The recent awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Professor Mohammed Yunus is not only a triumph for his countrymen and women of Bangladesh, but also to everybody interested in ways to curb the rise of religious extremism.
Yunus is not likely to be familiar to most Australians, despite him winning the inaugurual Sydney Peace Prize in 1998. He is a softly spoken, modest man who is unlikely to hold celebrity appeal.
He was awarded the great honour because of his founding and development of the concept of microcredit, the giving of small loans to the very poor who would otherwise not qualify for traditional bank loans. He thought of the idea when he re-visited his village after an academic stint in the United States, over 30 years ago.
Its use remains in its infancy in Australia, but is being developed by a number of organisations as a tool to break the cycle of poverty.
But one of the more unexpected outcomes of the boom in microcredit was its effect in standing up to Islamic extremism, particularly in rural Bangladesh. It functioned like a loan driven civil rights movement.
As its use was becoming more widespread, it allowed women to develop small businesses and fend for their family. This was based firmly in development theory, which holds that the liberation of women, both economically and educationally, was the key to a child’s future health and education.
This caused great tension among religious leaders, who saw this economic emancipation as a threat to the Islamic ideal of women remaining focused on their maternal and familial responsibilities. There were many instances of women being beaten, microcredit houses being burnt and even death threats against Yunus himself.
But during the next elections in the late 1990s, women had the greatest turn out in Bangladeshi history, voting out large sections of Islamic party incumbents. It was a triumph of reason over reactionaries.
Having braved physical and mental abuse and using microcredit to build decent housing, freshwater wells and sanitary toilets, it wasn’t surprising that these women went to the polls and voted against the mullahs.
Now microcredit is flourishing throughout the world, especially in Africa and the poorest sections of Asia. It is being replicated in the United States and aiming to target the poorest urban blacks. The Clintons have been among the most vocal supporters of Yunus and Grameen, with ex President Clinton publicly advocating for Yunus to receive the Nobel in numerous speeches.
I was lucky enough to be visiting when Hilary Clinton toured a host of microcredit projects in rural Bangladesh. I personally saw how the small loans empowered women, allowing them to start small enterprises, but then giving them a confidence they had never felt before, emboldening them to stand up for themselves and their families against the village mullahs.
Giving them access to personal profit and self- esteem unlocked a static hierarchy. It allowed a social mobility. Suddenly, the old repressive, patriarchal ways became less relevant.
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