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Home > Women’s Rights > Bangladesh: Crime in the Name of Belief

Bangladesh: Crime in the Name of Belief

by Kajalie Shehreen Islam, 1 March 2010

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Star Weekend Magazine, February 26, 2010 (A weekly publication of The Daily Star)

A decade preceding and a decade after the declaration of fatwa as illegal, violence instigated by the so-called religious decrees continue in our remotest villages, with brutal punishments handed down to the victims, while most of the perpetrators get away with impunity.

Last month, a woman in Brahmanbaria, first alleged to have been raped and later said to have had a relationship with the man, was married off by her parents to a different man. Finding her seven months pregnant one month into their marriage, the husband divorced her. After returning to her parent’s village, the woman was tried by a local salish or arbitration led by village elders and rural clergy and sentenced to 101 lashings and a fine of Tk. 1,000. Later, however, the father of her child was pressured into marrying her and the woman, who had at first filed a case against the arbitrators who had punished her, took the case back.

Only a few months prior to that, a fatwa was issued against another woman in the same district. According to local sources, the woman, whose husband lives abroad, had been approached by her uncle-in-law with a romantic proposition. When she refused him, he set up another man to go to her late one night and, after exposing them, demanded punishment of the woman for immoral behaviour. The salish sentenced her to 101 lashings. A case was filed against the arbitrators.

In June 2009, a 40-year-old widow was whipped 202 times for being involved in ’anti-social activities’ with a 25-year-old man who was also whipped 101 times. Both were fined Tk. 30,000 each. Police arrested six people, including the local religious leader involved, under the Nari o Shishu Nirjatan Daman Ain (a law enacted for the protection of women and children from repression).

The previous month, a fatwa was issued against a 26-year-old woman for bearing “false testimony” against a married man with three children with whom she claimed to have had a relationship and from which she had become pregnant. After attempting and failing to persuade the man to acknowledge the child as his own, a salish was called to settle the matter, which sentenced the woman to 100 lashings.

Fatwa is neither uncommon, nor a recent phenomenon in Bangladesh. The first case to draw national and international attention was issued in September 1993 against feminist writer Taslima Nasreen, who was "sentenced" to death and a reward of Tk. 50,000 put on her head, compelling her to leave the country. Numerous cases preceded as well as followed this one, including fatwas issued against writer Jahanara Imam, poet Shamsur Rahman and others.

(L) A victim of violence instigated by a fatwa in Brahmanbaria, sentenced to 101 lashings. (R) Tuta Mia Matbar, arrested
for pronouncing and carrying out the punishment. Photo: Sheikh Md. Shahidul Islam

Newspapers in the 1990s were filled with news of violence against women instigated by fatwas. Noorjahan in Moulvibazar, caught in the complexities of verbal divorce and remarriage, accused of adultery and stoned, killed herself in January 1993. Noorjahan in Faridpur, also found guilty of adultery, tied to a stake in the ground and burned to death in May 1993. Sixteen-year-old Feroza, found guilty of fornication with a Hindu man, tied to a bamboo pole and lashed with a broom 101 times, who later committed suicide in September 1993. A widow in Feni, found guilty of zina or extra-marital sex from which she conceived a child, in January 1994. Dragged half naked to a field, her head shaven, her face and breast smeared with soot and tied to a tree for eight hours, she was later made to wear a garland of shoes and paraded around the village. In August 1994, a 22-year-old woman in Kishoreganj, found guilty of adultery, was allegedly made to drink her own urine as punishment.

In a case of a fatwa being issued against a man, in October 1993, the imam of a mosque in Chapainawabganj was barred from leading prayers after it was discovered that he had adopted family planning methods.

In 1993 and 1994, 48 women reportedly died as victims of fatwa-instigated violence. Between 1992 and 2002, at least 240 cases of fatwas issued against women were documented by the media and human rights organisations. According to statistics provided by the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, 39 women fell victim to fatwa in 2002, 44 in 2003, 59 in 2004, 69 in 2005, 66 in 2006 and 77 in 2007. In 2008 and 2009 respectively, 21 and 48 cases of fatwa were reported.

Religious values are instilled in children from an early age. Photo: Zahedul i khan

On January 1, 2001, in another case of verbal divorce, “hilla” (temporary marriage between marriages to the same husband) and remarriage, a High Court bench comprising Justice Mohammad Gholam Rabbani and Nazmun Ara Sultana, declared fatwa illegal based on the fact that a fatwa is a “legal opinion by a person of lawful authority” and that, the “legal system of Bangladesh empowers only the Courts to decide all questions relating to the legal opinion on the Muslim and other laws as in force in Bangladesh”.

Following the verdict, religious groups declared the judges “apostates” and launched violent demonstrations which led to the deaths of seven people in clashes between demonstrators and police. The violence only subsided following the Supreme Court’s staying of the High Court verdict over a month later.

