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Resist fundamentalist opposition and implement women’s development policy in Bangladesh - reports and commentary

16 May 2011

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Inter Press Service

Women Defy Islamic Clergy

By Naimul Haq

DHAKA, Apr 28, 2011 (IPS) - Bangladeshi women are pushing government to implement the recently approved National Women Development Policy (NWDP) 2011, which has met with strong resistance from Islamic clergy.

Leaders and activists of the Jatiya Mahila Sangstha (National Women’s Organisation) recently held rallies and formed human chains across major cities demanding the policy’s immediate enforcement.

The NWDP gives women equal political and economic rights as men, through benefits like social security, ensuring the enactment of laws to reduce violence against women, and catering to their health and nutrition needs. The NWDP also advocates removing discrimination of all kinds against women.

The women’s action came weeks after Islamic religious leaders enforced a day-long countrywide strike against the policy, which they said contained clauses that offended Islamic sentiments, and came into conflict with the Holy Quran and Hadith.

The issues Islamist groups oppose include granting women equal rights as men, which they say Islam does not allow. The clergy are also opposed to the clause on the equal distribution of property and land to women, since they say women inherit from parents after marriage, and from husbands when they are widowed.

Striking activists, mostly mullahs, blockaded major highways in almost all of the country’s 64 districts, and set fire to at least 150 vehicles. More than 60 people, including police, were injured and a huge amount of property damaged.

Religious leaders, supported by the main opposition force, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said they would continue public demonstrations unless government consults them to amend the clauses.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, said objections raised by religious leaders had been addressed by removing contradictory phrases in the NWDP 2011.

Addressing representatives of Bangladesh Jamiatul Mudarresin, an organisation of religious school teachers, at her office a day before the women’s rallies, Hasina said the confusion had been ironed out after a thorough review of chapters in the Holy Quran.

State Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury told IPS, "We have already clarified our position on the issues they have raised. Their concerns were explained and the issues have been well addressed."

The cabinet approved the NWDP 2011 on the eve of International Women’s Day, Mar. 8, reviving a policy formulated by the ruling centre-left Awami League party when it was in power in the late 1990s.

The policy, however, could not be fully implemented due to changes made by subsequent governments. Meantime, parliamentary bodies scrutinised relevant laws that were needed to implement the initiative.

At the same time, leading women’s groups campaigning for its enforcement also helped give final shape to the policy.

But by the time it was finalised, the government’s tenure had expired, and implementation of the policy remained incomplete.

Even in 1997, however, Islamist groups sensing groundwork on the policy document threatened to oppose clauses that gave women enhanced rights and power.

"Such clauses are contradictory to Islamic laws," said Islamic Law Implementation Committee (ILIC) chairman Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, who also heads a faction of the BNP’s political ally, the Islami Oikya Jote party.

During the interim government in 2007, the policy was again revived.

Rasheda K. Choudhury, the then adviser to the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs of the caretaker government, told IPS, "We too had to face tremendous opposition from the same Islamist groups. Under pressure we had involved the Islamic Foundation, where Muslim scholars had given their input after discussions with the groups.

"The committee report from the Islamic Foundation was not acceptable as it mostly denied women’s contributions in the development of the nation," she added.

When the four-party coalition government led by BNP came to power in 2004, some of the clauses which empowered women to equal rights and full control over inherited property were changed, undermining women’s power and drastically reducing their rights.

This was seen as natural since BNP had religious party Jamaat-e-Islami on their shoulders.

In the Women’s Development Policy (WDP) drafted in 2004 during the BNP alliance government the concepts of "equal inheritance", "equal and full participation", education, rights and opportunity were replaced by "women’s rights".

Another notable change introduced in the WDP was the exclusion of the provision for women’s direct election to reserved seats in parliament and for an increase in the number of reserved seats.

The phrase "direct election’" was replaced by "all necessary effective arrangements will follow".

Ayesha Khanam, General Secretary of the Central Committee of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), one of the oldest women’s rights organisations in Bangladesh, recalled that the WDP 2004 was formulated without any discussion or reference either in the parliamentary committee sessions.

