The following article is an exclusive translation of a Bangla article written by women’s rights advocate, Farida Akhter. The original piece can be viewed here. This article was translated by Mohammad Hossain.
Hefazat-e-Islam returned home after conducting one of the largest peaceful congregations in the history of Dhaka [on April 6th 2013]. It kept its promise to the administration by ending its congregation exactly at five o’ clock. The people of Dhaka are mystified. They have never seen such a large congregation of Islamic scholars such as the one at Shapla Chattar. Although a definite statistic does not exist of the attendance at the rally, the estimates by themselves are nevertheless mind boggling. The government had created obstacles through various ways in order to prevent the culmination of the Hefazat Long March; all manner of Dhaka bound transport was stopped. In spite of these measures, how such huge numbers turned out is still a mystery to many.
The programme of Hefazat has ended and its supporters have also returned to their homes. However, the discussion on the topic, whether positive or negative, hasn’t stopped. Changes have been observed in the talk shows of various TV channels. Almost every channel has hosted a mufti of the Hefazat to explain the 13 demands ad nauseam.
The 13 point demands of Hefazat need to be understood and disseminated. The presence of the muftis in the media has played a profound role on this path in favour of Hefazat. To believe that the channels called the muftis to just explain the 13 points would be wrong. Majority of the time the muftis were invited in order to confuse or throw off balance. In fact, many channels have made the portrayal of such muftis and their ideology as being detrimental to society their sole intent. Three to four people – intellectuals, women leaders and politicians – are being brought to such talk shows to discredit the scholars. Viewers look on as the talk shows turn into orchestrated plays in the name of discussion. More interestingly, discussions continue even after the end of the talk shows, among the viewers and the general populace as they evaluate the gainers and losers.
Pushing women back to the middle ages?
Hefazat-e-Islam has announced that it will resort to tougher programmes if its 13 point demands are not met. Two of the 13 points relate directly to women. Many have started raising indignant cries on how the Hefazat intends to push women back to the middle ages, especially those who label themselves as ‘progressives’; they have become deeply troubled.
In the midst of it all, the general populace has become a little confused. The development has occurred at a time when on one hand the opposition has been pressing for the restoration of the caretaker government as a result of which many of their members are in jail; while on the other hand the political scene is replete with the complexities of the war crimes trials and the heated reactions. At the same time the Shahbag movement has added a new dimension in dividing the nation like a split watermelon. Some so called bloggers have made frighteningly derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammad (SAW). Hefazat-e-Islam has risen up actively against their derogatory atheism. Anybody can be an atheist. However no person has the right to defame a religion or religious beliefs of others through derogatory writings.
As far as I know, Hefazat-e-Islam is against Jamaat-e-Islam. They demand the trials of war criminals, but at the same time are unable to accept the Shahbag movement. Hefazat has come forward demanding the punishment of ‘atheist’ bloggers, especially those who have defamed Islam and the Prophet. Shahbag began with the demand of hanging all war criminals. However, it went on to include the demand to ban Jamaat-Shibir, then the closure of the news daily Amardesh and finally the arrest of its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman along with its six point demands. Hefazat, along with its 13 point demands, has also included the demand to free Mahmudur Rahman.
There aren’t many qualms about the Shahbagh demands because of the general belief that there is no room for controversy regarding them. It’s just about how long before the government accepts them. And the government has been doing this for some time, through meeting the demands of Shahbag one by one. The six demands of Shahbag may be controversial, but here I shall write about the two points in the 13 points demands of Hefazat which relate directly to women.
A need for dialogue and understanding
I do not see any reason for complete rejection of these demands. It is not about taking a stand in support or against the demands. The women section of the society needs to understand the reason for the anger of a large section of the rural masses in this regard. They have let known their grievances through these demonstrations. What is needed now is a large scale dialogue of this section with the other sections of the society. What I fear is whether we actually want to give time to facilitate such dialogue. A certain section certainly thinks there is no alternative in setting inadequate time frames and using force in case of the failure of the former.
On the other hand, many women have given a negative reaction simply because of the religious nature of the demands and the fact that they have been raised by ‘Islamists’, which is in a sense, illogical too. In whichever package it comes, we need to open the package and look at the core issues imbibed within. We need to talk on these issues. There is no alternative to that. Now is such a time. The fact that religion has been misused for male-dominated oppression is nothing new – and therefore its not necessary to teach this to women. However, that should not put women in the dangerous position of being against religion in general either. Begum Rokeya had in fact warned of this long ago. The problem arises when the women stand up against the oppression only to turn into tools in favour of a male dominated free market system where women themselves become commodities. Just opposing the demands on religious grounds and aggravating the problem by building upon that unfounded hate will only lead to more complications for Bangladesh in the long run.
