Dossier 25: Religion, Politics and Women: The Bangladesh Scenario

Publication Author: 
Meghna Guhathakurta
October 2003
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But it is quite ironical that though fundamentalist forces have been systematically rehabilitated and encouraged through the two military governments it is through their participation in the pro-democratic movement and the support which they gave to a democratically elected government of 1991, that they emerged stronger than before. In fact, all would have gone well for the fundamentalists if it had not been for the massive mobilization process generated by the Gono Adalat (The People’s Tribunal) led by Jahanara Imam.1 This brought back to the political forefront the demand to try leaders of Jamaat-e-Islami, (a party which gave all other orthodox religious parties national support by virtue of being represented in Parliament) for committing war crimes during 1971 in collaboration with Pakistan. In the fight which ensued, between the people on the one hand and the establishment on the other, the establishment set itself the role to 'maintain law and order.'

This line fitted in well with the fundamentalists who spoke of control and maintaining a predominantly male-dominant status quo – a strategy similar to the one usually taken towards women in general! Religion came to be used as one of the primary means by which male-dominant values and existing gender-oppressive ideology were imposed and perpetuated. It created a division between the private and the public; separated the personal from the political. It thus became a weapon in the hands of the establishment to use time and again to demonstrate a semblance of order, stability and control in the face of growing unrest and dissatisfaction with the Government.

The current economic situation of Bangladesh also brought the woman question to the forefront. With donors emphasising the incorporation of a Women in Development (WID) strategy in developmental thinking, and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and garment factories drawing out women in ever increasing numbers into the work force, the growing visibility of women became an added threat to fundamentalist ideologies. It was advantageous therefore for the fundamentalists to take women who step outside the bounds of social norms as their next target since they represented a potential threat to the male-dominant status quo. Their target has ranged from well-known public figures such as Jahanara Imam, women's rights activist Sufia Kamal, writer Taslima Nasrin to NGO workers or vulnerable village women. Recently of course this target has been enlarged to include progressive minded journalists who write to raise the consciousness of the people against these forces.

In this paper I wish to discuss two cases in which women have come under attack from orthodox forces (a) the fatwa2 incidences (b) the case of Taslima Nasrin. In both these incidences I will record the reactions and responses of the women's movement in Bangladesh.

Using Religion Against Women

There is a new regime of growing fundamentalist fervour, which is being supported and strengthened by an establishment bent on maintaining the status quo, both in relations to politics in general and to gender relations in particular. This is leading to newer more specific forms of violence against women; a violence which requires the support of village elites being in a position to order (fatwa jari) the burning or stoning of a woman, regardless of existing legal institutions.

On 10th January 1993, the incident of Nurjahan and Chattakchara village in Moulvi Bazaar district of Sylhet started the ball rolling. Nurjahan who had been living with her parents after her first husband left her, was married the second time, after her father had got all the necessary documents of the annulment of her first marriage. But due to the vested interest of the village headman and the local religious leader, her second marriage was objected to and a salish3 was called where village elites passed judgement. The salish declared that Nurjahan should be punished by placing her in a waist-deep hole on the ground and having 101 stones thrown at her. Her parents were to be given a hundred whips each which was later reduced to 50 each. Nurjahan and her parents faced their punishments, and soon after, Nurjahan, humiliated, her dignity torn to shreds, ran home and committed suicide by a swallowing pesticides. (The Daily Shongbad, 1994) The incident raised a hue and cry among people in general and women's and human rights organizations rushed to the spot. A case was lodged at the local court against the nine people involved in the salish on the charge of inciting a person to commit suicide. On 15th February 1994, the accused were each sentenced to seven years imprisonment.

