Bangladesh: High Court Directs Government to ensure Women Not Forced to Veil

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High Court Directs Government to Immediately Implement Sexual Harassment Guidelines in all Educational Institutions, and ensure that Women Not Forced to Veil or Cover their Heads. Advocate Salahuddin Dolon v Bangladesh, Writ Petition No. 4495 of 2009. Summary: The High Court today directed the Ministry of Education to take immediate steps to implement the Guidelines on Sexual Harassment declared earlier in BNWLA v Bangladesh, and to ensure that no woman working in any educational institution, public or private is forced to wear a veil or cover her head, and may exercise her personal choice whether or not to do so. The Court also observed that Section 27A of the Government Servants Discipline and Conduct Rules 1979, must be read alongside these Guidelines, to ensure that public officials are held to account for any acts of sexual harassment.

The Court observed “It is the personal choice of a woman to wear a veil. If any person tries to compel a woman to wear a veil against her consent or will that amounts to a violation of her fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution”.

These directions were given in a writ petition filed by Adv. Salahuddin Dolon, following a news report that the Headmistress of a Primary School in Kurigram had been verbally abused in sexually coloured remarks during a public meeting of her school by a public official, an Upazilla Education Officer, because she had not covered her head in his presence.  During the course of the hearing, the Education Officer had apologized in person to the Headmistress in Court. The Court also observed that this Officer may be transferred from his current area of operations.

The judgment was passed by a Division Bench comprising Mr Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain and Ms. Justice Syed Afsar Jahan.  Advocate Dolon appeared for himself. Ms Sara Hossain represented the Bangladesh Legal and Services and Trust as co petitioner. Mr Razik Al Jalil, DAG appeared for the state.

Background: On 28.6.2009, the High Court issued a Rule on the Government (Ministries of Education and Home Affairs) and the Upazilla Education Officer to show cause as to why the Ministry of Education should not be directed to take appropriate action against the said Education officer for uttering highly derogatory remarks against the Headmistress of a school.

The Rule was issued in a writ petition filed by Advocate Salahuddin Dolon, following publication of a report in the Daily Shomokal. The report alleged that a Thana Education Officer had verbally abused the Headmistress of a Primary School in Kurigram on the ground that she had failed to wear a veil. The Court directed the education authorities to submit a report to the court. In the report it was stated that the Education Officer had made an “inadvertent error”. The Court thereupon called the Education Officer to appear before the Court and on doing so, he apologized in person to the headmistress who was also present in court.

On 4.5.2009 BLAST through its Deputy Director (Legal Aid) Farida Yeasmin filed an application for addition of party as co-petitioner. The application was allowed and BLAST was added as co petitioner no. 2.

Adv. Salahuddin Dolon submitted that the alleged statements made by the respondent no. 3 were highly objectionable and that the Court should frame a guideline so that women in different educational institutions would be able to work freely and with dignity.

Ms Hossain, for BLAST submitted that the actions of the Education Officer constituted sexual harassment and were a clear instance of gender-based discrimination perpetrated by a state official. She further submitted that the imposition of a dress code on women amounts to a violation of fundamental rights to equality, the right to be treated in accordance with law, and to personal liberty, freedom of expression, as well as freedom of religion Such actions warranted specific measures being taken by the state to implement its constitutional  obligations to prohibit gender discrimination and ensure equality of opportunity in employment for men and women. She prayed for the existing conduct and discipline rules for government servants to be read together with the sexual harassment guidelines and effectively implemented.

The Court observed “It is the personal choice of a woman to wear a veil . If any person tries to compel a woman to wear a veil against her consent or will that amounts to a violation of her fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution. It is her personal choice to do so or not to do so.  In Bangladesh there has been no uniform practice of veiling or head covering among women. In recent years there have been reported instances of attempts to forcibly impose this not only by private persons but also by government officials. The instant case demonstrates the harassment of women and girls in public spaces, schools, educations and places of higher education both public and private.”

Existing Rules on Sexual Harassment and Discipline of Government Officers

  • The High Court’s Guidelines on Prevention of Sexual Harassment earlier laid down on 14.5.2009 in Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association v Government of Bangladesh (2009) 14 Bangladesh Law Chronicles directed the Government to enact legislation to address the issue immediately pending which the Guidelines would have the force of law.
  • Guidelines, Rule 4(i)(c) Sexually coloured verbal representation; Rule 4(1)(f) Sexually coloured remark or gesture;
  • Government Servants Discipline and Conduct Rules 1979, Rule 27A. Conduct towards female colleagues- No Government servant shall use any language or behave with his female colleagues in any manner which is improper and goes against the official decorum and dignity of female colleagues.