"By contrast the 1997 policy had a reflection of all major international conventions on women like Rio Earth Summit 1992, Vienna Human Rights Conference and Plan of Action 1993, the International Conference on Population and Development Cairo 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women 1995," Khanam said.

The policy seeks to establish equal rights for women, ensure security in all aspects of women’s lives, and create an environment for women’s economic, social, political and administrative empowerment.

It is also aimed at developing an educated and skilled workforce of women that could contribute to national development.

"The policy aims to bring positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged women," said women’s advocate Sultana Kamal, who is also a former adviser to the caretaker government and one of the trustee members of Ain-O- Salish Kendra (ASK).

ASK is one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh that has been campaigning for women’s rights since the 1980s, and helped shaped NWDP 2011.

Kamal added, "More women will be skilled and educated; they will have informed choices and have increased leadership roles in the development of the rural areas." (END)

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The Daily Star, May 15, 2011

Rights chief roots for women policy

Staff Correspondent

National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman Mizanur Rahman yesterday said the government should implement the newly formulated National Women Development Policy for empowering women.

He was addressing a roundtable on the policy at the auditorium of Bangladesh Institute of Administration and Management (Biam) in the capital.

The commission organised the roundtable to come up with some policy recommendations for the government.

“Besides implementing the policy, the issue of equal rights of women should be clearly and specifically incorporated in the constitution,” observed the NHRC chief.

Mizanur criticised certain quarters for taking to the streets and destroying public property in protest against the women development policy. He suggested all the problems should be resolved through discussions.

Praising the government for formulating the new policy, he called upon all to be alert so that no quarter can make it an issue to gain politically.

He also urged the women community to demand from the government a special budgetary allocation for proper implementation of the policy.

Generally there is nothing contradictory to Islam in the policy, said Syed Abdullah Al-Maruf, deputy director of Islamic Foundation.

He warned street agitation like hartal in protest against the policy may create among women an adverse attitude to Islam.

The quarters that had enforced the illogical hartal will be held responsible for this, added Al-Maruf.

Islamic party leaders like Fazlul Haque Amini have been using the issue intentionally and politically, complained Prof Kazi Nurul Islam of world religion and culture department at Dhaka University.

He came down hard on Amini for enforcing the countrywide hartal.

Several other representatives from different public and private organisations and development institutions addressed the roundtable.

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Bangladesh Watchdog

Hundreds of Islamic activists clash with police in Bangladesh, 200 detained


HUNDREDS OF Islamic activists in traditional white Muslim dress, wearing skull caps and sporting copies of Muslim holy book, the Koran marched in capital Dhaka, where the police imposed ban on holding political rallies from Sunday.

Riot police wearing bullet-proof vest and armed with batons, tear gas and shot guns clash with Islamist who vowed to besiege the city center on Sunday for 48 hours.

Police spokesperson said nearly 200 were wounded during the class with riot-police and an estimated 150 Islamist were detained. The arrested Islamists were whisked away in prison vans.

Eyewitnesses said police lobbed tear gas canisters and water cannon to flush the agitating Islamist, when they refused to vacate the area prohibited for assembly of people.

The Islamist threw brickbats and chanted “Allah O’Akbar” (God is great) and fought pitch battle with police. Scores of police and few journalists were wounded during the clash. None of the victims were wounded from police firing, a senior police officer Krisnapada Roy said.

The supporters and activists of Islami Andolan Bangladesh (Movement for Restoration of Islam in Bangladesh) are opposing secular policies of the government, especially recently proposed gender equality and education policies.

Earlier, the Islamist party declared on Friday that if the government thwarts their planned protest rally, they would call for general strike in a bid to paralyze the country.

Prime minister Shiekh Hasina slammed the Islamist and argued that despite her government adhered to secular policies, but does not contradict the basic tenants of Islam. The Islamist, however, accuses the democratically elected government two years ago as anti-Islamic and vows to overthrow and establish controversial Sharia laws and Islamic constitution. [ENDS]

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Forum / The Daily Star, May 2011

’Equal Property Right’: Much Ado about Nothing

KABERI GAYEN examines the Women Development Policy 2011, its religious implications and what benefits it really holds for women.

