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The rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Bangladesh and its implications for women May 28, 2013

Posted by nishankmotwani in : Bangladesh, By contributor, By country, Guest authors , trackback

Eshan Motwani

The attack on Nadia Sharmin, a news reporter for Ekushey Television, by a group of Islamist activists last month was a brutal reminder of the wave of anti-secularism that has gripped Bangladesh in recent months. Her perpetrators belonged to the Islamic Group ‘Hefajat-e-Islam Bangladesh’ (hereafter referred to as Hefajat). The group was staging a rally in the capital Dhaka to push a list of demands that stand in clear contradiction to the nation’s secular principles. Sharmin was providing coverage of the protests for her network when the group of activists took notice of her. To them, Sharmin’s presence represented one of the many facets of modern day Bangladesh that they were protesting against, namely the free mixing of males and females. Sharmin, who was fortunate to survive the attack, spoke of her experience from hospital and stated that “fifty-six activists hurled brickbats and water bottled at me at Bijoynagar. They snatched my mobile phone and handbag having several thousand Takas. Then they threw me on the ground and beat me up”. Hefajat’s list of demands further threatens the advances that women like Sharmin have achieved since Bangladesh gained its independence.

Since its establishment as a secular democracy in 1971, women in Bangladesh have experienced greater political empowerment, enhanced job prospects, greater education and the implementation of new laws to safeguard their rights. Bangladesh is one of only seventeen countries with women as heads of state or government and actively promotes women in politics through a parliamentary quota of 45 seats (out of 345 seats) for women. In addition to the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the opposition and former Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament are all women. Data from July 2012 revealed women’s progress in education, with approximately eighty-nine per cent of girls successfully passing the higher secondary school exam, relative to seventy-eight per cent of boys. Economic empowerment has largely arrived via the garment industry, which employs approximately three million workers. Eighty per cent of these workers are women. In 2012, the garment industry accounted for annual exports worth $24.3 billion (approximately eighty per cent of Bangladesh’s earnings). Finally, to recognise its efforts in championing women’s rights, Bangladesh was elected to the board of UN Women (The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women).

These statistics however do not hide the fact that gender equality is far from being achieved in Bangladesh. Women continue to face challenges including early marriage and domestic violence. UNICEF recently estimated that up to seventy-four per cent of girls are married prior to the age of eighteen, after which their education is terminated and their employment opportunities become limited. The plight of women in Bangladesh was recently summarised by Irene Khan, the former Secretary General of Amnesty International (and Bangladeshi herself) who commented: “Bangladesh remains a conservative, patriarchic society where women’s role continued to be undervalued – past or present”.

Given the extent and severity of such challenges, the government has undertaken a range of initiatives designed to ensure equal political and economic rights for women. One of the initiatives in particular, the 2008 National Women’s Development Policy (NWDP) is significant for two reasons. First, the NWDP is a large-scale initiative that is designed to target health and security needs of women. Second, the genesis of Hefajat can be traced to the inception of the policy.

Although official data on the NWDP is sparse, key provisions of the initiative include legalising equal rights for women, including property rights and a forty per cent quota for women on the government’s high executive, judiciary and legislative branches parliament and local government bodies. The announcement of the NWDP was met with praise by women’s organisations and NGOs, with former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court commenting: “if implemented properly, it will usher in a new era of freeing our women folk out of the shackles of the past”.

In response to the announcement and public-release of a draft of the NWDP, the then unknown group of activists from Hefajat protested the Government’s plan and demanded a return to Islamist precepts. The inclusion of equal property rights for women in particular drew the ire of Hefajat activists. Despite its legal system being designed on a secular model, Bangladesh’s law of inheritance is based on Islamic Sharia law which dictates that a daughter is to receive only half of what a son inherits.

Hefajat’s protests to the NWDP have included multiple rallies, including a huge rally in Dhaka that was attended by more than 100,000 just last month. It was at this rally that Hefajat issued its list of thirteen demands, which included a ban on the public mixing of sexes. Another demand from the list includes “make Islamic education mandatory from primary to higher secondary levels and cancelling the anti-Islamic women policy and anti-religion education policy”. Although the leader of Hefajat, ninety-three year old Ahmad Shami was absent at the rally, his son addressed the gathering and proclaimed that “no matter which the party is, it must give in to the thirteen point charter of demands if it wants to stay in power or if any party wants to go to power”.

Women leaders swiftly recognised the threat posed by Hefajat’s list of demands and staged protests of their own on April-7 and April-9 2013 to denounce the activists. Crucially, one of the primary messages of these rallies was to warn political parties over siding with extremists. Salma Ali, Chief of the Bangladesh Women Lawyer’s Association reminded the Government that “women account for 50% of the total votes. Please do not support (the extremists)”. In recognition of the economic setback that Bangladesh would undergo should women be excluded from the workforce, Mushrefa Mishu, the President of the Garment Workers’ Unity Forum stated that “there are women in media, defence and development. There cannot be development (by) keeping half of the population ineffective”.

Hefajat’s most recent rally on May-6 2013 saw 200,000 activists march to central Dhaka and block roads connecting the capital to other regions in the country. Clashes erupted between police and activists at the rally with at least twenty Bangladeshis killed. Activists were reported to have set fire to vehicles, stormed a police post and threw stones at police. The police response included the firing of tear-gas to disperse the activists and firing rubber bullets.

Valid accusations have surfaced that Hefajat is actually a vehicle for the opposition party to undermine the existing government. In fact, the son-in-law of Hefajat’s leader is a key member of the Zia opposition alliance. Women in Bangladesh face the very real prospect that their rights could be curtailed should the Government accede to Hefajat’s demands. Worryingly, recent evidence suggests that the Sheikh Hasina’s Government is prepared to negotiate with Hefajat –– police recently arrested four bloggers labelled ‘atheists’ by the group and a Home Ministry committee was established to monitor remarks made online and identify those deemed ‘anti-Islamic’.

The blatant attack suggests that a ‘secular’ Bangladesh for Hefajat isn’t limited to the secular nature of the state. Rather, the broadened definition of what Hefajat defines as ‘secular’ and hence ‘anti-Islamic’ regards women like Sharmin as legitimate targets for contravening Islamic principles. The problem of gender issues in this instance is multidimensional (as can be seen in Hefajat’s thirteen demands). Targeting gender issues can be seen as a means to an end for Hefajat to garner greater support and legitimacy based on conservative religious dogma.

At this stage it is unclear the extent to which Sheikh Hasina is prepared to satisfy Hefajat and their list of demands. Should the Prime Minister reject the group’s demands and return to Bangladesh’s secular roots, she risks triggering additional protests and jeopardizing her Party’s future at the general elections to be held between October 2013 and January 2014. Alternatively should she embrace Hefajat’s demands, she risks adding momentum to an anti-secular movement that could reverse the progress women have achieved in the last four decades.

Eshan Motwani is an Analyst at ACIL Allen Consulting and has an interest in international security challenges and development studies. He holds a masters degree from the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney.


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