In August 2009, the High Court, in response to a public interest writ petition filed by five human rights, women’s rights and development organisations, directed the Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (LGRD), law-enforcing agencies and union parishads and pourashabhas to take immediate measures against extra-judicial penalties in salish. Yet the recent cases are testament to the fact that fatwa-instigated violence continues.

How and why did fatwas come to be issued in our country? Dr Ali Riaz, Professor and Chair, Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University, USA, who has researched on the use of salish and fatwa as tools of subjection of women and development organisations, traces its history back to colonial times.

“In the Indian subcontinent,” says Dr Riaz, “the fatwa became a political tool of Muslims during British colonial rule to defy, as well as support, the colonial rulers. Let me give you two examples: in the 19th century Maulana Shah Abdul Aziz of Delhi declared British India ‘Dar-ul-Harb’ (‘abode of war’), hence it became a religious duty of the Muslims to fight against the colonial rulers. Maulana Keramat Ali, on the other hand, declared in 1870 that it was un-Islamic to engage in Jihad (holy war) against the British rulers. During the Pakistan period the use of fatwa was quite limited and fatwa never featured prominently in the public discourse. Religious leaders and politicians have issued fatwas on several occasions and on various issues.”

“But these so-called fatwas were nothing more than opinions of the persons concerned and were not targeted against any individual,” says Riaz. “We must note here that these pronouncements generally did not contain any threat of harm and hardly any evidence can be found that anyone attempted to implement these fatwas.”

In the 1990s, however, fatwa-related incidents became more common and began to follow a specific pattern, says Riaz. “The fatwa issued against Taslima Nasreen, and against women in various parts of the country, demonstrate a clear departure from earlier instances. Two features are important, they were issued against specific individuals, and were backed up by actions — either locally, through utilising traditional social institutions like salish, or nationally, through organised mobilisation.” According to Dr Riaz, there was a gradual expansion of the jurisdiction of the fatwa: from local to national, and from victimising individuals for “offences” against the moral code of conduct, to persecuting individuals for “objectionable opinions”, to challenging organisations for their “unacceptable programmes”.

Women and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were the prime targets of fatwa, with scores of women being punished and NGOs being burnt down in the 1990s. According to Dr Ali Riaz, it was all about power and dominance.

“The women were chosen as one of the principal targets; because the Islamists were aware that they would find a strong ally, especially in rural areas, in the patriarchy. The patriarchal structures — family and the community — for ages have constructed an image of woman and determined her role in the society in Bangladesh. The docile, demure, weak, and submissive image of Bangladeshi women, their invisibility in the public sphere, their portrayal as symbols of purity and fertility, and their persecution, has more to do with the customs of the country than sharia-based Islamic laws.”

“But, in rural areas these have been perpetuated, reproduced, and legitimised in the name of Islam as interpreted by the rural clergy,” Riaz points out. “Rural clerics not only found it convenient, but also used this as a tool to advance their version of Islam which domesticises women, excludes them from decision-making processes, and denies them all kinds of resources (e.g. land, money, education).”

“The developmentalist agenda of the NGOs was diametrically opposite to this,” says Riaz, “requiring women to be participants, visible and involved in processes that would allow them to own resources. Hence came the conflict.”

“Here patriarchy and their interpretation of Islamism converged. Rural mullahs saw the presence of the NGOs and their version of social relations as a blow to their version of social control, especially to their narrowly defined purdah (seclusion).”

Three unique features of the salish and fatwa, according to Dr Ali Riaz, are that they accorded local mullahs a crucial role in the decision-making process; that they intended to introduce a particular interpretation of Islam to the mainstream; and that they had backing from certain political quarters.

“The state, too, either through benign neglect or through active support, helped the rural mullahs and their patrons,” says Riaz. “The laws of the land and fundamental rights ensured by the constitution were pushed aside, because the government insisted that they would not act against Islamic traditions.”

Poor women from remote villages are the most vulnerable victims of violence set off by fatwas. Photo: Zahedul i khan

Religious scholars claim that fatwas are issued on the basis of the Quran and Hadith for the enforcement of proper norms and values in society.

“A fatwa is a decision taken after the analysis of any situation in the light of the fundamental principles derived from the words of Allah and the life and teachings of the prophet in the Quran and Hadith,” says Maulana Muhammad Abdur Razzaque, former Khatib of Sobhanbagh Mosque and current Principal of Madinatul Ulum MIB Kamil Madrassa.

“Fatwas can be given on any issue,” says the Maulana. “For example, if a person is ill and the only medicine seems to be a small amount of alcohol, a fatwa may be issued on whether or not this is legal and acceptable in Islam.”