In the meantime, reactions have come in from political parties, women rights organisations, and social organisations. A general dimension of their reaction is the argument that we will be shuttled back to the middle ages if the 13 point demands of Hefazat are met. But how? That is something they have not elaborated on. Firstly, it is a matter of debate whether the middle ages were really worse than the present modern age. Secondly, can anyone who wishes to ‘return’ to the middle ages really do so? Thirdly, we reside in a world order. Neither we nor Hefazat are out of the realm of this order or system. As a result, I do not see any possibility whereby Hefazat could lead us back to the “middle ages”. What I see as necessary is the analysis of how a large part of the society views the prevalent system, how they approve or disapprove of it, and how they plan to find a viable alternative. What we need to do is to contemplate the feasibility of their religiously worded demands and their compatibilty with the current democratic practices. This should be done through a healthy system of constructive dialogue. They [Hefazat] have been the only platform who have been able to present themselves to the large swathes of generally poor rural occupants amidst the political framework of Bangladesh. Therefore ignoring them won’t be an intelligent choice. I thank Hefazat-e-Islam on their foresight in answering criticisms of their 13 point demands through print and other media. I want to analyze the fourth and fifth points of their 13 points demand in brief.
The fourth demand: women and work
The fourth demand: End to all alien cultural practices like immodesty, lewdness, misconduct, culture of free mixing of the sexes, candle lighting in the name of personal freedom and free speech.
We can divide this single demand into three separate parts: 1) personal freedom 2) immodesty, lewdness, misconduct, culture of free mixing of the sexes 3) end to lighting of candles and other alien cultural practices.
In retrospect, this demand is not totally against women. Leaving out the section of the candle lighting, we are left with a call to end immodesty, lewdness, misconduct and the culture of free mixing of the sexes. This is the section that has been subject to the recent dispute. It is my belief that if this demand had come from any political party or women rights organisation instead of the Hefazat or any other Islamic party, we would perhaps have been united in our support for such a demand. In a male dominated and capitalist society such as ours, many women fall victim to such practices, which have only exacerbated the image of women in our society as goods and commodities. It is true that some women may willfully make such choices, but they are a minority that has brought a bad name to the majority who don’t support these practices. The change of this position should and even has become the demand of progressive women. Fact is that this has nothing to do with whether women come out of their homes or stay in them. Many have come to the conclusion that the demand of Hefazat is about not allowing women to come out of their homes. They think this is about preventing women from going to work or getting an education. Let us see what Allama Shafi, Amir of Hefazat-e-Islam has to say on this,
“There is no alternative to the development of women for the development of this country. In this regard they must be provided with a secure environment for development in spheres of education, health and the workplace. Working women should be provided with just remuneration for their labor. To prevent harassment, whether sexual or of related causes, at home or work, women must be provided full security and be encouraged to be more modest in their attire and include the hijab as part of their lives. Towards the same end, there must be an end to demeaning practices such as immodesty, lewdness, misconduct in the name of the culture of free mixing of the sexes along with an end to the dowry system and torture, sexual harassment and violence against women”
Fundamentally, I do not see any problem in the above explanation. However, it should not be that modesty be so strictly defined that there no attire be allowed outside it. The explanation of Hefazat has brought forth issues on Shahbag that I am not mentioning here. Questions may be asked on whether the accusations are true. Prove them even a bit and one cannot stop such a reaction [such as the Hefazat Long March]. None of us want gaudy portrayals of any men or women. Neither does the developed world [want this]. Even though Shahbagh was criticized in other aspects, I do not see any place for criticism about the modesty of attire of the women at its forefront. Allama Ahmed Shafi said,” We make it clear that modesty or the hijab does not prevent a woman from going to work or study.”
Security over confinement
Another statement they [Hefazat] have made is, “If there can be separate educational institutions such as schools for girls or colleges for women, then there should be no reason to oppose the demand for separate work places for women”. How reality based this statement is may be subject to contemplation. We even believe ourselves that women definitely require some separate facilities at any workplace. Most of the prevalent work places are not suitable for women. Presence of such separate facilities will greatly add to the ease of working women. However the feasibility of separate workplaces for women is debatable but may be considered.
Therefore, it may be observed that the fourth point in the list of demands is not about confining women inside their homes, but about providing security to women through building up on religious values and beliefs. We must not be frightened of these demands; rather we should explore ways to build up on the current pace of development of women and release them from the clutches of those who plan to turn women into commodities. Our problem lies in our tendency to view any such proposals enshrined in religious talk with inherent suspicion. “Immodesty, lewdness and misconduct” are unacceptable to anybody. However, every society and culture has its own limits and definitions as to what they constitute. I urge the workers of Hefazat-e-Islam and its Amir, Allama Shafi to view such demands as being essential to protection of women’s rights, their honor and dignity, and not just as part of some religiously inscribed duties; and not in a tone of command.
