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     Volume 7 Issue 16 | April 18, 2008 |

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Regressing to the Middle Ages

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Hoping for change is what keeps people going. It is the dream for something better that we endure all kinds of injustice and deprivation. Without hope there is no reason to persevere, there is no reason to live.

Last Friday's incidents of violence carried out by Islamist extremists around Baitul Mukkaram Mosque to protest the non-existant 'anti-Islam' elements in the women's development policy has taken away the hope of half the nation's citizens: the hope that one-day, women will not be treated like second-class citizens, to be physically and psychologically stifled, mutilated and humiliated by a society that cannot come out of its parochial cocoon.

Frenzied protesters of the proposed policy go out of control, turning their rage on a policeman

A leader of one of these groups of fanatics declared that they were ready to give up their lives to make sure that the Policy is scrapped! Such commitment to faith would have been credible, even admirable, if it had been as explicitly expressed when it came to so many other acts that go against Islam. Anything that physically harms a woman or humiliates her is expressly forbidden in Islam, thus acts of violence against women such as acid-throwing or mutilating would be inclusive of this. So would gang-raping a woman or sexually abusing a little girl, or burning a woman alive because of dowry or forcing her into prostitution, depriving her of her land and making her destitute. All these things are part and parcel of many women's lives in Bangladesh and are considered reprehensible acts in Islam which is a religion of peace and tolerance, but how many of those protesting have demonstrated on the streets to protest such crimes, how many of them are ready to 'give up their lives' for such violations of Islamic doctrines? The answer is zero, not a single one of these self-righteous and self-proclaimed upholders of religion.

Even more confusing is that in all their protests these fanatics have not been able to pinpoint what is so unIslamic about the policy in the first place. The government, deciding to take the safe way out, did not even include anything on women's inheritance anticipating a furore over the issue from Islamic groups although such an exclusion is considered a cop-out for many women activists. So what is the problem, where is the contradiction?

The reason is actually quite simple although we are in mortal fear of uttering such words. As long as any policy or act gives women the ability to think for herself and control her destiny, to hold her head high and be treated like an equal citizen, as long as women are given the ability to share the responsibility with men, to take decisions regarding her life and that of others, as long as she is granted the opportunity to be a true and equal partner to her man and to take part in governing her country, it is enough reason to go into the streets and garner as much blind opposition as possible to stop this from happening. There is nothing religious about it, it is a political issue, one that can be traced back to the darkest of ages when female infants were buried alive and women were burnt along with their dead husbands. Ironically it was with the advent of Islam that women, who had been treated as objects to be used and abused, that gave women respect and financial security in society. It was Islam that gave women the right to divorce, to get financial support for her children, the right to property (though unequal) and to remarry after divorce or widowhood. Thus to say that a move that will in effect reduce the humiliation of women that they face today, is most definitely compatible with Islamic principles.

Women are somehow seen as a threat and have to be controlled and suppressed to camouflage male frailties and inadequacies. And the easiest way is to misuse religion as a weapon to meet such diabolic ends, indeed they cannot be described as anything but an attempt to denigrate Islam.

Most reasonable people, even the particularly devout among them know all this and condemn such acts of bigotry and deception. But they do so in silence, in hushed tones, always looking behind their shoulders in fear.

This paranoia is all the more evident in the tentative, timid reactions of the government which says it is 'embarrassed' by these incidents but that it is reluctant to take a hard-line stance by arresting the masterminds of these crimes because it is “a sensitive issue, involving religion and the national mosque” (The Daily Star, April 13, 2008). Such luke-warm responses regarding crimes as serious as violation of emergency, not to mention display of utter disregard for the law (the image of frenzied goons beating a policeman with sticks and his own gun is hard to forget) has been disheartening and disconcerting. The 11,000 'unidentified' accused for the vandalism and violence in Dhaka and Chittagong can hardly be effective deterrents for these criminals especially since only 17 of them were identified and arrested right after the incident in Dhaka.

It is true that the government is in a sticky situation as the last thing it wants is to be branded by religious groups as being anti-Islamic; it is not easy to make arrests when entire mobs are involved. Nevertheless, if the government is committed to paving the way for a transparent, democratic, nation as it often claims to be, then this menace must be nipped in the bud. Tolerating and indulging such bigoted and anti-democratic forces has created a monster, one that keeps emerging from the debris and threatening our culture, nationalism and our very existence. It is an insult to any nation that claims to be democratic to be subjected to this kind of blackmail. But it is devastating to the psyche of women to know that their men are either oppressors or passive, ineffectual spectators.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2007