Only specialists in Islamic law have the authority to issue such decrees, says Maulana Abdur Razzaque, who has studied in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Iran. “Those who issue fatwas in remote villages of the country do not have the authority to do so. They are not sufficiently educated in these matters and are not certified by the government. They should pass on such cases to the higher authorities who are qualified and entitled to deal with them.”

“We cannot encourage un-Islamic activities such as pre-marital relations and adultery,” says the Maulana. “But we also understand that a country cannot have two courts. Thus, the solution would be to incorporate in the law a chapter on offences in the light of Islam, addressing them according to Islamic values, which would then allow them to be resolved in the courts.”

According to lawyer and human rights activist Sara Hossain, however, in our villages, fatwas are generally issued on what are considered to be social deviations, not criminal offences.

“The instances for which fatwas are issued, such as pre-marital sex, are social wrongdoings, not legal offences as such in Bangladesh,” says Hossain. “They may be a breach of community norms, but are not criminal acts. What essentially happens is the imposition of punishments which are not authorised by law for breach of social or community norms. It is about disciplining dissent.”

Unlike some other countries, fatwa is not recognised by the Bangladeshi legal system, says Hossain. “There is a limited place for religious laws in the Bangladeshi legal system — within the family — and even these, we argue, must be subordinated to the Constitution and to principles of equality. There are no religious criminal laws. If a crime is committed, a case must be filed with the police or magistrate, it must be prosecuted and punishments can only be handed down by the courts. Penalties cannot be imposed other than by courts and following a fair judicial process or they would breach our fundamental rights.”

“The Bangladesh Constitution guarantees freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex as well as religion and also guarantees the right to be treated in accordance with the law. Fatwas violate the rights to equality on both counts,” says Hossain. “Women and girls are the majority of victims of these so-called ‘fatwa’, and there is a disproportionate impact on poor, rural women. There is a consolidation of power, with men issuing edicts in the name of religion, of which women are the victims.”

“It is not the actions of the ’dissenting’ women which should be highlighted but the unlawful actions of the salish. Those sitting in judgement in the salish are the ones on the wrong side of the law and this is the point which should be reinforced by the state, the courts and every other body involved when dealing with such cases.”

Many social and human rights activists claim that fatwa is less about religion and more to do with class, gender and social conformity. It is about the restriction of freedom — be it of speech, mobility, or sexuality, especially that of women.

“In our society, which happens to have very strong class and gender biases, i.e. a hierarchical and patriarchal structure, the idea of ’conforming’ to norms and systems are deeply embedded,” says Khushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, an NGO which works with the poor. “Any deviation beyond the control or sanction of those in power, the elite, are not to be encouraged as this may lead to further deviations and thus loss of power and control, particularly when the issue is one of sexuality and when the so-called or perceived deviant is female. The easiest way to ’control’ such unwarranted actions, is by using religion as a form of sanction. Thus the use of fatwa becomes a method to ensure power and control.”

“This is particularly true in cases such as rape where the use of fatwa is found to be most common,” says Kabir, “particularly where the man is from a more economically solvent or socially higher class and the woman from a less privileged background; where the man may have used his position to woo the woman and got her pregnant; where a husband may have in anger stated his intention to divorce and then retracted and stated his desire to live with his wife again.”

“Also in cases where a family or group intends to take control over resources that have been usurped, excuses are found and in many cases fabricated, in stating that a woman from that family or group has crossed the boundaries set in Islam, and thus the use of fatwa needs to be imposed,” adds Kabir.

In most cases, fatwa is seen to be a form where normal social forms of mediation through traditional salish is overruled by the use of fatwa, continues Kabir. “Fatwa guarantees concurrence, even if the victim feels that they have been victimised, due to this being given the overall perception of religious laws and sanctions, even when these fatwas conflict with the existing laws of the land.”

According to Kabir, the verdicts given in recent years have been much more violent and excessive than in previous years and have also been increasing in numbers in areas where such religious leaders did not have such a role earlier. The role of religious leaders, the dramatic increase in the number of madrassas, with many teachers having come from outside, bringing in outside “experts” on religious matters, through new contacts built amongst and between areas, in Dhaka and other areas is much more visible and active than what was seen previously. “The image of ’real’ Islam being Arab in nature as opposed to what has been practiced here for centuries can be seen from new sermons, dress codes and new practices,” says Kabir.

Kabir cites the example of a female group member who, when asked to change her attire and practice because it was not “true Islam”, asked, “Does this mean that for centuries our forefathers and their forefathers before them and those who brought Islam to us and taught us Islam were all wrong? How do we know that what you are preaching is not wrong also?”

Fatwas are a sign of backwardness akin to that of the Middles Ages,” says President of Mahila Parishad, Ayesha Khanam, whose organisation actively deals with fatwa cases in remote villages of Bangladesh. “Religion is used as an excuse to restrict free mobility, especially that of women.”