The present government declared the draft ’Jatiyo Naree Unnoyon Neeti 2011’ (National Women Development Policy 20011) on March 8, 2011. The alleged aim is ’to improve the socio-economic condition of women in Bangladesh’. The cabinet has approved this new draft policy. From the very day of the declaration, religion-based political parties not only boycotted the policy but also declared resistance against it, claiming that it had given men and women equal inheritance rights. All the religion-based groups and parties, including Jamaat-e-Islami, termed the policy ’anti-Quran’ and proclaimed that the government would fall if the policy is enacted. In the gathering organised by the Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee on March 8, the day of the declaration, Mufti Amini, leader of a faction of the Islami Oikya Jote, called for a strike against the policy on April 4. Besides the anti-government Islamic groups and parties, pro-government religious groups and parties also opposed the policy. The Islami Oikyo Jote, lead by Misbahur Rahman, which is part of the Grand Alliance government, opposed this policy. In an interview with the national daily, Samakal, on March 8, he said, "The Grand Alliance made a clear commitment not to develop any law that goes against Quran and Sunnah before the election. Now if they develop a women’s policy that goes against the Quran, the why should we accept it?"

Citizens observed the strike on April 4 with utter dismay, which was perhaps, the first of its kind in their collective memory. The members of this religious group mobilised a militant force of considerable size, including Madrasa students, many of whom were mere adolescents. They came out on the streets in funeral garb — indicating their readiness to sacrifice their lives to resist this policy — and well-prepared with lethal weapons. They put up a fierce fight against the police. Their brutality extended to burning and wrecking over 100 parked roadside buses in Chittagong and setting ablaze a petrol pump. Even religious people questioned the use of children with Qurans slung round their necks on the streets.

The reaction to this threatening activity was neither positive for women activists who have forever demanded equal property rights, nor for the women of this country in general. The government was unsteady about its decision from the first hour. Right after the declaration of the women’s policy, Mahbub Alam Hanif, the Joint Secretary of Awami League, said in an interview, "The government has not brought any change to the Muslim property distribution law. The Government has simply stated women’s right to property through inheritance that Islam has given to both men and women." Afterwards, Dr Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, the honourable state minister to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, and the honourable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself, assured that no law going against the Quran would be enacted. The latest update is that while addressing about 150 leaders of the Bangladesh Jamiatul Modarasin, a pro-Awami League platform of Madrasa teachers, on April 20, the Prime Minister re-assured that her government has already removed all contradictions regarding religion from the National Women Development Policy to make it confusion free. In her own words, "After examining the Quran, especially Surah An-Nisa, we have removed existing contradictions from the policy" (The Daily Star, April 21, 2011). However, despite reiterated assurances from the Prime Minister that nothing would be done against the scriptures, Amini’s party, under the banner of Islamic Law Implementation Committee, has announced country-wide protests on May 6, 7, 11, 12, 16 and 22 at divisional headquarters and in the capital on May 27, against the implementation of the Women and Education Policy. Jamaat-e-Islami will also hold a country-wide demonstration on May 7 demanding scrapping of certain provisions of the policy.

The clause in dispute

On March 9, the day after the declaration, a very misleading headline was published in many of the national dailies, that the National Women Policy 2011 has been declared with the provision of equal property inheritance rights for men and women. The headlines were so convincing that many, even conscious citizens and women activists of the country, thought these headlines were genuine. It took a while to understand that the policy did not provide equal property rights, at least till the policy reached our hands. So which is the clause that has been questioned?

