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Women’s rights groups slam Dhaka’s inaction

One year after the Bangladesh Supreme Court issued an order criticizing the government for failing to protect it citizens, there has not been a great deal of change, criticize women’s rights groups.

Last year in January, Hena Akhter, an adolescent Bangladeshi girl, received 100 lashes for an alleged affair with a married man. It had been ordered by a “shalish,” a makeshift village court, in Shariatpur district in the Dhaka Division. Six days later, the 14-year-old died in hospital. Before her punishment she had reported that she had been sexually abused.

On 8 July 2010, the High High Court Division of the Supreme Court issued its first order on the Akhter case, criticizing the government for not protecting its citizens from inhuman or degrading treatment and ordering it to conduct awareness campaigns.

It said electronic and print media should be used to inform citizens that extrajudicial punishments are unconstitutional. It later also stipulated that fatwas should only be issued by properly educated people and that they were not binding and could not be enforced. It specifically said that physical violence and/or mental torture could not be imposed on anybody in the name of a fatwa.

However, Khushi Kabir, a coordinator for Nijera Kori, a Bangladeshi NGO that works with “downtrodden people,” to use its own words, and towards social mobilization, told Deutsche Welle that the government had since done nothing to set up awareness campaigns.

Human Rights Watch also slammed the Bangladeshi government this week for failing to act on the repeated orders of the Supreme Court. Since Akhter’s death, at least three girls have been reported in the local media to have committed suicide after facing social ostracism and public punishments, such as whipping.

Misuse of fatwas

Traditionally, fatwas were used for extrajudicial affairs, Kabir explained. Village elders would sit and hold negotiations as to what should be done on a case before going to court. However, she said the problem now was that fatwas were being used to interpret Islam’s understanding of a case. Under the Bangladeshi constitution, religious laws govern marriage, divorce and childcare.

“Fatwas cannot be totally banned,” Kabir said. “Because legally it is nothing but a piece of advice. The fatwa is not issued for every arbitration that takes place in the shalish.” However, she said that there will be a problem if the authorities say “a fatwa is not invalid because that leaves scope for it to be misused.”

There is much concern among activists that the Supreme Court has left the door open for confusion. “Shalishkers are not informed, properly-educated Islamic scholars,” Aruna Kashyap from the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch told Deutsche Welle. “It’s not an actual fatwa but they do things in the name of fatwa.”

Separation of state and religion

Kabir thinks that a stricter division between government and religion would make matters “much clearer.” “Secularism means that religion is a personal affair and that the state need not interfere with matters of personal beliefs as long as it doesn’t infringe the rights of others,” she added.

Kashyap said that the High Court had been very clear and it was now for the government to act. “Hena made a complaint of sexual abuse. The government should have stepped in. It is the duty of villagers to go to the police but they have no business making decisions.”

One suggestion made by NGOs is that there should be around-the-clock toll-free helplines that are easily accessible so that women can report violence and seek assistance. There should also be improved access to women’s shelters, as well as support and legal assistance for those who have been punished by traditional shalishes.

“What the government has to do is very simple,” said Kabir. “They have to make a very clear statement of the High Court order to every level and to the local government ministry. Then they’ll know that it is illegal to implement the fatwa. This should act as a deterrent.”

Kashyap for her part said that there had to be more “awareness of women’s rights, of equality and of respect.”

Author: Shivani Mathur
Editor: Anne Thomas


29.12.2011 | 20:52