The recent Hartal by Islamist demagogues has claimed to be tantamount to a ‘crusade’ against the ‘infidels’! Past experiences suggest that similar ‘crusades’ by the Islamist zealots have always been waged against the progressive forces of the country (such as against Taslima Nasrin, Humayun Azad and Shamsur Rahman). In the present occasion, the ‘infidels’ are not communists or progressive culturists but the leader of the centre-left party Awami League and the country’s sitting prime minister Sheikh Hasina.
The prime minister’s ‘infidelity’ is deemed to originate from the government’s proposed “Women’s Policy” which, according to these self-proclaimed Islamic pundits and their disciples, is in conflict with the interpretation of the Holy Quran. The zealots propagated that the Holy Quran is ‘under attack’ by the ‘infidel’ prime minister and her cabinet and the only way to ‘protect the integrity of the Quran’ is to oust Hasina’s government of power and establish a ‘Khilafat’.
Under the guise of a hartal, the citizens of the country experienced major inconveniences. In addition, numerous public and private properties were damaged. The most outrageous aspect of this movement was their use of very young children to impose hartal. Thousands of minor madrassa students were engaged in different parts of the country to enforce something that is beyond their comprehension. Some of these children were as young as 8 years old!
Many newspapers have reported that these children were brain-washed and were brought to the street by their teachers. Can these zealots provide us an Islamic interpretation of the use of children in destructing public property and inflicting pain on the ordinary Muslims? The leader of the group who pretends to be a Mufti must know that no religion (including Islam) would ever sanction destruction of public and private property and exploitation of children for political purposes. Another disgusting aspect of these Mullahs’ reactions is the choice of words. The use of vulgar languages directed at the country’s elected prime minister, who herself is a practicing Muslim, in the public meetings by the so-called Islamists prove nothing but their class!
One MUST understand that Bangladesh was established as a secular republic at its birth by the sovereign will of its people. The fundamental on which the country separated from ‘Islamist Pakistan’ was its secular cultural fabric. The post-1975 efforts of the military dictators who deflowered the secular fabric of the constitution have been trashed by the recent verdicts from the country’s apex court. In essence, what would be the nature of the republic is a settled issue.
Those who are against the constitution are not only in a course of direct collision against the sovereign will of the people but also under ‘political intoxication’ to bring back ‘Pakistani model’ of Islamic Republic. The so-called Mufti and its political organisation (IOJ) must also understand that the republic is run by a written constitution, NOT by the whims of some half-educated fanatics.
The constitution of Bangladesh clearly states the inalienable rights an ordinary folk would enjoy by virtue of his/her status as a citizen. Article 27 of the constitution promulgates that “[all] citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law”. This has been fortified further under article 28.1 stating that “[the] State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”. Article 27.2 nullifies any disparity between men and women stating that “[women] shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life”. This promulgation of equality and equity before law goes one step further when the constitution states under article 27.4 that “Nothing in this article shall prevent the State from making special provision in favour of women or children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens”.
The above article provides all the necessary authority and legality to legitimise government formulation of policy/laws including the ‘Rights of Women’. The government’s proposed “Women’s Policy” is guided by this provision. Do not forget that the proposed policy is about women who are disadvantaged in every conceivable way. Starting from birth to death, a girl child in Bangladesh encounters continuing forms of discrimination, deprivation and inequality.
With few exceptions, the birth of a girl child in Bangladesh is not a welcoming incident in an ordinary working family. Rather, she would be treated as a burden. It is very likely that a poor girl child would experience their future as a maid or in some other hazardous job rather than attending school. Once she is a teenager she would be forced to marry an unknown man after paying an awful lot of dowry that her poor father could barely afford. Naturally, she would be deprived of her father’s inheritance since her marriage cost a huge debt to the family. Despite her sacrifices to satisfy her husband and his family, she would be treated as an inferior human being. Since she is married to an older man she is likely to be widow at her middle age and she is likely to be thrown out by her husband’s family. If she is able, she would make her ends meet by selling labour. In her old age, she would be treated a nuisance to everyone.
The proposed policy is a first step toward ending the above vignettes of about 70 million women in Bangladesh. The policy is far from being perfect, it only vaguely touches some of the contemporary issues women encounters in their everyday life (such as economic opportunity, right to education, workplace support etc.). The policy is far from dealing with some of the core issues of discrimination. One particular example is the law regarding women’s inheritance of father’s property. The Muslim Family Law which prevails in the country is utterly discriminatory. The legal provision that a male son would inhere twice the amount provided to a girl bestows a ‘half status’ compared to her brother.
The differential treatment on the basis of gender regarding inheritance shares violates the dignity of a girl and her rights to be treated as equal to men. This is also against the fundamentals of the constitution as described under the article 27.2. Yet, such an important issue has not been addressed in the policy. Instead, the proposed policy laid out some abstract statement such as ‘eliminating discrimination against women and girl” (article 16.11).
Moreover, the proposed policy does not offer any means how to retain the tiny share that a woman is entitled to inhere from her parents. The current reality is that under implicit and explicit pressure as well as benign threat from their social milieu, women give up their property rights. Unfortunately, the issue was not treated with any importance in the proposed policy. Rather, it was jumbled up with other topics under the article 25.2.
Despite its serious drawback, the proposed policy is under fire from the so-called Islamists who seek to situate their concern within religion-oriented context. Yet, there is no single statement in the policy that is contrary to the faith.
Unfortunately, two innocent young lives have been lost in the process of protest that was instigated by some of the fanatics. Yet, the so-called Mufti’s madrassa-based party (IOJ) and other similar organisations appear hell-bent on their pledge to reuse young children to force government to reconsider the policy.
Essentially, what certain mullahs want is more restriction for women so that they could repress them even more. What is surprising is the timidity of the government to tackle these forces, as if their threat is real. The government must take firm action against these zealots not only to continue the current course of formulation of the policy but also to take initiative to reform all other laws (especially Muslim Family Law) that discriminate against women. Especially, the effort of the so-called Islamists should be seen as subversive to the state since their claim is against the constitution.
If the issue is so politically sensitive, the government should arrange 70 million women to speak for themselves. Women would have their say in deciding their fate, not these zealots. The government must remember that a few thousand maddrassa students and their ‘cheer-leaders’ cannot decide the fate of 70 million women.
Hasan Reza holds a faculty position at Shah Jalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet and is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in The University of Chicago, USA.