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Religion, Politics and Women: the Bangladesh Scenario

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Religion, Politics and Women: the Bangladesh Scenario
  Religion, Politics and Women: The Bangladesh ScenarioMeghna Guhathakurta Introduction Fundamentalism has been on the rise in Bangladesh ever since the Bangladesh state veered away from the post-independent ideology of socialism and secularism and underwent an Islamization process (Kabeer, 11!" But it is #uite ironical that though fundamentalist forces have been systematically rehabilitated and encouraged through the two military governments it is through their participation in the pro-democratic movement and the support which they gave to a democratically elected government of 11, that they emerged stronger than before" In fact, all would have gone well for the fundamentalists if it had not been for the massive mobilization process generated by the $ono %dalat (&he 'eoples &ribunal! led by )ahanara Imam" 1  &his brought bac* to the political forefront the demand to try leaders of )amaat-e-Islami, (a party which gave all other orthodo+ religious parties national support by virtue of being represented in 'arliament! for committing war crimes during 11 in collaboration with 'a*istan" In the fight, which ensued, between the people on the one hand and the establishment on the other, the establishment set itself the role to maintain law and order"&his line fitted in well with the fundamentalists who spo*e of control and maintaining a predominantly male-dominant status #uo . a strategy similar to the one usually ta*en towards women in general/ 0eligion came to be used as one of the primary means by which male-dominant values and e+isting gender-oppressive ideology were imposed and perpetuated" It created a division between the private and the public separated the personal from the political" It thus became a weapon in the hands of the establishment to use time and again to demonstrate a semblance of order, stability and control in the face of growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the $overnment"&he current economic situation of Bangladesh also brought the woman #uestion to the forefront" 2ith donors emphasising the incorporation of a 2omen in 3evelopment (2I3! strategy in developmental thin*ing, and 4on-$overnmental 5rganisations (4$5s! and garment factories drawing out women in ever increasing numbers into the wor* force, the growing visibility of women became an added threat to fundamentalist ideologies" It was advantageous therefore for the fundamentalists to ta*e women who step outside the bounds of social norms as their ne+t target since they represented a potential threat to the male-dominant status #uo" &heir target has ranged from well-*nown public figures such as )ahanara Imam, womens rights activist 6ufia Kamal, writer &aslima 4asrin to 4$5 wor*ers or vulnerable village women" 0ecently of course this target has been enlarged to include progressive minded 7ournalists who write to raise the consciousness of the people against these forces" 1  )ahanara Imam, author of Ekatorrer Dinguli (Of Blood and Fire) and other boo*s, mother of a martyred freedom fighter, gave courageous leadership to the movement against the fundamentalists and succeeded in mobilizing public opinion in favour of pro-8iberation forces at a critical 7uncture of Bangladeshs history" 6uffering from cancer, she breathed her last on 9:th )une, 1;"  In this paper I wish to discuss two cases in which women have come under attac* from orthodo+ forces (a! the fatwa 9  incidences (b! the case of &aslima 4asrin" In both these incidences I will record the reactions and responses of the womens movement in Bangladesh" Using Religion Against Women &here is a new regime of growing fundamentalist fervour, which is being supported and strengthened by an establishment bent on maintaining the status #uo, both in relations to politics in general and to gender relations in particular" &his is leading to newer more specific forms of violence against women a violence which re#uires the support of village elites being in a position to order (fatwa 7ari! the burning or stoning of a woman, regardless of e+isting legal institutions"5n 1<th )anuary 1=, the incident of 4ur7ahan and >hatta*chara village in ?oulvi Bazaar district of 6ylhet started the ball rolling" 4ur7ahan who had been living with her parents after her first husband left her, was married the second time, after her father had got all the necessary documents of the annulment of her first marriage" But due to the vested interest of the village headman and the local religious leader, her second marriage was ob7ected to and a salish =  was called where village elites passed 7udgement" &he salish declared that 4ur7ahan should be punished by placing her in a waist-deep hole on the ground and having 1<1 stones thrown at her" @er parents were to be given a hundred whips each, which was later reduced to A< each" 4ur7ahan and her parents faced their punishments, and soon after, 4ur7ahan, humiliated, her dignity torn to shreds, ran home and committed suicide by swallowing pesticides" ( The Daily Shongbad  , 1;! &he incident raised a hue and cry among people in general and womens and human rights organizations rushed   to the spot" % case was lodged at the local court against the nine people involved in the salish on the charge of inciting a person to commit suicide" 5n 1Ath February 1;, the accused were each sentenced to seven years imprisonment"But this did not stop such incidents from recurring at different places in the countryside" 4ot only were more vulnerable women sub7ected to shame and humiliation at the hand of the village leaders (indeed some also met their death as in the case of 4ur7ahan of ?adhu*hali, Faridpur and Feroza of 6at*hira!" But 4$5 development wor*ers were accused of converting people to >hristianity and people were instructed to abstain