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Bangladesh: The era of women empowerment and 39 lashes

by Moazzem Hossain, 30 May 2009

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Daily Star, May 30, 2009

I wish I did not have to write this piece. One must do it since there has been a silence on the part of the commentators and the politicians, except this daily which published a strongly worded editorial on this issue on May 26. Moreover, the incident had taken place next door to the upazila where I come from. Yes, I am talking about the recent incident at a village in Daudkandi, where a girl was whipped with 39 lashes in the presence of a few hundred people the outcome of a decree of a local salish.

This is not the first occasion that such a crime has been committed by the so-called moulanas and their accomplices in this nation. The aim of this piece is to remind the politicians at all levels that, under any circumstances, this kind of atrocity cannot be allowed and must be stopped immediately by making new laws if required.

There is no excuse for tolerating such a heinous act in rural Bangladesh during the so- called era of women empowerment and emancipation. Most importantly, it makes one doubly puzzled that no politician has come forward and shown empathy towards that poor injured girl in the hospital. Perhaps they do not want to be stigmatised, and feared a backlash from the bigots.

Some readers may have thought that the village where the incident took place was located in a remote and illiterate part of the country. No, Daudkandi has one of the highest literacy rates, close to 80%, and is located not too great a distance from Dhaka (only 50 km).

Politically, this is certainly one of the violence-ridden areas of the country, although it has a very high level of per capita income. Although the famous Goalmari fight had taken place here during the war of liberation (Pakistan army even lost some its officers in this fight), the post-liberation period has been infested with violence after violence.

The infamous killers of the father of the nation come from this area (Khandakar Mushtaq and Col. Rashid). Since General Zia’s time this locality has been dominated by BNP-Jamaat politics led by Khandakar Musharaf, who lost the last election to AL’s Subed Ali Bhuiyan.

If I am correct, neither the incumbent MP, nor the former MP has visited the victim until now. None of the 45 MPs elected in the women’s quota has visited the poor girl, either. One may ask, what kind of democracy we are heading towardsdemocracy for the elite, or democracy for the masses?

As far as women’s empowerment goes, Daudkandi region should be at the top since numerous women from this area have occupied high positions in the government, higher education, private businesses and NGOs over the last half a century. In terms of transport and information networks, this locality is one of the more developed areas, thanks to the Dhaka-Chittagong Highway as well as the rural road networks established on the southern side of the highway (where the victim’s village is located) since independence.

It is unimaginable how such an incident can occur in such a place. I have no doubt that it has nothing to do with poverty, backwardness in education or infrastructure and unemployment. It is more due to the so-called Islamic education introduced in this area, with numerous madrasas being established over the last decade or two. There is a union called Mohammadpur, which is next door to the victim’s village. Mohammadpur is at the top in providing madrasa education per head if compared with other similar regions. The moulana ,who is under custody now in connection with the salish, belongs to one of these madrasas. No wonder that the Bideshawar the girl was whipped 39 times and sent unconscious to the hospital.

It does not mean that I am against religious education. Certainly, the education the Madrasa Board is presently offering cannot be friendly to the cause of empowering women. Having 85% success rate in recent madrasa exams (equivalent to SSC) is another area that must also be scrutinised closely. Alongside with Arabic as a second language, there should also be vocational English introduced together with courses on social sciences.

One may argue that the Bideshawar incident is an isolated case and does not need any close attention from the administration. This cannot be right. There is a correlation found between violence against women and traditional Islamic education, here and elsewhere in the Muslim world. The 39 lashes and subsequent silence from the politicians, once again, remind us of the ground reality how and where the empowerment movement is heading to in 21st century Bangladesh.

Dr. Moazzem Hossain is the author of Democracy’s Roller Coaster Ride in Bangladesh.