BANGLADESH: Killing Women in the Name of Religion

Monday, August 16, 2010
Southern Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

Nearly two decades after a peasant woman's suicide first raised national awareness about the danger of religious rulings, and one month after a high court outlawed deadly edicts, killings of women in the name of religion continue in Bangladesh, human rights groups say.

Seventeen years ago, Nurjahan Begum, a peasant woman from northeastern Bangladesh was publicly stoned after a `shalish' - a village ruling council - found her guilty of committing adultery. Immediately after the stoning, she fled to her father's house and took poison to kill herself.

“This was the first fatwa we heard about through the national newspapers and the first time we took action,” said Hameeda Hossain, chairperson of Ain o Salish Kendra, a local aid and human rights organization.

The fatwa is an Islamic religious ruling used at times by elites in Bangladesh's rural villages to the detriment of women - mainly from poor families. Fatwa rulings have resulted in women being beaten and caned - all outside of the law - leading many of them to commit suicide to save family honour, according to rights groups.

Last month Bangladesh's highest court outlawed all punishments handed down in fatwas, but a weak judicial system coupled with deep-rooted social traditions means there is still a long way to go, said activist Hossain.

“It's very difficult to enforce a law in Bangladesh. The state is very weak. There's always this sense in the community that they know what's best and they‘re taking up what they consider to be moral issues.”

Bangladesh is 90 percent Muslim and rights groups have criticized the government for being slow to prevent atrocities occurring in the name of fatwas, despite a number of high profile incidents.

In Nurjahan's case, the mosque leader and eight other members of the `shalish' were sentenced to seven years of hard labour in 1994. But most cases do not receive nationwide attention.

“If the woman doesn't find support then she tends to give in to whatever is being done to her and take the punishment,” said Hossain.

A form of control

Kushi Kabir, coordinator of Nijera Kori, a local NGO, told IRIN the prevalence of religious punishments against women is attributable to wealthy elites trying to exert control over their communities.

“In Bangladesh a lot of issues related to what is considered socially acceptable behaviour, and what is not considered socially acceptable, gets resolved through the `shalish',” Kabir said.

“It is commonly practised as a means of control over people who they feel need to be controlled. So it's used by the powerful male elites in the villages over what they feel is behaviour that could lead to a lack of control,” she said.

Waiting for change

Increased media attention and public awareness is slowly starting to empower more of Bangladesh's women to understand their constitutional rights and take a stand against violent methods of oppression.

“Eventually [public awareness] will instigate change. Now more and more news is appearing in the newspapers about religious punishments, the fatwas, which means that it has been quite a sensation,” said Syeda Rizwana Hasan, chief executive of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association.

“Previously it was there but nobody ever wrote about it because it was taken as part of society, but now people have started protesting against it,” she said. “Women's voices are being heard more and more, but they are not more powerful. It's just the second generation of people coming out of the houses.”