In clause 25(2), the section that deals with the economic development aspect of the 2011 policy, it is stated that women would be given full control over the wealth that they have obtained so far through earnings, inheritance, loan, land and market management. Awami League, the main party of the present Grand Alliance Government (Mohajote Sarkar), made the commitment in their election manifesto of 2008 to fully implement the Women Development Policy 1997. In section 7.2 of the 1997 policy, it was stated that "Women would be given full and equal rights, and control over earnings, inheritance, wealth, loan, land and wealth earned through technology and market management, and new laws would be enacted to achieve this goal." Thus the Women Development Policy 2011 is clearly a step backwards from the Women Development Policy of 1997, at least in terms of the right to inherited property. According to the newly proposed policy, if enacted and implemented properly, women would get the control over their property, only if it is already allowed by religious laws. This is far from the equal property right of 1997.

Awami League thus did not keep its promise from the election manifesto for women of this country. The question that arises then is why there is so much frenzy around the issue?

We get three different views about the policy. The Government says that the policy is a progressive move to ensure women’s rights but not conflicting with the Quran; the religious groups and parties which claim that it is anti-Islamic and should be scrapped; and there exists a third force compiled of women activists and the female wings of some leftist parties who refuse this policy on the grounds that it has not given equal property rights to women, which in turn betrays the commitment that Awami League made in its election manifesto. The third force even thinks that with the amendments to the 1997 policy in relation to the inheritance law and the comments repeatedly made by the Prime Minister, there is very little difference, if any, between the position of the government and that of Amini’s.

It’s all about the property rights

Apparently it seems that the only opposition force to the equal rights to property for women are religious groups. However, if we look carefully, we will see that our patriarchal politics vehemently oppose this demand. We saw just the religious groups on the streets. Sometimes I wonder what difference it would have made if these religious groups had not come to the streets. Clause 7.2 that included equal property inheritance rights for women in the 1997 policy was an outcome of the long-lived demands of Bangladeshi women. Although the then Awami League government had enough time (1997-2001) to implement the policy and there was no manifested agitation by any religious groups, they did not take any measure to pass a law nor implement a policy. Then out came the second draft Women Development Policy in 2004. The BNP-Jamaat alliance government had only dropped the section on equal property inheritance rights and the right to land. We got the third draft Women Development Policy in 2008. In the 9.13 clause of this draft policy, right to equal property through inheritance and the right to land were dropped and a new phrase was adopted that would give women equal opportunity and control over wealth earned through the ’management of market’. What was interesting was that the religious groups came out on the streets and the then caretaker government appointed a committee comprised of Alems (Islamic scholars) to scrutinise the policy. They gave their verdict on pen-and-paper and had a showdown on the streets; the policy eventually went up in smoke. This is the fourth time we are getting a draft policy and this too has dropped the provision of equal property rights, with the Prime Minister repeatedly announcing that her party will never enact any law or adopt a policy which conflicts with the Quran and Sunnah. BNP has not yet expressed its position on the policy, nor has any other party, officially. It is interesting that we never learned about the position of any political parties on the consecutive four draft women policies. When the BNP-Jamaat alliance government dropped the whole thing about the inheritance of property act, Awami League was not on the streets, neither was the Jatiya Party. At the time of the caretaker government, no party expressed their official position about the policy. So, what we find is a spiral of silence from all the political parties regarding women’s equal right to property. According to the theory of representation by Stuart Hall, absence tells a lot, sometimes it may even tell a lot more than what is seen through bare eyes. Should we read this silence as not a single party wanting to resolve this fiasco of equal property rights? Throughout the policy there are lots of clauses which are clearly conflicting to religious doctrine, but all the time we see the agitated religious mob on the streets demanding the ban of only one clause, the one dealing with equal property rights. Thus the declarers of women’s policies, the oh so silent political groups and the ones making a frenzy out of it all are simply strengthening the tide of no women’s right to equal property. In fact, why should patriarchy bother at all for equal property rights for women if they can enjoy the benefit of the discriminatory law in the name of religion or anything else?

