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     Volume 7 Issue 18 | May 3, 2007 |

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Cover Story

A Contrived Controversy

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

First violent protests and now a review committee's recommendations brand the National Women Development Policy 2008 as "anti-Islamic". But the controversy may be more political than religious, say legal experts. Rights groups continue to demand cancellation of the committee and implementation of the policy, but the government's position does not seem to be clear either way.

The policy controversy continues. While women’s rights activists are pushing for the enactment and implementation of the much-awaited and much-debated Women Development Policy 2008 announced on March 8, some obscurantist groups continue their opposition to it using religion as their basis. After some days of violence, they have been allowed by the government to set up a committee to study the policy for clauses that go against Islamic values. The committee, on April 17, came up with 21 sections of the policy they deem to be against Muslim religious sentiments and laws -- six of which they recommend should be deleted and 15 others amended.

The ulema (Islamic scholars) committee has suggested that the terms “equality” and “equal rights” for women in multiple sections of the policy be replaced by “just rights” in light of the Quran and Sunnah as interpreted by them. This applies to women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms, removing existing discrimination between women and men, their equal rights in politics, administration and the workplace, their socio-economic position, education, culture, sports and family life. The committee has opposed the provision for a child being identified by both the mother and father on the basis that this will encourage sexual promiscuity and the fact that, in Islam, children born out of wedlock are identified by the mother.

It has recommended that the provision require identification of children by “legally married” parents. It has also proposed that the phrase “child marriage” be done away with as, according to Islam, a girl can be married as soon as she “comes of age” and the legal age of 18 should not apply.

Students of Dhaka University form a human chain on campus demanding establishment of women's rights. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

Among the sections the committee has recommended should be cancelled all together are sections 10.5, 10.6 and 10.7, which provide for the increased participation of women in politics by reserving one-third of parliamentary seats for them through direct election, and reserved seats through direct election at the local government level. The committee argues that such affirmative action goes against Islam, democracy and the Constitution. It has also proposed the scrapping of two provisions (6.2 and 6.3) by which women would be allowed to participate in the establishment of peace and conflict resolution and sent to peacekeeping missions abroad, saying that this would tarnish the country’s image. Finally, the committee has opposed section 3.2 of the policy which provides for the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and proposed that Bangladesh withdraw from the treaty (signed in 1984) all together as it is not in accordance with Islamic values, spirit and culture.

According to lawyer and human rights activist Barrister Sara Hossain, the objections made by the committee affect every aspect of women’s lives where they can make decisions for themselves. Some of the objections, according to Hossain, are absurd. Child marriage, for example, was abolished with a law passed in 1939. CEDAW was ratified in 1984. "It would be absurd to retract from these now and reinvent reservations about a law that was ratified 24 years ago," says Hossain.

Women have proven themselves in every field including the
police and armed forces. The objections to the policy nullify
their achievements.

As for the committee’s opposition to measures for increasing women’s political participation, she says it is neither unconstitutional nor undemocratic. “Article 28(4) of the Constitution provides for affirmative action,” she says, “and this is not an ornamental provision. Provisions are made in the Constitution on which measures must be taken for their implementation. Quotas, reserved seats, direct elections are a means for doing this in the case of political participation.”

“Though the policy is not law, it provides a way to interpret the rights guaranteed in law,” says Sara Hossain. “It contains the commitments of the government and consequently frames government action.”

Hossain notes that for years there has been a consistent effort to base the Constitution on Islam as the State religion, but no court upholds this. “No court is going to rule for the cutting off of hands or things of that sort. No one is protesting the bail issue as being against Islamic law. Why should it apply only to women’s rights?”

“The problem with saying ‘just rights’,” says Sara Hossain in reference to the committee’s proposals, “is that it is very subjective. Who can determine what is just? ‘Equal rights’ have no limitation.”

