Bangladesh: Court Orders Protection for Muslim Girl Punished for Being Raped
Bangladesh’s High Court has ordered authorities in an eastern district to protect and produce in court a 16-year-old girl who was lashed 101 times earlier this month after becoming pregnant as the result of a rape. The girl, who has not been named, received the punishment on the orders of village elders in the Brahmanbaria district who issued a “fatwa,” or Islamic ruling, declaring that she be flogged for immoral behavior. The elders pardoned the 20 year-old rapist. The incident occurred five months after the country’s highest court issued a ruling ordering authorities to investigate incidents of extra-judicial punishments and take action against those responsible.
The August ruling came after a rash of earlier floggings of women, including one who spoke to a man from a different community, another who filed a rape complaint, and a third who refused sexual advances made by a relative. In each case locally-issued fatwas ordered punishment of 101 lashes.
In the latest case, Bangladesh’s Daily Star reported that the assailant, who used to taunt the 16-year-old on her way to school, raped her last April. She kept it quiet and her family subsequently married her off to a man in a neighboring village.
But when medical tests shortly after the marriage showed her to be months into her pregnancy, he divorced her. After an abortion she returned to her family home, but village elders then declared the family should be isolated until she was punished.
On January 17, on the basis of the fatwa, she was flogged in the yard of her home. The report said she collapsed and fainted during the assault. The paper named eight men involved, including two mosque imams and the village head elder, Delwar Hossain.
The girl’s father was also fined 1,000 taka (about $15) and another fatwa was issued saying the family would be ostracized if he failed to pay it. The father said the elders’ group was keeping a close watch on the family to ensure they would not take legal action.
After human rights activists visited and the incident was reported this week, a lawyer filed a petition at the High Court in Dhaka, the capital.
The court has directed Brahmanbaria authorities and police to protect the girl and produce her in court on February 7. It also ordered the government to explain why it should not take legal action against those involved in the flogging.
Earlier, the head of police in the district told the Daily Star that police would investigate if the victim filed a complaint.
In an editorial, the newspaper said the police response was incomprehensible, given last August’s court order.
“The incident is shocking not only for the gruesome brutality meted out to the 16 year-old girl, but also because of the attitude of the law enforcing agency who did not act promptly enough to prevent the whipping or take cognizance of the incident later,” it said.
The paper called on the government to “take steps to stop the parallel system of justice that misuse the name of religion.”
Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman, program officer for the Asian Human Rights Commission, said Wednesday that what is known as “village justice” or “village arbitration” is a widespread problem in Bangladesh, despite court directives.
He said various factors were involved, including a culture of obeying certain individuals regarded as important or powerful, even if they do not necessarily have lawful authority; widespread ignorance of the laws of the land; and a broad lack of freedom of expression which “allows the so-called local leaders to abuse unauthorized power with feudalistic mindsets.”
The “village justice” phenomenon “becomes possible in country where the basic rule-of-law institutions are completely dysfunctional and reluctant to provide justice to the ordinary people.”
As far as the religious element was concerned, Ashrafuzzaman said some of the decisions were based on shari’a but in other cases “shari’a provisions are being abused to facilitate the influential persons to do injustice to the poor and vulnerable groups, especially the women, in order to retain or increase their so-called power.”
Cases also occurred in non-Muslim minority communities, he said.
Ashrafuzzaman charged that the authorities were not addressing the problem “because of lack of commitment for upholding the rule of law in the country as well as rampant corruption from the top to the bottom of the public institutions.”
Flogging, forced marriage, isolation
Punishing rape victims under shari’a (Islamic law) is not restricted to Bangladesh.
In 2007, a Saudi court sentenced a young woman who had been gang raped to 90 lashes because at the time she was abducted at knife-point she was in a car with a man not related to her – a violation of Saudi law.
When the woman, who was 19-year-old at the time of the assault, appealed the verdict a higher court increased the sentence to 200 lashes and six months’ imprisonment. Amid an outcry – President Bush joined the criticism – the government first defended the court decision but eventually King Abdullah Monday pardoned her.
Last August a Filipina working as a janitor in Saudi Arabia was raped by a co-worker. When a medical examination found her to be pregnant, she was arrested. The woman has been detained since September, and miscarried her child in December.
With the pregnancy over, an alliance of organizations representing Philippine migrant workers voiced concern last week that she could be sentenced shortly for falling pregnant out of wedlock, with lashing the expected punishment.
Under Pakistan’s shari’a-based hudud ordinances, a rape victim is required to present four male Muslim witnesses of good standing to back her claim, failing which she can herself be charged with adultery.
Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are all currently members of the 47-nation U.N. Human Rights Council.
Bangladesh, the world’s third most populous Muslim-majority state, is an Islamic state where shari’a has “an influential role in civil matters pertaining to the Muslim community,” according to the most recent annual State Department report on human rights, released last February.
The report that although a court ruling in 2001 banned fatwas, village religious leaders have continued to issue them, resulting in extrajudicial punishments.
It said 20 cases were reported over the previous year, with punishments including whipping, forced marriage and exclusion from a community.
In one incident recounted in the report, a man divorced his wife during an argument – an Islamic provision called “talaq” allows a Muslim to divorce his wife by declaring “I divorce you” three times – but the two were later reconciled.
Local elders then intervened, saying they could not continue as man and wife as they were now divorced. Instead, the woman would have to marry someone else, consummate that marriage, and then be divorced, before she could “remarry” her first husband.
When the woman refused to undergo the interim marriage ritual, known as “hilla,” she and her family were shunned by the community.
The State Department report also discussed incidents in which assailants threw acid into people’s faces, leaving the mostly female victims disfigured or blind. During the previous year, a Bangladeshi rights group had recorded 133 such attacks, 73 against women, 26 against children, and 34 against men.
Because of the shame of ostracism, official or extrajudicial punishment and “honor” killings, most rapes in many Islamic countries go unreported, according to human rights advocacy groups.