“Whether or not a woman talks to the man living next door to her, or whether she chooses to practise family planning, is her personal choice. It cannot be determined by a moulvi. This is why we say, ’the personal is political’.”

“Ever since the 1970s, when women started to come out of the home and become more visible, the restrictions on their freedoms also increased. The same block, which opposed the Language Movement, the Liberation War and, more recently, the Women Development Policy and the trial of war criminals, are the ones who are responsible. When holding political power, they have taken steps that can only be seen as anti-women. The same groups demonstrated against the High Court ruling declaring fatwa illegal in 2001,” says Khanam.

“At the local level, it is a vicious circle comprised of various vested interest groups, including, in some cases, hundi traders, drug dealers, the police and administration. Everyone has something to gain,” says Khanam.

According to Ayesha Khanam, the victims of fatwa are the poorest of the poor from remote villages around the country, who lack education, awareness and social security; who can be convinced that women are responsible for maintaining religious and social norms and values and chastity; who can be convinced of anything in the name of religion.

“Mostly, the nexus between the powerful elite, the administration, particularly the police and the religious, fundamentalist forces is quite openly visible, particularly in rural areas,” points out Khushi Kabir. “Constitutional guarantees, existing laws in favour of all citizens irrespective of class, religion, gender or creed, governmental policies made to deter violence against women and ensure rights of all peoples, as well as court verdicts or orders are meaningless when there is no system to guarantee or oversee its implementation. If the administration and police who are the main actors to ensure implementation of state laws and government programmes and policies openly side with one party and act in contradiction to their given role, the situation will only increase in both numbers and intensity. The perpetrators of such extra-legal actions can continue to act not only with impunity but also with the support of these actors.”

“The whole society must be enlightened,” says Ayesha Khanam. “Sensitising the local government is crucial. The law-enforcing agencies must be women-friendly. There must be strong political will in dealing with the issue — they cannot be afraid. When these incidents occur, they must be followed up on by human rights organisations and the media to ensure that justice has been done.”
“The only way to counter this is through creating greater awareness amongst the general people, creating strong organisations of those most affected,” stresses Khushi Kabir, “particularly making women aware of their rights and ensuring their ability to act, through linking up and networking with progressive, concerned and sensitive citizens from all walks of life, in order to be able to come together and act as responsible citizens. Cases in court should definitely be taken up particularly on all extra-judicial matters as well as for those that are criminal in nature and have led to severe violence. This has to be taken up in cooperation with the victims, which will only happen if they feel that they are able to rely on this group and that the group is stronger to help them withstand further onslaught of the perpetrators.”

Not having this strong support in the community leads to many national efforts to take cases of violence meted out in the name of fatwa to court weakened, says Kabir. “Very often, the victim or the victim’s family in order to live in peace compromise on the case, the odds being that the judicial system is lengthy, insensitive, often influenced by those more powerful as well as being costly, apart from the fact that lawyers, evidence available, and witnesses can all be tampered,” points out Kabir, citing the recent fatwa case in Daudkandi as a case in point. “This can only be countered through strong local organisations, instilling truly democratic and accountable structures and supportive civic actors.”

“Where strong organisations of the poor and, particularly women, exist, fatwas can be strongly countered and stopped. In many areas, the practice of hilla has been discontinued, much to the dissatisfaction of some of those trying to control power through the use of religion. Cases of rape have been taken to criminal courts and support systems ensured so that the victim is not made more vulnerable, physically, socially or mentally. Unethical behaviour by so-called religious preachers has been exposed and cases filed. Many of these incidents have been covered in newspapers, but there are many that have been resolved locally and not made news. But where such organisations do not exist, the case is different. If the collective strength of the powerful elite, their religious cohorts and the administration is stronger than that of the people in the area themselves, it becomes difficult to provide for the victim the support required. In my view,” concludes Khushi Kabir, “only when full separation of religion from state is firmly ensconced can this issue be firmly dealt with.”

Lack of social awareness is the biggest obstacle to resistance against fatwa-instigated violence. In many remote villages around the country, people do not even know that fatwa is not law, not to mention who has the authority to issue it. In others, declaring them in the name of religion persuades many people to support it. The teachings of qawmi madrassas, as well as those who have returned from countries in which the law is based on Islamic sharia law, helps garner further support for fatwa. While it is essential for law-enforcing agencies, the administration and government to play their due role in preventing such crimes and dealing with them with a firm hand when they do occur, the media and other groups in society also have a crucial role to play in disseminating information about human rights — the rights one has over one’s own body, actions and speech — particularly those of the poor and of women. Enlightenment of the entire society is vital in fostering resistance to inhumane crimes such as those instigated by fatwa, and in ensuring human rights for all.

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