But this did not stop such incidents from recurring at different places in the countryside. Not only were more vulnerable women subjected to shame and humiliation at the hand of the village leaders (indeed some also met their death as in the case of Nurjahan of Madhukhali, Faridpur and Feroza of Satkhira). But NGO development workers were accused of converting people to Christianity and people were instructed to abstain from taking medicines and services from such organisations, schools of BRAC and other NGOs were burnt down. In almost all cases religious leaders were supported by elites. (The Weekly Bichitra, 1994) It has been seen that Madrassa students and teachers who have always demanded further integration into mainstream education in order to avail themselves of employment opportunities have been particularly propagating against NGO activities in the education sector. All this however raised little dust among the NGOs themselves. Many wished to play down the problem. Some thought that the problem was best dealt with locally. This, I think, reflects the basic ambivalence, which the developmental discourse faces in relation to its own invented categories such as ‘an indigenous culture’, or a non-conflictual approach towards personal and public spaces. A typical reaction to this situation was voiced by a German development worker in a seminar. He cited the case of Malaysia where NGO activities such as credit schemes funded by western donors were taking place on Islamic lines. This line of argument seems to advocate the continuation of existing developmental activity in a way that is least conflictual. Is that what the donors have in mind for Bangladesh and, if so, to serve whose interest?

The Bangladesh Supreme Court on the other hand had given a judgement, which had restricted the use of fatwas on the ground that they could be issued only by those well versed in Islamic jurisprudence. Hence the argument was that in the current situation such a context did not exist in Bangladesh. This of course raised a hue and cry among Islamist clerics and politicians. Although a staying order was issued by the Court in favour of the verdict random cases of fatwas issued against women still continue in the remote areas of Bangladesh, sometimes brought to public notice by the media. The legal ruling has yet to be followed through by enforcement agencies.

The Case of Taslima Nasrin

With the issuing of a warrant for the arrest of the writer, Taslima Nasrin on the charge of her hurting the religious sentiments of the majority of the people, Bangladesh had become the centre of international attention. This incident however, is merely the tip of an iceberg. Behind the front-page headlines lurk issues, which go beyond the fate of a single woman writer in a country internationally acclaimed to be 'moderately Muslim'. These issues concern politics in general and gendered politics in particular.

Taslima Nasrin, an anaesthetist who started to write letters to editors at an early age and captured the attention of a younger generation of avid readers through her daily columns, became a subject of controversy first with her own colleagues then with the state. From an early phase of her writing she had been addressing the woman question in a genre which was both familiar as well as unacceptable to the Bengali reader. The familiarity stemmed from her rootedness in the more radical circles of the Bengali literati which boasted names such as Shaheed Kaderi, Nirmolendu Goon, Rudro Mohammed Shahidullah. In fact her marriage to and subsequent divorce from Rudro Mohammed Shahidullah, a talented poet popular with young radicals and who died at an early age, was both reason for her to find credibility and acceptance among the same circle as well as make her controversial among them. The reasons for controversy as in most cases with women were both her private life as well as the substance of her writing. Taslima was married and divorced more than once. That itself gave her the apparent image of fickleness and recklessness. But what was worse in the eyes of the conventional reader was that she ”unashamedly“ talked of women's sexuality and through that challenged male sexual aggression.

The 'conventional reader' of Bengali literature who was used to receiving notions of the sexual from his reading of Bengali literature, albeit from a male perspective, was nevertheless challenged when having to deal with women interrogating maleness in the realm of the intimate. The challenge which Taslima threw to the Bengali reader was, however, well received by young students and middle-class housewives and professionals. What was unacceptable to many however was that she engaged religion and problematized it in a way which seemed imposed and unnatural in a society which also gained much of its identity from the realm of the sacred. You therefore had a view which applauded Taslima's 'feminism' but rejected her rational secularism.

But the main social furore against Taslima reached its peak first, when the Government of Bangladesh, after a discussion in parliament banned her book ”Lajja” (Shame) and second, when a case was lodged against her for ”hurting the religious sentiment of the majority of the people”. The ground for this case was a statement she made in an interview by an Indian newspaper where she allegedly made remarks about the Quran, which was antithetical to the principles of Islam. Technically there is no Blasphemy Law in Bangladesh, so she was accused under this particular clause which was actually ordained during the British colonial period to protect believers of the minority religion from the majority! In both cases the grounds for accusation was slim. Lajja was a short novel, which was written on the spur of a moment to depict the plight of the Hindu minorities in Bangladesh, who were targets of Muslim wrath in the aftermath of the storming of the Babri Mosque in Ayodha, Uttor Pradesh, India in 1991. Taslima merely expressed sentiments of the minority at a time when Bangladesh civil society in general seemed to be held hostage to Islamic fundamentalists.

