Violence in Bangladesh over new equality law

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Photo EPA: Protests in Bangladesh

Riots have broken out today in Bangladesh over a new law  which would give women equal property rights as men. The country, although it has a secular legal system most the time, bows to Sharia law in issues relating to inheritance, and therefore a woman only inherits half as much as her brother.

Under the National Women Development Policy, she would inherit equally.

More than 100 protestors have been taken into custody today according to police, but there is worryingly a high level of support for challenging a law like this. The Islamic Law Implementation Committee for example (not surprisingly, I suppose) saying that the protests had the support of the “people” and that they go against the Koran. In a country where 90% of the population are Muslim, a claim like that carries great power.

Women in Bangladesh are an important part of the workforce, with many working as they do in export trades such as making garments. But, women are still part of an overwhelmingly patriarchal society, being judged by their family life, and their opportunities in the country tend to be markedly fewer. For example, there is a higher dropout rate from school for girls than boys, and younger children face a higher mortality rate if they are girls. Trafficking is a huge problem in Bangladesh, including kidnapping into Burma, as is domestic violence which can often pass under the averted eyes of the community.

The return of prime minister Sheik Hasina Wazed to the government in 2008 has been another positive role model for women in the country, and as a member of the Council of World Women leaders she has put rights for women high on the priority list. Nonetheless she has been locked in conflict with extremists in the country throughout her political career, and has withstood assassination attempts on her own life and the murder of many of her colleagues.

It goes without saying that this blog supports these new laws and wishes safety to those pushing them through. Until women can secure economic independence they will always be viewed as second class citizens in a country. This is another step towards independence for women in Bangladesh. I hope the government holds fast in its commitment to give women greater rights in education, employment and inheritance.

Does banning the burqa protect or punish Muslim women?

February 8, 2011 § 2 Comments

Women in Burqa

The German state of Hesse has become the first in Germany to ban burqa being worn in public places.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the point of a burqa that it’s worn in public places? This law is a strange one that smacks more of religious intolerance more than anything else. I understand the concern that women might be pressured or forced to wear burqa or niqab by more extreme members of their family, but let’s assume that for the sake of argument that this is the exception and not the rule – I certainly know several inspirational, headstrong, independent Muslim women who have taken to wearing a headscarf in their mid-twenties through no pressure and solely down to their own beliefs. If women are genuinely choosing to wear the religious veil for their own reasons, then there is no justification for the state having the right to force them not to. Are we not all mature enough to allow women to choose how to dress? Do we really need the government to dress us? I am a woman who does not wear a veil. I do not presume to speak for all women who do not, nor to assume that all women who choose to wear one are doing so for the same united reason.

It is a gross violation of human rights and an insulting and patronising move for the women involved. And it is part of a wave across Europe, with Spain and Belgium considering similar moves (and presumably other states in Germany will follow).

And the recent ban in France is a similar example of controversy  in a country that should know better.  It was hailed as a “victory for democracy” – don’t ask me how. I genuinely understand the concern that the veil can segregate Islamic women, can make them seem unapproachable, can represent the oppression of women. But to assume that these stereotypes are true, all this law does is target a very vulnerable part of society.

Put another way, lets pander to the far-right critics that a woman wearing the veil is forced to do so by an overbearing husband. In France, she will now be punished outside the home by her husband if she doesn’t wear it, and punished by the state if she does – possibly fined up to €150 each time. So she can’t win, and she becomes more marginalised. And after all, nobody in this whole law making process seems to have asked her what she thinks anyway.

It would be better to work on integrating society. Many of the women who wear the niqab in France are from North African descent – many immigrants came across to France after the Second World War and settled there precisely because it was a place that could offer similarities in terms of language and culture. Almost 10% of the country are Muslim, and Islam is the most widely practised religion in France. Work to promote understanding and intergration between different communities would be a much better use of Sarkozy’s resources, rather than pushing them out to the edges of society.

