Bangladeshi women are pushing government to implement the recently approved National Women Development Policy (NWDP) 2011, which has met with strong resistance from Islamic clergy.
Leaders and activists of the Jatiya Mahila Sangstha (National Women's Organisation) recently held rallies and formed human chains across major cities demanding the policy's immediate enforcement.
The NWDP gives women equal political and economic rights as men, through benefits like social security, ensuring the enactment of laws to reduce violence against women, and catering to their health and nutrition needs. The NWDP also advocates removing discrimination of all kinds against women.
The women's action came weeks after Islamic religious leaders enforced a day-long countrywide strike against the policy, which they said contained clauses that offended Islamic sentiments, and came into conflict with the Holy Quran and Hadith.
The issues Islamist groups oppose include granting women equal rights as men, which they say Islam does not allow. The clergy are also opposed to the clause on the equal distribution of property and land to women, since they say women inherit from parents after marriage, and from husbands when they are widowed.
Striking activists, mostly mullahs, blockaded major highways in almost all of the country's 64 districts, and set fire to at least 150 vehicles. More than 60 people, including police, were injured and a huge amount of property damaged.
Religious leaders, supported by the main opposition force, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), said they would continue public demonstrations unless government consults them to amend the clauses.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, meanwhile, said objections raised by religious leaders had been addressed by removing contradictory phrases in the NWDP 2011.
Addressing representatives of Bangladesh Jamiatul Mudarresin, an organisation of religious school teachers, at her office a day before the women's rallies, Hasina said the confusion had been ironed out after a thorough review of chapters in the Holy Quran.
State Minister for Women and Children's Affairs Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury told IPS, "We have already clarified our position on the issues they have raised. Their concerns were explained and the issues have been well addressed."
The cabinet approved the NWDP 2011 on the eve of International Women's Day, Mar. 8, reviving a policy formulated by the ruling centre-left Awami League party when it was in power in the late 1990s.
The policy, however, could not be fully implemented due to changes made by subsequent governments. Meantime, parliamentary bodies scrutinized relevant laws that were needed to implement the initiative.
At the same time, leading women's groups campaigning for its enforcement also helped give final shape to the policy.
But by the time it was finalized, the government's tenure had expired, and implementation of the policy remained incomplete.
Even in 1997, however, Islamist groups sensing groundwork on the policy document threatened to oppose clauses that gave women enhanced rights and power.
"Such clauses are contradictory to Islamic laws," said Islamic Law Implementation Committee (ILIC) chairman Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, who also heads a faction of the BNP's political ally, the Islami Oikya Jote party.
During the interim government in 2007, the policy was again revived.
Rasheda K. Choudhury, the then adviser to the Ministry of Women and Children's Affairs of the caretaker government, told IPS, "We too had to face tremendous opposition from the same Islamist groups.
Under pressure we had involved the Islamic Foundation, where Muslim scholars had given their input after discussions with the groups.
"The committee report from the Islamic Foundation was not acceptable as it mostly denied women's contributions in the development of the nation," she added.
When the four-party coalition government led by BNP came to power in 2004, some of the clauses which empowered women to equal rights and full control over inherited property were changed, undermining women's power and drastically reducing their rights.
This was seen as natural since BNP had religious party Jamaat-e-Islami on their shoulders.
In the Women's Development Policy (WDP) drafted in 2004 during the BNP alliance government the concepts of "equal inheritance", "equal and full participation", education, rights and opportunity were replaced by "women's rights".
Another notable change introduced in the WDP was the exclusion of the provision for women's direct election to reserved seats in parliament and for an increase in the number of reserved seats.
The phrase "direct election'" was replaced by "all necessary effective arrangements will follow".
Ayesha Khanam, General Secretary of the Central Committee of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP), one of the oldest women's rights organizations in Bangladesh, recalled that the WDP 2004 was formulated without any discussion or reference either in the parliamentary committee sessions.
"By contrast the 1997 policy had a reflection of all major international conventions on women like Rio Earth Summit 1992, Vienna Human Rights Conference and Plan of Action 1993, the International Conference on Population and Development Cairo 1994, and the Fourth World Conference on Women 1995," Khanam said.
The policy seeks to establish equal rights for women, ensure security in all aspects of women's lives, and create an environment for women's economic, social, political and administrative empowerment.
It is also aimed at developing an educated and skilled workforce of women that could contribute to national development.
"The policy aims to bring positive changes in the lives of disadvantaged women," said women's advocate Sultana Kamal, who is also a former adviser to the caretaker government and one of the trustee members of Ain-O- Salish Kendra (ASK).
ASK is one of the leading NGOs in Bangladesh that has been campaigning for women's rights since the 1980s, and helped shaped NWDP 2011.
Kamal added, "More women will be skilled and educated; they will have informed choices and have increased leadership roles in the development of the rural areas."