Her interview with the Indian newspaper and consequent controversy simply added fuel to fire in an already volatile situation where women and progressives all over Bangladesh were becoming targets of fundamentalist fervour. Taslima's situation was worsened by the fact that she expressed herself as an individual writer isolated from the other ongoing social movements in the country, including the women's movement. It did not help matters that she voiced a strong critique of the leadership of the women's movement in Bangladesh, which only alienated them. This had consequences for her support when she in turn was attacked and cornered, in her claims for right to freedom of speech.

Responses of the Women's Movement in Bangladesh

The slogan that the personal is political may have been coined by women’s rights activists in the West, but it certainly became relevant for women in any society, where various repressive measures were followed in order to keep the personal from being political. In Bengal too, women had confronted the private/public divide from time immemorial. Rokeya Shakhawat Hossain (1880-1932) a forerunner of the women's rights movement for Muslim women, had time and again reiterated that orthodox religious leaders had played a retrogressive role for women. Men had used religion whenever women had tried to break the shackles of society.

Such awareness has historically led women to challenge and confront what they perceived to be an oppressive hierarchical order. Little of this is acknowledged among those in the women's movement, who subscribe to a more development outlook on the women's issue. Such an outlook therefore tends to bypass both micro-level resistance and challenges thrown by women at the grassroots as well as the more macro-level demands of the women's movement e.g. legal reforms. However, grassroots pressure and the vulnerability of women in relation to social, legal and paralegal institutions have more recently created the need for legal literacy, leadership training and empowerment programmes, albeit within the conventional framework of development.

But the development discourse has not only avoided resistance on gender specific issues, it has also failed to take into account the various resistance movements at the national level. As such, developmental interventions have remained not only apolitical but also ahistorical. This has accounted for much of the confusion as to what constitutes the culture of Bangladesh. Much of the 'outsiders' view about this has been framed by a globalized discourse of a homogenous Muslim society. The fact that social and linguistic traditions play just as an important role, and had played the crucial role during the independence movement of the country, seems to be largely ignored.

But this outlook has a much more serious repercussion on women's issues and how one deals with fundamentalism in Bangladesh. Whereas in the global framework, many Islamic movements in the Middle East have historically played an anti-imperialist role and have voiced protest over colonial oppression, the retrograde role played by the Jamaat e Islami as collaborators of war crimes in the Liberation War is acknowledged by Bengalis in general. But to many in the establishment, the politics of Liberation with its connotations of a linguistic cultural heritage and golden goals of self-sufficiency, strikes a discordant note in today's world of free market enterprise and labour migration. Such alternatives are thus not encouraged by any of the pro-establishment coterie: the donors (who seek a stable world order), the Government (who wishes to remain in power and hence sustain the existing power structure) or the fundamentalists (whose existence depends on the perpetration of a male-dominant patriarchal order)! Therefore any form of resistance or challenge to the status quo – particularly if it comes from women – is trivialized, sidestepped or quelled as the case maybe. This was particularly seen when the question of support for Taslima Nasrin came along. Many organisations were willing to fight for her rights to freedom of speech but were not willing to support her brand of 'feminist politics' (Taslima herself did not call herself a feminist) nor did they support her views on religion. Indeed, many in the women's movement felt that she had gone too far too soon and that had set the movement back by several years. But in saying so they forgot that the forerunners of the women's movement in Bengal, for example Rokeya Shakawat Hossain, even in the early years of the 20th century had not minced words in engaging religion and the impact it has in defining women's position in society. Why should one do so now?


Kabeer, N. (1991) The Quest for National Identity: Women, Islam and the State in Bangladesh in D. Kandiyotti (ed.) Women, Islam and the State, London: Macmillan.

The Daily Shongbad, (1994) 23rd February.

The Weekly Bichitra, (1994) no.45, 8th April.

Originally published in Meghbarta, Year 3, Issue No. 5, August 2002.