Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia

Begum Khaleda Zia (Born: 15 August 1946) is the chairperson of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-BNP who served as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh three times since 1991. She is the first woman to be elected as the prime minister of Bangladesh, and second in the Muslim world.

Begum Zia was born to Iskandar Majumder and Taiyaba Majumder in Dinajpur District on August 15, 1946. Her father had migrated to what was then West Pakistan following Partition from Jalpaiguri in India where he had run a tea business. The family originally hails from Feni, a southeastern district of the country. She studied at Dinajpur Government Girls High School and later at Surendranath College. In 1960, she married Ziaur Rahman.

When Ziaur Rahman Bir Uttam became the President of Bangladesh, Begum Zia accompanied him as the First Lady and met world leaders including Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the UK and Queen Juliana of the Netherlands.

Following the martyrdom of President Zia in the abortive coup of 1981, she joined BNP as a general member of the party on 2 January 1982. She was elected as the vice-chairman of the party in March 1983, and in August 1984, the party elected her the chairperson.

After a military coup in 1982, led by the Chief of the Bangladesh Army, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, Khaleda Zia initiated an all-out movement for restoring democracy. She was the architect of forming a seven-party alliance in 1983 to put an end to Ershad's dictatorship. She denounced the rigged election of 1986 and did not participate in the election while her rivals from Awami League, Jamaat-e-Islami and Communist Party of Bangladesh joined the election under Jatiya Party-led rule to endorse the illegitimate government. Because of her determination, she was detained seven times from 1983 to 1990. She led the mobilisation of BNP's students' front Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal (JCD) and they won 270 of 321 student unions across the country. These students were instrumental in the movement that led to the fall of Ershad's regime. She developed a reputation as the "Uncompromising leader" due to her staunch opposition against the military dictatorship of Ershad in the 1980s and her commitment to restoring democracy in Bangladesh. 

In 1991, Khaleda Zia became the country's first woman prime minister through a free and fair general election on February 27 of the year. During her premiership, Bangladesh became a parliamentary democracy. Some of the major economic transformations were initiated during her tenure as the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The employment rate increased drastically and in the RMG sector alone, the employment growth was 29% in five years. Almost two hundred thousand women joined the RMG industry thanks to her policies.

On the global front, she raised to Ganges water-sharing problem in the United Nations to mount pressure on the neighbours to allow Bangladesh to have a fair share of water from the Ganges. She was invited to the White House in 1992 where she raised the problem of Rohingya Muslim refugees and due to global pressure, the Myanmar government entered into a deal with Bangladesh to repatriate Rohingya Muslim refugees who came to Bangladesh in the early 1990s. 

Khaleda Zia became the prime minister for a second consecutive term in 1996 after the BNP had a landslide victory, but due to her commitment to hand over the power to a caretaker government and run for election again, she resigned within a month. Though BNP lost the fresh election in June 1996, the party won 116 seats to become the largest opposition in the parliament in the history of Bangladesh.

Aiming to return to power, the BNP formed a four-party opposition alliance in 1999 with the Jatiya Party, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote and launched several agitation programs against the ruling Awami League. Begum Khaleda Zia was re-elected in 2001, regaining power by promising to eliminate corruption and terrorism. Forbes magazine ranked her at number 29 in 2005 in its list of the hundred most powerful women in the world for her role in promoting women's education and empowerment of women.

In 2006, she stepped down from office, passing power to a caretaker administration. In September 2007, she was arrested by the autocratic government on trumped-up and baseless charges of corruption after multiple attempts to exile her along with her family members.

When in power, the government of Khaleda Zia made considerable progress in the education sector by introducing compulsory free primary education, free education for girls up to 10th grade, an education "stipend" for girl students, and food for education programs. Her government also increased the age limit for entry into government services from 27 years to 30 years and made its highest budgetary allocation to the education sector.

Begum Zia holds a unique record of never losing in any constituency. She was elected in five separate parliamentary constituencies in the general elections of 1991, 1996 and 2001. In 2008, she won in all three constituencies from where she contested. 

Since 2009, when the Sheikh Hasina-led government turned Bangladesh into an authoritarian state, she renewed her fight for democracy. She was forcefully expelled from her house by the government and was put on house arrest twice when she launched movements for democracy. For her commitment to democracy, she was honoured as “Fighter for Democracy” by New Jersey’s State Senate in 2011.

Begum Khaleda Zia was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 2018 for the Zia Orphanage Trust and Zia Charitable Trust corruption cases. A local court found her guilty of abusing her position as prime minister by directing funds to the newly founded Zia Orphanage Trust. In its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practises, the United States State Department stated, citing international and domestic legal experts, that the "lack of evidence to support the conviction" shows the prosecution was a political ploy to remove her from the electoral process. Amnesty International expressed worry that her "fair trial rights are not being respected."