Amended religious laws and the discourse of ’no’ to equal property rights
Those of the opinion that this policy is anti-religious or those who are assuring that there is nothing anti-religious in the policy will not endorse any law against religion; it is necessary for both parties to realise that many religious doctrines have changed over the course of time. Although the provision of a woman state-head is not allowed in religion, we are proud to have had female prime ministers. The religion-based parties are also making alliances with women-led political parties. Even the leaders from the biggest Islamic party of Bangladesh had taken their oaths in the cabinet led by a woman. According to the 1937 Muslim Personal Law (Shariah Law), acted out in British-India, no minor would get the property of their maternal or paternal grandfathers if their parents died before the grandparents. But according to the clause number 4 of the Islamic Family Law of 1961, the children get the property from their grandparents even if their parents are alive. According to the religious law, any Muslim male can have four wives at a time, but according to clause 6 of the Muslim Family Law 1961, if anybody marries for the second time without the permission of the Salish Parishad, they may be imprisoned or fined or both. Hilla marriage has not been banned but it has been made difficult in clause number 7(6) of the 1961 law. According to the ’Muslim Divorce Law 1939’, women are now allowed to divorce their husband if they are absent for more than four years, which was not the provision in the religious law. The Shufa Law of the Islamic provision has been replaced by the State Acquisition Law 1950. Besides, we are obeying many civil laws in our everyday personal and state matters, which do not have even a distant relationship with the religious laws. There is no law upholding the action of cutting one’s hand if she/he steals; neither is there any provision of taking two women’s evidence for one man’s evidence in our civil court. Thus it is possible to present numerous examples of existing laws that are not only incompatible but also conflicting with religious laws. Many Olama-Mashayekhs (religious leaders) give the fatwa that taking photos is haram and kufri, but they themselves have to be photographed obeying the passport laws when they wish to go on Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage). A slogan has been popularised for the last two decades, "Two children are enough, either boys or girls". Attempts are even being made to persuade parents to be happy with one child. In this context, what might be the cause of not abolishing discrepancy in the distribution of property through inheritance? It is unfortunate that we see frenzies amongst religious zealots when the matter of a positive move for the betterment of women’s lives is brought up, which reaches the climax if there is a matter of property involved.

The Hindu community is also quite silent about this policy. Though Christian women get equal property rights, Hindu women do not get any access to inheritance in Bangladesh. Thus Hindu women of this country really do not gain anything with the proposed policy. If they do not have any access to inherited property, what is the benefit of having the full control on that property? But the equal property right has been established for Hindu women in India and the Hindu state of Nepal after amending the religious laws. Equal property right has been adopted even in Muslim countries like Egypt, Tunisia and Senegal.

Bangladesh is still the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is not a country based on religious premises only. Rather, as the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, most of the laws are laid on democratic, secular principles. More than 90% of laws that we deal with in our everyday life, are secular and uniform. Equal rights for all men and women in every sphere of life has been guaranteed in clauses 10, 19 (1,2), 27, 28 (1,2,3,4), 29 (1, 2, 3-A) of our Constitution. There is no religious difference in the civil and criminal laws, and the same could also be done to the family laws. Family laws could be brought under the Uniform Civil Code to wipe out the differences.

If the government is really honest about women’s issues, it would revive the Women Development Policy of 1997, particularly clause 7.2. And, we, the people, who claim to be women-friendly, need to be effectual in the field. Fourteen years have passed since the policy of 1997, but our politics has been unable to prepare the people to accept this change. So, we had to retreat repeatedly from the position declared so long ago. It is the prime time for the government to rethink whether they should surrender to the demands of the religious fundamentalist forces or take initiatives to prepare people’s mentalities and join the people themselves in the fight for our rights as has been promised by the Constitution. Some of those initiatives may include communicating the message through mass media for awareness building and arranging for widespread rallies and meetings at divisional and district headquarters. These rallies and meetings should include the general public as well as members of political parties and civil societies to change the norms and establish new ones. Popular media personalities and celebrities may help spread this message through mass media. School teachers and opinion leaders, those at grass-root level, should be targeted to spread the message throughout the rural communities. Also popular folk media like jatra, putul naach (puppet show), kobi gaan may be utilised in villages.

It is a political struggle and it is not a choice anymore to create much ado about nothing.

Dr. Kaberi Gayen is Associate Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.