Sheikh Hasina: The “Iron Lady” of Bangladesh and its modern architect

Sheikh Hasina, admired by her supporters as “Iron Lady”, is among the world’s longest-serving female heads of government. She returned to power on January 8, 2024 — this is her fifth term and a fourth straight win.

Sheikh Hasina with Narendra Modi at G20 in Sept 2023
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in New Delhi in September 2023. Screenshot courtesy: X/ @DDNewslive

Praised widely for the development of Bangladesh and providing stability to the once military-ruled country, Sheikh Hasina is also criticised as an “autocratic” leader by her opponents, of whom the main adversary is former prime minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader Khaleda Zia.

Now 76, the daughter of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman has been ruling the strategically located South Asian nation since 2009.

This victory in the one-sided controversial 2014 election will further tighten her grip on power. Opposition boycott, multiple cases of arson, and other incidents of violence marked the Bangladesh elections this year.

Great legacy of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

Born in erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in September 1947, Hasina became active in politics while studying at the University of Dhaka in the late 1960s. She served as her father’s political liaison during his imprisonment by the Pakistani government.

After Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971 — with the help of military invention from India, then led by Indira Gandhi — her father Mujibur Rahman (aka “Mujib”) became the president and then prime minister of the country. However, in August 1975, Sheikh Mujib, his wife and their three sons were assassinated in their home by military officers.

Hasina and her younger sister Sheikh Rehana survived the assassination as they were abroad. Hasina, who spent six years in exile in India, was elected as the leader of the Awami League, a party founded by her father.

In 1981, Hasina returned home and became vocal about democracy in the country ruled by the military, which placed her under house arrest on multiple occasions.

In the 1991 general elections, the Hasina-led Awami League failed to secure a majority. Her rival Khaleda Zia of the BNP became prime minister.

Five years later, Hasina was elected prime minister in the 1996 general elections.

Hasina was voted out of office in the 2001 elections but returned to power with a thumping victory in the 2008 polls. The BNP has been left in the lurch since then.

During her time out of office, Hasina escaped an assassination bid in 2004 when a grenade exploded at her rally.

Conflicts with the Opposition

Soon after coming to power in 2009, she set up a tribunal to try 1971 war crimes cases. The tribunal convicted some high-profile members of the Opposition, sparking violent protests.

Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party and a key ally of the BNP, was banned from participating in elections in 2013. BNP chief Khaleda Zia was sentenced to 17 years in prison on corruption charges.

The BNP boycotted the 2014 elections but joined the one in 2018, which party leaders later said was a mistake, alleging that the voting was marred by rigging and intimidation.

In the 2024 elections, the BNP and its allies boycotted the votes, demanding polls under a non-party caretaker government. They alleged that Hasina could not deliver credible voting.

The polls were fought by 27 political parties, including the parliamentary opposition Jatiya Party. The rest were members of the ruling Awami League-led coalition, which experts dubbed the “satellite parties”.

India described the Bangladesh elections as an “internal matter”, while the Western powers, including the United States, called for credible and inclusive polls.

The US threatened to deny visas to officials and politicians whom it deems to be “undermining the democratic election” and in response, Hasina told parliament America was “trying to eliminate democracy” by engineering her ouster.

15 years of development under Sheikh Hasina

Sheikh Hasina has presided over one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and improved living standards in Bangladesh over the past 15 years — the period of her uninterrupted rule.

The website dubbed her “Iron Lady” several years ago, and since then it has been used by the Western media to refer to her.

Her supporters credit the prime minister with humming development projects and providing stability in the country.

Hasina also won praise for the handling of the world’s biggest refugee crisis. That was when over a million Rohingyas took shelter in Bangladesh, fleeing for their lives in neighbouring Myanmar to evade persecution after a 2017 army crackdown at their homeland.

On the diplomatic front, she has been skilfully negotiating the rival interests of India and China, as Bangladesh is virtually sandwiched between the two Asian giants. She got the support of both the big neighbours and Russia ahead of the elections.

Achievements by the numbers

  • Bangladesh’s per capita income tripled since Sheikh Hasina took power in January 2009. Its gross domestic product (GDP) clocked at a growth rate of 7.28 per cent last year.
  • The country of nearly 170 million people has achieved near self-sufficiency in food production and raised average life expectancy to levels higher than neighbouring India.
  • The workers in Bangladesh’s main export-earning garment industry are dissatisfied with a recent wage hike and have lodged protests. Yet, economists say, growth is fairly robust, at just under 6 per cent in the last fiscal.
  • Rising energy and commodity prices in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict forced Hasina to seek IMF support. The IMF recently appreciated her government’s commitment to its bailout programme and called Bangladesh’s economy “broadly on track”.

Personal and family life

People close to Sheikh Hasina said that the premier was a “workaholic” and also performed the daily Islamic rituals. Hasina is the mother of a mental health expert daughter and an information and communications technology (ICT) specialist son, who is also her ICT affairs adviser. Her husband was a nuclear scientist who died in 2009.