Women at work -- at par -- with men.
Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

It is important to realise that these actions affect not only women but a number of other relationships, says Hossain -- between women and men, girls and boys, between classes, communities and religions. “The Constitution is for everyone, and not everyone in Bangladesh is Muslim and cannot be subjected to Muslim law. It will be absurd if Muslim women are made to live under a certain set of laws while Hindu, Christian or other women in the same country enjoy different and, in some cases, even more rights.”

According to Fahmida Farhana Khanam, coordinator of the women’s section of Hizb ut-Tahrir Bangladesh, the Women Development Policy 2008 does not address the root cause of women’s oppression, which, she claims, is a capitalist system and the way women are viewed as commodities and sex objects in such a system. Though unwilling to go into the details of the policy and the objections raised against it, saying that the ulemas know

Increasing women's participation in cultural activities is one of the provisions of the policy. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

better than her, Khanam notes that the section on women’s equal rights to movable and immovable property ultimately leads to inheritance, for the latter is mainly inherited from parents. “Giving women equal rights to this is going against Islamic law,” says Khanam, an architect by profession.

“The social system we live in, the laws that we have, have failed to ensure the security and the existing rights of women, how will they ensure even greater rights which are not even sanctioned by the Quran in the first place, which were not and would not be needed in an Islamic system where the equality of women was not even an issue because, in Islam, women were always in a position of honour anyway. What we need is not a policy but good governance, and this would be ideal if in accordance with the rules of Islam.”

The Quran, however, says that rulers must rule and make laws in consultation with their people, says Yamin Chowdhury, a scholar of the Holy Quran and a physics teacher by profession. “There can be nothing more secular,” says Chowdhury, “the Quran was the light of secularism.”

With regards to women’s rights, says Chowdhury who has been studying the Quran for many years, one must understand the social context in which the Quran was revealed. “In pre-Islamic Arabia, girl children were not valued. Women were bought and sold in the slave market. A woman who could give her husband a son would become the favourite wife and the others sold back in the market. Women were simply commodities.” During this time, says Chowdhury, women did not work, they could not look after themselves and so the Quran put men in charge of women. “Because they were responsible for their wives, men would inherit more from their parents than women, who did not have to look after their husbands. In the long run, it more or less balanced out.”

“Today, this inheritance law is meaningless,” says Chowdhury. “Women -- except for women in a transition period who are illiterate and backward and cannot take care of themselves -- work and earn their own living and do not depend on their husbands. Parents can decide how they want to divide their property. The Quran does not say that you cannot will otherwise.”

Women garment workers constitute a large part of the labour force. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

With regard to marriage, says Chowdhury, the Quran never recommended it before one was ready. “The material hazards had to be overcome first, and men had to be financially stable and able to look after their wives. Today we know that the hazards of marriage at a very young age are many and the Quran would not recommend it.”

As for women’s participation in politics and peacekeeping missions, says Chowdhury, we only have to look to the prophet’s wife Ayesha who mustered up an army of men to fight the existing ruler. “Women went on the battlefield, nursing, cooking, even shooting arrows and fighting when men fell short, never mind peacekeeping,” says Chowdhury.

Regarding the ratification of international treaties on women’s rights, Chowdhury says, “The liberation of women came from Islam. The West was very anti-woman; the essence of these treaties came not from the West but from Islam.” So, obviously, ratifying these treaties would not mean going against Islam.

Women's rights groups have been fighting for years for greater political participation by increasing the number of reserved seats through direct election for women. Photo: Star file

“The Quran has said that Allah wants good works from both men and women,” says Chowdhury. “There is no discrimination there. Thus men and women are seen as equal.”

“Islam recognises that reality is progressive,” says Chowdhury. “The Quran in many places talks about dawn or revolution, about transformation. It stresses on rationality, asking people to apply their conscience and not be superstitious. It is against all sorts of inhibitions and develops free thinking.”

Islam is an anti-ritualistic, anti-conservative religion, believes Chowdhury. “The main theme of the Quran is not worldly life but creation. Very little of it is dedicated to laws. This is what bothers those who want to use religion to their own advantage,” says Chowdhury, “that there’s nothing with which to control people.”

