda Zia. She is accused of embezzling $670,000 that was intended for a charity while she was prime minister in 2001-06.  

Ms. Zia contends that the charges – which could send her to jail for life – are politically motivated and stem from her rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

The indictment follows a series of legal cases in the past year against opposition politicians that outside organizations have called biased. Zia’s trial is set for April 21.

While rivalries are the lifeblood of politics the world over, the relationship between Zia and Ms. Hasina is distinct in its level of animosity and its endurance. The pair is a rare example of a country where both the ruling and opposition leaders are women, and have been for decades.

Yet rather than serving as a model for women in government, their years in power are cited as a roadblock to economic progress.

Economic growth decelerated in Bangladesh in 2013 for the second year in a row due in part to "disruptions caused by political strife" and "deepening political tensions," according to a fall World Bank report.

January elections were preceded by protests that killed 200 and diminished garment industry exports due to blocked roads and ports. 

Prominent female politicians are not rare in Southeast Asia where the tradition of family dynasties is deep. Many women have stepped into the top position after the passing of their male family members. Indira and Sonia Gandhi are examples in India; Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

In Bangladesh too, both Zia and Hasina rose to power as a result of their family connections. Zia is the widow of former president Ziaur Rahman, a key general in the 1971 war for independence from Pakistan, and Hasina is the daughter of the country’s first leader.

Both male leaders were assassinated and the women, housewives at the time, were recruited into politics. Adding fuel to the rivalry are suspicions from both sides that the other was somehow involved in the assassinations.

“It is absolutely personality cult based on borrowed charisma that dominates the political scenario in Bangladesh,” says Syed Anwar Husain, a professor of history at the University of Dhaka.

Over the years, despite the military at times maneuvering to try and displace them, the two have built formidable party machines that have kept them in power.

Their links to revered figures of the past also do much to boost their support, according to University of Sewanee scholar Yasmeen Mohiuddin in a 2008 profile of the two women for the International Journal: 

In a country where modern elections still rely heavily on the iconography of past freedom fighters such as Mujib [Hasina’s father], curtailing Hasina and Zia's influence will be no easy task. To begin with, simply labeling them rivals understates the degree of their enmity. Both women have been trying to undermine each other's power for more than two decades, and the resulting arrogance and violence has plunged a country with countless problems further into turmoil.

The corruption case filed Wednesday also targeted Zia’s son Tarique Rahman, the senior vice president and heir-apparent of Zia’s Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He has been living in London for the past five years.

Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy is also the heir-apparent for her party, the Awami League. Mr. Joy is currently the technology affairs advisor to the prime minister. 

Other capable politicians exist in Bangladesh, Prof. Husain says, "but we do not see them."

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