from ta*ing medicines and services from such organisations, schools of B0%> and other 4$5s were burnt down" In almost all cases religious leaders were supported by elites" ( The Weekly Bichitra , 1;! It has been seen that ?adrassa students and teachers who have always demanded further integration into mainstream education in order to avail themselves of employment opportunities have been particularly propagating against 4$5 activities in the education sector"%ll this however raised little dust among the 4$5s themselves" ?any wished to play down the problem" 6ome thought that the problem was best dealt with locally" &his, I thin*, reflects the basic ambivalence, which the developmental discourse faces in relation to its own invented categories such as an indigenous culture, or a non-conflictual approach towards personal and public spaces" % typical reaction to this 2  Fatwas are decrees, which are supposed to be issued by clerics well versed in the Islamic scriptures" &hey may relate to any matter which re#uires arbitration and need not be limited to womens issues" 3  Informal body at village level for arbitrating disputes"  situation was voiced by a $erman development wor*er in a seminar" @e cited the case of ?alaysia where 4$5 activities such as credit schemes funded by western donors were ta*ing place on Islamic lines" &his line of argument seems to advocate the continuation of e+isting developmental activity in a way that is least conflictual" Is that what the donors have in mind for Bangladesh and, if so, to serve whose interestC&he Bangladesh 6upreme >ourt on the other hand had given a 7udgement, which had restricted the use of fatwas on the ground that they could be issued only by those well versed in Islamic 7urisprudence" @ence the argument was that in the current situation such a conte+t did not e+ist in Bangladesh" &his of course raised a hue and cry among Islamist clerics and politicians" %lthough a staying order was issued by the >ourt in favour of the verdict random cases of fatwas issued against women still continue in the remote areas of Bangladesh, sometimes brought to public notice by the media" The Case of Taslima Nasrin 2ith the issuing of a warrant for the arrest of the writer, &aslima 4asrin on the charge of her hurting the religious sentiments of the ma7ority of the people, Bangladesh had become the centre of international attention" &his incident however, was merely the tip of an iceberg" Behind the front-page headlines lur*ed issues, which go beyond the fate of a single woman writer in a country internationally acclaimed to be moderately ?uslim" &hese issues concern politics in general and gendered politics in particular"&aslima 4asrin, an anaesthetist who started to write letters to editors at an early age and captured the attention of a younger generation of avid readers through her daily columns, became a sub7ect of controversy first with her own colleagues then with the state" From an early phase of her writing she had been addressing the woman #uestion in a genre, which was both familiar as well as unacceptable to the Bengali reader" &he familiarity stemmed from her rootedness in the more radical circles of the Bengali literati which boasted names such as 6haheed Kaderi, 4irmolendu $oon, 0udro ?ohammed 6hahidullah" In fact her marriage to and subse#uent divorce from 0udro ?ohammed 6hahidullah, a talented poet popular with young radicals and who died at an early age, was both reason for her to find credibility and acceptance among the same circle as well as ma*e her controversial among them" &he reasons for controversy as in most cases with women were both her private life as well as the substance of her writing" &aslima was married and divorced more than once" &hat itself gave her the apparent image of fic*leness and rec*lessness" But what was worse in the eyes of the conventional reader was that she DunashamedlyE tal*ed of womens se+uality and through that challenged male se+ual aggression"&he conventional reader of Bengali literature who was used to receiving notions of the se+ual from his reading of Bengali literature, albeit from a male perspective, was nevertheless challenged when having to deal with women interrogating maleness in the realm of the intimate" &he challenge which &aslima threw to the Bengali reader was, however, well received by young students and middle-class housewives and professionals" 2hat was unacceptable to many however was that she engaged religion and problematized it in a way, which seemed imposed and unnatural in a society which also gained much of its identity from the realm of the sacred" ou therefore had a view, which applauded &aslimas feminism but re7ected her rational secularism"  But the main social furore against &aslima reached its pea* first, when the $overnment of Bangladesh, after a discussion in parliament banned her boo* D  Lajja D (6hame! and second, when a case was lodged against her for Dhurting the religious sentiment of the ma7ority of the peopleD" &he ground for this case was a statement she made in an interview by an Indian newspaper where she allegedly made remar*s about the Guran, which was antithetical to the principles of Islam" &echnically there is no Blasphemy 8aw in Bangladesh, so she was accused under this particular clause, which was actually ordained during the British colonial period to protect believers of the minority religion from the ma7ority/ In both cases the grounds for accusation was slim" Lajja was a short novel, which was written on the spur of a moment to depict the plight of the @indu minorities in Bangladesh, who were targets of ?uslim wrath in the aftermath of the storming of the Babri ?os#ue in %yodha, Httor 'radesh, India in 11" &aslima merely e+pressed sentiments of the minority at a time when Bangladesh civil society in general seemed to be held hostage to Islamic fundamentalists"@er interview with the Indian newspaper and conse#uent controversy simply added fuel to fire in an