Yamin Chowdhury believes that we must be wary of who, other than the Quran, we follow. “The seal of prophethood in Islam is clear in stating that no other human being will come as an authority after the Prophet. Why should we believe or follow these or any other groups who claim to be authorities on religion?” questions Chowdhury. “My religion is my personal belief. The Quran states that there is no compulsion in religion and that, henceforth, the right is clear from the wrong. There is no scope to go running after anyone for religious guidance. Whenever people turn to people for guidance, they are exploited.”

Seen in a broader context, however, the policy debate and the motivations behind it are more complex than they seem. The sudden formation of the review body with no representation from the main stakeholders of the policy -- women -- and the absence of even the Women and Children Affair’s advisor on the board has brought the committee itself into question. The violent protests against the policy that took place at Baitul Mukarram on at least two Fridays (and later in Chittagong) during a state of emergency has also brought into question the stance of the government on the issue. While rights groups continue their peaceful meetings and press conferences demanding cancellation of the review committee and implementation of the policy, the government is yet to commit to either.

Police and activists collide during a protest against the National Women Development Policy. Photo: Sk. Enamul Haque

According to Barrister Sara Hossain, the controversy surrounding the policy is political and not religious. “When the original policy, which even included a clause on inheritance, was passed in 1997, these groups did not express the same level of outrage,” says Hossain. “What they are doing now is fighting for their own survival. With the trial of war criminals being a burning issue now, it has become apparent that theirs is a controversial position in society. These movements are a part of a whole series of strategic moves in which they are trying to create chaos, destabilise the situation and de-legitimise the government.”

“These groups are claiming authority over the Quran, assuming the power to define what is in it and claiming legitimacy to define the policy, an authority and a legitimacy they do not have. Now they are saying the government cannot make the women development policy, next they will say it cannot make a policy against war criminals. They are simply trying to create an unstable situation to de-legitimise the forces against them,” says Hossain.

As far as the policy goes, she says one must follow an accepted manner of doing politics. “The consultations should have taken place prior to its formation. It should have been an open process. This government is very handy with the internet, it should just have posted it on their website and invited comments. After approving the policy, it cannot be opened for debate, especially to a group who have already made their position on it clear. And the process is not democratic either, because as soon as you say something goes against religion, you close off all debate.”

“Some of the objections are also unconstitutional,” says Hossain. “These groups are just trying to create a massive crisis. There is a political vacuum, where the movement against these groups is not strong enough. There is still time for the government to stand strong against them.”

Laws cannot be frozen in time, says Hossain, their interpretation must change along with changing times.

Women have had their victories in sports too Women work as hard as men do but are paid less for their labour. Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

Indeed, times are changing, and with them the laws in several countries around the world. Many Muslim nations, including Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, have ratified CEDAW. Turkey, a predominantly Muslim State has given equal rights of inheritance to women and men. The Hudood Ordinance, enacted to enforce punishment for zina (extramarital sex) was revised in Pakistan in 2006 after it was found that the law was misused against women subjected to rape. Women are being given more rights such as increased child custody rights, etc., in Iran. Iraq’s personal-status law enacted as early as 1959, provided women with some of the broadest legal rights, restricting polygamy, setting the marriage age at 18 and prohibiting arbitrary divorce, and treating women and men equally in terms of inheritance.

The National Women Development Policy 2008, the fruit of decades of struggle of the women’s rights movement in Bangladesh, is a guideline to ensure equal rights of the sexes. If this set of largely insignificant and partly unconstitutional recommendations by one 20-member ulema committee is accepted, the struggle will go in vain and women will be pushed back into the darkness and into a world of inequality, discrimination and oppression. If the government does not stand strong on its position regarding the policy, it will set a bad political precedent of being intimidated by a minority group into retracting on a positive government move supported by the majority population. This, together with the burden of failing to take the first step to ensure women’s equal rights and position in society, putting the lives and rights of millions of women and girls and their future generations at stake.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008