Everybody has a duty to develop society and maintain its cultural integrity and modesty. Dialogue in that direction will definitely bring about positive results. Many women throughout the world nowadays have a steady job life. Modest Muslim women, both hijab clad and without hijab, also go to work, and have successfully proved their mettle. However, it must be mentioned that nobody can yet say definitely that donning modest attire will immediately stop rape or sexual assaults against women. Change in the viewpoints of men and the society in general is also essential to this effect. As long as a social movement cannot be launched in order to combat these phenomena through cultural and moral avenues, the situation will continue to plague society. Moreover, modesty cannot be confined to women alone. Men also have an essential role to play in this regard. They need to be modest as well. However, Hefazat has not raised such demands.
Attack on female journalists at the rally of Hefazat gives the impression that men generally view females around them differently. And in extreme cases that may culminate into rape. The journalist Nadia Sharmin luckily did not have to face such a scenario; however, she was badly injured. This too is a case of bodily harm, but not as contentious as rape. I saw no immodesty in her attire. But those who attacked her asked about why a female reporter was sent to an exclusively male congregation. If the modesty of women is the main issue here, then would it be wise to define and point out which congregations are open for women and which aren’t? I believe that such an uncompromising stand should not have been taken by the Hefazat. Generally speaking, the level of modesty in the attire of most women in Bangladesh conforms to that of the socially accepted norms. Taking this into consideration is essential for the activists and leaders of Hefazat-e-Islam who must be ever vigilant in this regard. Barring this, any call for enforcement of their demands will surely be counter-productive.
Any attack on journalists is condemnable. However, such incidents are not unique to the Hefazat rally and have also been observed by us to occur at music concerts. Attacks on females at exclusively male congregations and rallies just allude to the maladies of an unjust male dominated society.
The fifth demand: anti-Islamic “women’s policy”
The fifth demand: Abolishment of the anti-Islamic women’s policy and the ungodly education policy. Islamic education must be made compulsory in all levels of institutions from primary to higher secondary
Here too it is observed that multiple issues have been brought into the fray. I want to elaborate on the women’s policy only.
Firstly, it needs to be known that the government of Bangladesh has not declared any women’s policy; the one prevalent is known as “women’s development policy”. A policy which is understood to focus on aspects of ‘development’ of women as the donors see fit. Therefore, the fact should be clear that we are not debating any aspects of a policy.
To well understand the women’s law policy being discussed, we need to gain insight on the background of such a policy. The enactment of this policy has had more to do with the development of women than with establishment of women’s rights. The process of enactment of the ‘women’s development policy’ began in 1996 during the tenure of the then Awami League led government. During that time, the women rights organisations were united on the issue. I was involved in that process myself. The process had an international factor attributable to it as well. It was in accordance with the declaration and plans emanating from the 1995 World Women’s Convention held at Beijing. Preceding that, the CEDAW charter of 1979 advocating the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women was adopted. The Bangladesh government ratified this charter in 1984 through the inclusion of articles two, 13(a), 16(a) and 16(f) in the constitution. Later in 1996, the articles 13(a) and 16.1(f) were withdrawn. Article two states that the constitution of the state and all laws follow the basic tenet of equality of men and women. Article 13(a) talks of the provision of equal opportunities for men and women for the sake of family welfare. Article 16 is the provision of equal status of men and women in marriage and all family issues. 16.1 speak of rights of the husband and wife, custodial rights to a child and other similar but core issues. In 1996, articles 13(a) and 16.1(f) were withdrawn.
The government of HM Ershad signed the CEDAW charter; Begum Zia signed the declaration of Shanghai and as the then Prime Minister attended the conference. In light of the above, the AL government in 1997 enacted a women’s development policy. In 2004, the four party alliance government including BNP amended the law and upgraded it. Likewise in 2008 the military caretaker government tried to amend the law again which they weren’t able to do in the end. Therefore, the women’s development policy has been subject to active change by almost every government. That is because donors have made the demand for women development a non-negotiable part of their assistance.
Although the present government came to power promising change in the law, the actual declaration of its women’s development policy came very late, in 2011. Keeping 41 objectives in mind, this law aims to ensure equal opportunities for women through amendment of the prevalent law. I do not see any conflict with any religious aspects in the aforementioned policy.