Girl flogged to death for “affair” at fourteen

February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

A fourteen year old girl has died in Bangladesh after being lashed 100 times on the orders of a village cleric.

Mosammet Hena was beaten with a bamboo cane for allegedly having an affair with a married cousin. Four people have been arrested and another fourteen people who are accused of taking part in the lashing are being hunted by police.

That means at least twenty people were directly involved in this young girl’s murder – probably more. Her body was covered in bruises and bite marks.

Punishments in the name of fatwa were outlawed in Bangladesh since last year, but old habits can die hard. This case is a shocking, repellant example of how cruel a system can be – and the dangers of mob actions.  A complaint was made by the man’s wife, she was “sentenced” by “senior community members” – all men, I presume – and so justice was deemed to be done.

Even if you accept the ridiculous precedent that adultery is a crime worthy of flogging to death, what has happened to the man she is meant to have had an affair with? 

Delve a little into reports of her alleged crime and the case against her becomes even more ridiculous. The man’s wife said “she had seen Mosammet speaking to her husband near their home” according to reports. Hardly a conclusive case.

Less impossible to believe – a few reports say Mosammet was raped by the man, and this was a desperate attempt to quiet her. We will never know exactly what happened here, but in Bangladesh it was fairly common for rape victims to be flogged for being “complicit” in their assault – one well publicised horrific case that was focussed on includes a woman being flogged after she was raped and became pregnant – her rapist was pardoned.

Since Mosammet’s death lawyers have filed a case against the government at the court, and a team of investigators from a human rights organisation has travelled to the village.

Director of investigations there, Nur Khan Liton, said: “This is an absolutely horrific crime. It shows that despite court judgments banning punishments in the name of fatwa, an aggressively religious group who are capable of committing such barbaric crimes of torture against women are still present in our society.”

The Bangladesh High Court has now taken up the case. I hope they will make an example of this case, rise the profile of this young girl’s murder and try and use her sad death to save this happening again for another innocent woman.

Why the murder of a Pakstani minster is bad for women everywhere

January 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Salman Taseer

Today Pakistan is on high alert. The murder of liberal politician Salman Taseer yesterday has shocked the world – shot by one of this own bodyguards for being against the country’s blasphemy laws. Terrifyingly, 500 scholars later praised the killer and told their followers not to grieve or they would suffer the same fate. They warned that there “should be no expression of grief or sympathy for ….those who support blasphemy”.

The liberal elite in the country is small and the radical mullahs draw a large support base – not least based on fear and intimidation, using violence as a tool to silence equal values. Taseer argued that Islam did not attack minority groups, but protected human rights. Interpreting Muslim values can be a risky thing to do in a country where conservative religious values hold heavy sway. The thousands who gathered to mourn him at his funeral today have made a bold, brave stand for justice at the risk of their own lives.

His death is bad news for liberalism in Pakistan – and it is very, very bad news for women. Religious extremism and the annihilation of women’s right go hand in hand.

 Taseer had championed the cause of Asia Biba, the Christian woman sentenced to death and visited her in prison with his own wife and daughter to show support. He had made a stand over improving the status of women in Pakistan, where there is much work to be done. He had argued for allowing them equal status in a country where many still consider rape to be a woman’s fault.  The Women’s Protection Bill of 2006, for example, was undermined by fierce criticism for offering women the tiniest amount of protection against rape and forced marriage. The law was brought in originally to try and amend the Hudood Ordinances laws, which meant among other measures that a woman who had been raped was liable to prosecution for adultery if she could not produce four male witnesses to the assault. That gives some idea of the uphill struggle facing liberals in Pakistan.

Tributes from some Pakistani women were made today as they feared his death would equal steps backwards for women’s empowerment. Shehla Akram, president of Punjab’s Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “He was one of the most progressive leaders of Pakistan and one who was wholly committed to improving conditions for women in the country.”

 Today we mourn the death of Salman Taseer as a tragic loss in the fight to promote equality and fair treatment for women worldwide.

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