already volatile situation where women and progressives all over Bangladesh were becoming targets of fundamentalist fervour" &aslimas situation was worsened by the fact that she e+pressed herself as an individual writer isolated from the other ongoing social movements in the country, including the womens movement" It did not help matters that she voiced a strong criti#ue of the leadership of the womens movement in Bangladesh, which only alienated them" &his had conse#uences for her support when she in turn was attac*ed and cornered, in her claims for right to freedom of speech" Responses of the Women's Movement in Bangladesh &he slogan that the personal is political may have been coined by womens rights activists in the 2est, but it certainly became relevant for women in any society, where various repressive measures were followed in order to *eep the personal from being political" In Bengal too, women had confronted the privatepublic divide from time immemorial" 0o*eya 6ha*hawat @ossain (1JJ<-1=9! a forerunner of the womens rights movement for Bengali ?uslim women, had time and again reiterated that orthodo+ religious leaders had played a retrogressive role for women" ?en had used religion whenever women had tried to brea* the shac*les of society"6uch awareness has historically led women to challenge and confront what they perceived to be an oppressive hierarchical order" 8ittle of this is ac*nowledged among those in the womens movement, who subscribe to a more development outloo* on the womens issue" 6uch an outloo* therefore tends to bypass both micro-level resistance and challenges thrown by women at the grassroots as well as the more macro-level demands of the womens movement e"g" legal reforms" @owever, grassroots pressure and the vulnerability of women in relation to social, legal and paralegal institutions have more recently created the need for legal literacy, leadership training and empowerment programmes, albeit within the conventional framewor* of development"But the development discourse has not only avoided resistance on gender specific issues, it has also failed to ta*e into account the various resistance movements at the national level" %s such, developmental interventions have remained not only apolitical but also ahistorical" &his has accounted for much of the confusion as to  what constitutes the culture of Bangladesh" ?uch of the outsiders view about this has been framed by a globalized discourse of a homogenous ?uslim society" &he fact that social and linguistic traditions play 7ust as an important role, and had played the crucial role during the independence movement of the country, seems to be largely ignored"But this outloo* has a much more serious repercussion on womens issues and how one deals with fundamentalism in Bangladesh" In the post 11 situation, changes in both global and national politics have led one to engage with the more comple+ and more dangerous issues of Islamic terrorism" ?any Islamic movements in the ?iddle ast have historically played an anti-imperialist role and have voiced protest over colonial oppression" &his often loo*ed at in a positive way by many in a developing country" But in Bangladesh the retrograde role played by the )amaat e Islami as collaborators of war crimes in the 8iberation 2ar is ac*nowledged by Bengalis in general" But to many in the establishment, the politics of 8iberation with its connotations of a linguistic cultural heritage and golden goals of self-sufficiency, stri*es a discordant note in todays world of free mar*et enterprise and labour migration" 6uch alternatives are thus not encouraged by any of the pro-establishment coterieL the donors (who see* a stable world order!, the $overnment (who wishes to remain in power and hence sustain the e+isting power structure! or the fundamentalists (whose e+istence depends on the perpetration of a male-dominant patriarchal order!/ &herefore any form of resistance or challenge to the status #uo . particularly if it comes from women . is trivialized, sidestepped or #uelled as the case maybe" &his was particularly seen when the #uestion of support for &aslima 4asrin came along" ?any organisations were willing to fight for her rights to freedom of speech but were not willing to support her brand of feminist politics (&aslima herself did not call herself a feminist! nor did they support her views on religion" In the post 11 period, donors have registered a change from their earlier position towards religious e+tremism" From categorizing Bangladesh as a moderate ?uslim country, they have adopted a position of close surveillance regarding events in Bangladesh, pressurizing the B4'-)amaat e Islami coalition $overnment to weed out and curb the forces of militant Islam which had been rampantly developing or being allowed to develop within the Bangladesh state" &his has led to the arrest and conviction of militants li*e 6iddi#ul Islam alias Bangla Bhai and 6hai*h %bdur 0ahman of )amaitul ?u7ahideen Bangladesh ( )?B!, a terrorist group targeting and terrorizing secular and progressive circles in Bangladesh in the name of Islam" ?ore specifically with regard to the woman #uestion, donors at last seem to be recognizing many of the dangers that this trend pose to women and other vulnerable sections of the population li*e minorities" It seems that many of the fears and protests that for many years had been voiced by women activists had at last gained attention in establishment thin*ing at least in the international sphere&he forerunners of the womens movement for e+ample 0o*eya 6ha*awat @ossain, even in the early years of the 9<th century Bengal had not minced words in engaging religion and the impact it has in defining womens position in society" 2hy should one do so nowC References Kabeer, N. (1991) The Quest for National Identity: Women, Islam and the State in Bangladesh in D. Kandiyotti (ed.) Women, Islam and the State, London: a!millan.
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