A few years ago on Eid day, a cleric leading the day’s prayers in the morning exhorted the Muslim faithful in the capital city’s Mohammadpur area not to let their women out of home on the day. It was Allah’s will, said he in full-throated fervour, that no women step out of their homes on Eid day. If they did, said he, they would be attired in new, provocative clothes that would draw the lustful stare of men in the locality. And if that happened, he went on, the women stepping out of home and stared at would on the Day of Judgment be roasting in the fires of hell.
Not a single individual present in that congregation said a word in protest, though there were many who were visibly irritated at all the nonsense coming from the preacher.
Until recently, a young preacher at a village mosque not far from Dhaka made it a regular bad habit to raise the subject of women at his Friday sermon. For no rhyme or reason, he cheerfully went into a detailed statement of what good Muslim women should do to keep themselves pure and untainted through not arousing the desires of the men around them. He made direct references to cleavages, bosoms, waists and free-flowing hair, telling his audience that it was all an invitation to the dungeon of the devil, a temptation to lead good men astray.
A day then came when a message, brusque and to the point, was conveyed to him that his preaching should focus on Allah and his Creation, not on women’s anatomy. He has stayed away from spewing obscenity since then.
In the villages of this land, there are yet hundreds, if not thousands, of self-styled interpreters of Sharia law whose wisdom and sense of judgment consist in decreeing punishment for women even when the guilt in a commission of sin has been that of a man or a group of men. When it comes to a romantic relationship between a man and a woman, or call it adultery if you will, it has generally been the woman who has been flogged or stoned or ostracised in our villages. The man has got off lightly.
At burials of the dead, the cleric presiding over the funeral rites of the deceased has consistently preached that women cannot be present at the gravesite when the remains of the dead are being lowered into the earth. The rules and traditions of Islam do not say anywhere that a grieving wife or daughter or mother must not be witness to a parting sight of her beloved as he passes into the grave. And yet our clerics, for reasons they cannot explain, gravely declare that female mourners must stay a good many feet away from the grave at the moment of burial.
Now that the month of Ramadan is upon us, women presenters on television are required to pull the ends of their saris or their dupattas over their heads in order to maintain the sanctity of the holy month. No one explains how that enhances the religiosity of these women or the purity of the faith. And certainly no one suggests, in all this preoccupation with women, that men take to wearing skullcaps in order to uphold the sanctity of Ramadan. It is always women who must preserve the faith, through fear of what will happen to them, here on earth and in the life thereafter, if they do not.
Some years ago, the khatib (now deceased) of Baitul Mukarram mosque publicly told the country that it was suffering through all its crises because women had come to rule men. God’s curse, said he and his acolytes, fell on nations that acquiesced to rule by women. In other words, damnation would be the consequence of power wielded by the political women around us. A woman was prime minister at the time. Another woman was leader of the opposition. Neither said a word about the man’s audacity.
Women remain a persecuted lot in this country. They do not pray alongside men in the mosques because of the erroneous belief, propagated by men little conversant with traditions of faith, that the law of religious belief does not encourage women in the mosque. Women do not enter the mosque, for they will be stopped at the door. And yet the truth does not go away that women did enter the mosque and did pray within its precincts, in the times of the Holy Prophet of Islam.
Remember Pakistan’s Ziaul Haq. He had an absurdity called the hudood ordinance imposed on Pakistan, a questionable law that sought to turn women subjected to violence into guilty individuals. Women who were raped needed to have witnesses to the rape. Zia did not explain how the spectacle of a woman being raped could be elevated to the level of a festival, with other people watching the indecent act.
In their times, the Taliban decreed a ban on education for women in Afghanistan. Half a population was thus forced indoors into a world without light. The ayatollahs of Iran, once they came to power in 1979, swiftly went after women’s attire. Suddenly, all signs of modernity pushed out of life, Iran’s new rulers made women get into clothes that symbolised the advent of political and cultural regression.
Given such history, one is not surprised the ninety-three year-old leader of the Hefajat-e-Islam could not conceal his emotions when it came to talking about women. He saw no difference between the taste of tamarind and the sight of women. In such advanced years, it becomes the moral responsibility of the practitioners of faith to offer long prayers to the Almighty, to dwell on what lies in the grave and beyond. The Hefajat leader chose to focus on women. In the process, he forgot what religion was. And he reminded people, unwittingly or deliberately, of the seduction and sensuality that have, in the eyes of people like him, always defined woman.
It is such obscurantists who threaten us with things dark and deadly. It is because of these purveyors of medievalism that secularism must be made secure and liberalism must dig deeper roots. Bengali nationalism cannot, must not lose this battle.
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.