April 4 hartal, women’s rights and fatwaAdmin
We live in a staunchly male-dominated society. Women are oppressed, subjugated and treated as mere second-class citizens. Being born a woman in a male-controlled domain with the culture of widespread and persistent gender discrimination cannot be a picnic. Religion sadly is at times used as a vehicle and catalyst for male supremacy, writes Omar Khasru
THERE is an infallible and scientific way of assessing the intensity of hartal. The daily weather forecast may also be undertaken in the same way. I stare out of the window to look outside. My projection based on the eyewitness view of the sky and atmosphere is usually more accurate than the weather forecast in the media. The main distinction between assessment of the weather and hartal is that I usually look up for the climate condition but look down on the street to gauge the effectiveness of a general strike.
A cursory glance at the roads and the intersection below this morning suggested that the hartal had garnered an average response. The streets were full of rickshaws as is customary during any hartal. There also were adequate number of compressed natural gas-run auto-rickshaws and a few tempos plying the streets. It became clear that conditions were sufficiently normal to go to office. I did just that, albeit a bit late, in a taxicab.
The day before hartal there were phone calls at office from employees of various ranks and status asking if the hartal would be enforced and if they would have to come to work. As is routine in such cases, the instruction from the top was that the teachers, officials and staff would make individual decision based on the nature and strength of the shutdown. The support by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, however timid and tentative, gave credence to the hartal called by religious groups, main among them the splinter Islamic Law Implementation Committee led by Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini.
The eleventh-hour BNP backing is probably a misstep on the part of the party. The 2001-06 BNP-led alliance government consisted of Jamaat-e-Islami and Amini’s faction of the Islamic Oikya Jote in addition to another smallish party. The general consensus is that the Islamic parties, especially Jamaat, benefited proportionally much more than the BNP from the alliance. The association with the parties, considered anti-liberation forces, did little for the image and reputation of a party founded by a freedom fighter.
Also the vague reasons and questionable rationale for this hartal adds nothing to the reputation of the BNP. The ILIC enforced the dawn-to-dusk hartal to protest against the proposed women’s development policy and the High Court ban on fatwa (edict), and to stop implementation of the recently-formulated education policy. The Islamic group claims that all three are against the Qur’an and Sunnah and they have every right to protest the against the government’s anti-Islamic stance. The BNP probably should not mix politics and religion too much in nexus with the religion-based fringe groups.
Not being a religious expert, it would be inappropriate and even audacious to comment proficiently on the divergent assertions of the rival and confrontational groups, the Islamists and the government. It suffices to say that religious passion and partisan politics, unbridled zealotry and indiscriminate strong-arm administrative actions, devoid of rational discourse and possible conciliation, are a volatile brew that cannot be good for the country and the citizens.
The practice here is to routinely deny various rights to half the citizens: women. We live in a staunchly male-dominated society. Women are oppressed, subjugated and treated as mere second-class citizens. Being born a woman in a male-controlled domain with the culture of widespread and persistent gender discrimination cannot be a picnic. Religion sadly is at times used as a vehicle and catalyst for male supremacy.
It is also the sad truth that in a country where for the last 20 years the head of government and the leader of opposition in succeeding regimes have been women, the common female citizens have not attained the modicum of equality or human right parity, granted in the constitution and the international accords that Bangladesh is a signatory to.
Women suffer from repression for dowry and iniquitous acid barns inflicted on them by unsuccessful suitors. Women are convenient targets of fatwa. An alarming number of them are subjected to rapes, occasionally followed by murder. In the past, we related the repugnant anti-women acts for dowry in places like New Delhi or elsewhere in India. These unfortunately have crept into our society with misogynist ferocity and wrath.
Almost every day, you come across newspaper accounts of women tortured and killed for dowry. In the absence of political will, general blasé attitude of the male-dominated society and, worse still, indifference and negligence by the authorities and inaction by law enforcement authorities, these heinous crimes do not seem to be abetting because stern, swift and exemplary punishment is not meted out to the perpetrators.