Women’s development policy and inheritance
Hefazat-e-Islam does not totally oppose the women’s policy, they ask for the abolishment of its anti-Islamic aspects. Allama Shafi, in his explanation says, “We demand for the amendment of the equal opportunity of women to any disowned property in order to include the rulings of the Quran and Sunnah in this regard”. If Hefazat-e-Islam studies the latest women’s policy (2011), it will observe that article 25.2 of the women’s development law says, “Granting women rights of total control over property gained by them through earning, inheritance, debt and land and market management.” Here emphasis has been placed mostly on inherited property, while detailed information on the inheritors and their share is absent, paving way to problems and complexities. These aspects must definitely be subject to debate and analysis.
We have observed that the concerned law formulated during the tenure of the 4 party alliance government omitted the words ‘inherited property’ from the law; the caretaker government in 2008 inserted the words ‘movable and immovable’ in the place of ‘inheritance’. In face of protests by Ulema and scholars in 2008, a committee was formed under the then acting Khatib of Baitul Mokarram, Mufti Mohammad Nuruddin in order to provide necessary recommendations to the government. The committee identified 15 sections of the law which were against the values and teachings of Islam. In the midst of this, they also gave the recommendation to abolish the section concerned with the realization of CEDAW. (Kaler Kontho, 7th March, 2010)
Islamic scholars have protested and presented their views on the issue of women’s development policy in 2008 and 2011. On behalf of the government, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself gave them assurances that her government had never enacted any anti-Islamic law in the past and would not enact any such law in the future. Speaking in a similar fashion, Agriculture Minister Matia Chowdhury reiterated in several public gatherings that the government would not enact any law against the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah. However, in 1997, Women and Children Affairs State minister Dr. Shireen Sharmin Chowdhury reinstated the inheritance section of the law in accordance to CEDAW guidelines. It is a matter of common knowledge that this was a result of her consultation with the feminists. Thus it stands that the government itself is unsure of the extent to which the issue of inheritance should be included in the women’s development policy. The government has kept both the feminists and the Islamists in the dark on the issue. The women’s movement, as a result, has been left confused. Whatever the case, even though the women’s development policy 2011 has been declared in full, it is far from being fully implemented.
Let us see which sections of the current women’s policy are thought by Islamic thinkers and scholars as being against the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah. Ex Vice-Chancellor of Kushtia Islamic University Dr. Mohammad Enam Ul Haque has identified and written on these sections. According to him based on article A.16.1 of the constitution, it is not possible to bring about equality among men and women in all spheres of public life. Article A.16.8 is not clear on the ways to reduce the prevalent gender discrimination and inequality. Article C.17.4 speaks of ensuring the presence of women’s law specialists in committees or commissions established to amend or abolish current laws that are perceived to be discriminatory, an article which directly contradicts the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah.
Implementing CEDAW on local norms: a recognised concern
Hefazat-e-Islam did not talk about so much in their 13 point demands. They have simply said that the current women’s policy is anti-Islamic. We do not know whether Hefazat-e-Islam is in the same line with the criticism of the women’s policy published in the news emanating from the Islamic scholars section in the society. If that is the case, then I would say that (inheritance issue) has not been clearly defined or included in the present women’s development policy. However, the manner in which the policy is being opposed gives the stereotypical impression that Hefazat-e-Islam is against all kind of development of women, a notion which they have clearly refuted in the meantime through various avenues of discussion. In that case it is imperative that the women branch of Hefazat-e-Islam engage in serious dialogue with other women’s organisations. When women’s organisations claim that the women’s policy represents all women, the voice of the women supporters of the Hefazat needs to be heard in addition to its male members. On the other hand we need to come to terms with the fact that women have come forward in all sections of society and make decisions accordingly. Those sections of the women’s development policy which are averse to our national interests due to their influence by the western train of thought need to be subject to debate. But there should not be a blind rejection or support of the policy.
Hefazat has demanded the abolishment of the tenets of the controversial United Nations CEDAW charter from the policy. It is true that any international charter will predominantly feature concerns and thoughts of the western world. Along with others, religious institutions and personalities of the West itself such as the Church and its Pope have voiced their concerns and opposed charters and policies such as the CEDAW which went against their beliefs and interests. From this it is evident that the CEDAW charter has not been accepted by scholars of other faiths as well and not just Islamic scholars in Bangladesh. The debate on the CEDAW is highly complicated and controversial. However, the mechanism of implementation of a charter of the UN in context of our cultural, social and religious norms should certainly be debated and dialogue and discussion in this regard is highly necessary. That demands the participation of all sections of the society including Hefazat-e-Islam.
I hope that all controversies regarding the women’s policy can be dealt with through discussion amongst women themselves. In this context, I believe that it will be a mistake in strategy to set up opposing camps on behalf of the women they claim to represent.