There is also the prevalence of fatwa (edict). These, outlawed recently by a High Court verdict, still seem rather common especially in the rural areas. Frequently the victims are the poor and helpless women left at the whims of village elders and ignorant and irresponsible religious bosses.
There are countless cases of abominable and unfair adjudication verdicts and fatwa against vulnerable underprivileged women. These women are given no opportunity to defend themselves against unfounded allegations and miscarriage of justice. One such appalling and vicious recent case is that of Hena Akhter.
The 14-year old was allegedly raped by a 40-year-old man and punished under village arbitration. The girl was reportedly raped by her married cousin and then accused of having an affair with him. An atrocious fatwa by influential village elders, led by a religious cleric, sentenced her to 100 lashings. She fell unconscious after 80 such strikes. She was taken to a hospital, where she died.
This case caused massive outrage at home and abroad. Bangladesh received awful local and foreign media coverage including the BBC and the New York Times. Due to intense pressure and public outcry, the police arrested four alleged perpetrators. But it would not be surprising that after a time lapse and with traditionally short-lived public memory, this will be pushed under the rug and things will be same old once again.
Given the dreadful acts and despicable facts on the ground, a set of progressive, sensitive and sensible policy guidelines to protect and uphold women’s rights is a crying need. But promulgating and enacting these acts will not be enough. Implementation and enforcement of these will be of paramount importance.
There are stern laws, for example, against seeking and grabbing dowry. But these are seldom implemented. Even if someone is rarely prosecuted, the whole process is so convoluted and prolonged that the deterrent aspect is totally lost. Similarly, the High Court outlawed fatwa last year, but that has not stopped the practice and resulting casualties.
Getting back to this April 4 hartal, the zealotry of the religious leaders is matched by the incendiary pronouncements by government high-ups, party henchmen and high-ranking administrative officials. Rather than trying to defuse the situation and douse the passion, the prime minister, the state minister of religious affairs, Awami League big shots like Syeda Sajeda Chowdhury and Mahbubul Alam Hanif all are talking in high pitch and hyperbole, in insulting and offensive tones, adding fuel to fire. The commissioner of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police sounded like a ruling party bigwig. Rather than emphasising the law and order aspect, he liberally presented his opinion about the political issues concerning the hartal.
I recently had a long and evocative conversation with a religious scholar who is a highly educated person as well. He pointed out that one major shortcoming among religious parties is that these have no women in policymaking, prominent or influential positions and no minority membership at all. That would preclude these parties from understanding or representing the women’s or minority points of view. These essentially are monolithic in the approach and outlook and functionally represent and perpetuate male superiority with a religious tinge, fervour and bias.
As I mentioned earlier, I am no expert on religious matters. But surely there are politicians who use religion as a commercial tool for mercenary purposes to enhance their political status and clout. On the flipside, there are government party leaders and functionaries who have misused religion for opportunistic political designs and once even signed a covenant with fatwa advocates in an election alliance. Now, in the guise of secularism, they try to present themselves as sanctimonious protectors of women’s rights. The fact of the matter is that these rulers have done little to promote and protect the constitutionally guaranteed basic rights of poor women.
The third issue of the hartal is the new education policy. The gist of the new policy seems like a minimum attempt to bring sanity and modernity in the academic sphere. I do not have elaborate or thoughtful comments about it since I only know the outline. I am not quite familiar with the details. The government should initiate public awareness about the progressive and useful aspects of it. And ensure that the religion in no way is disrespected by it.
This religious passion and antagonism to prevent women’s policy, stop the court decision to ban fatwa, and to obstruct the education policy need to be brought to a sensible end. The government has to take the initiative to do so. It may involve non-partisan religious scholars and prudent people of irreproachable credentials in the process. The government has to do it rather than playing political football with these pressing issues, just as it seems to be doing with the trial of alleged war criminals.