A RASH of Islamist fundamentalist violence has broken out across Bangladesh. On April 3, 2011, Railway Madrassa students took out processions in Jessore. When the Police intercepted the procession, the madrassa (seminary) students attacked the Policemen. In the retaliatory action, a madrassa student was shot dead and 30 people were injured.
On April 4, 2011, a dawn to dusk hartal (shut down) was observed across the country. The hartal was called by Mufti Rashidul Hasan Fazlul Haq Amini, leader of the Islami Ain Bastabayan Committee (IABC, Islamic Law Implementation Committee). The IABC is linked to the Islami Oikko Jote (IOJ), a political party which has openly been vocal about its support for the Islamist militants, the Taliban and the al-Qaeda. The IOJ is allied to the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP). The ruling Awami League's (AL) General Secretary, Syed Ashraful Islam claimed the BNP and its ally Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) sponsored the hartal and Aminee was used strategically to implement their political programme. He also alleged that BNP-JeI were on the streets during the strike. Meanwhile, Amini, on April 15, had threatened to paralyse the country, declaring, "We can create an impasse in the country by a one-hour notice as there are 20,000 madrassas which will respond to our call immediately."
Violence erupted in Dhaka, Chittagong, Chandpur, Barbaria, Faridpur, Feni, Moulvibazar and Khulna during the April 4 hartal. While, 250 people, including 16 Policemen, were injured and another 200 people were detained, in the wake of mass attacks on vehicles, public transport and Security Forces. In a fresh wave of violence on May 1, hundreds of Islamic activists, belonging to Islami Andolan Bangladesh (IAB, Islamic Movement Bangladesh) wearing the traditional white Muslim dress and sporting copies of the Quran, marched in Dhaka, where the Police had imposed a ban on political rallies. A Police spokesperson said nearly 200 protestors were wounded during clashes with riot-Police. An estimated 150 Islamic activists were detained, whisked away in prison vans.
The apparent provocation of this unrest is the National Women's Development Policy (NWDP) 2011, declared by the Government on March 7, 2011, which includes, among others, a provision of an equal share for women in property and opportunities in employment and business. Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, State Minister for Women and Children's Affairs, stated, "The approval of the NWDP has created a great scope for the advancement of women empowerment". Women's rights groups have also backed the Government, urging an early implementation of the policy.
Unsurprisingly, the NWDP has provoked the fundamentalists, who have rejected it as 'anti-Islamic' and 'anti-Quran' , and have orchestrated mass agitations across Bangladesh, demanding its withdrawal. An umbrella Islamist group, the Islamic Law Implementation Committee (ILIC), further threatened to paralyse the country if the Government did not scrap what it termed "anti-Islamic provisions" in the NWDP.
The NWDP is a revival of the 1997 Women's Development Policy, and is the fulfillment of an Election (2009) pledge by the AL. The 1997 Policy was formulated during the previous tenure of the Sheikh Hasina Wajed led AL Government (1996-2001). The Begum Khalida led BNP coalition Government (2001-2006), of which JeI was a part, approved another Women's Development Policy in 2004, deleting crucial provisions, such as "equal right", "equal and full participation", "right to land", "inheritance" and "property", or replacing them with "constitutional right", "preference" and "greater participation".
Meanwhile, in 2008, the then Caretaker Government had announced another Women's Development Policy, guaranteeing equal rights, including property rights for women, which was also opposed by a section of Islamic clerics. As a result, the then Government had constituted a 20-member Ulema (Islamic experts) Committee on March 27, 2008, to identify any potential "inconsistencies" in the Policy. On April 17, 2008, the Ulema Committee submitted its recommendations, strongly opposing the grant of equal rights to women, recommending deletion of six sections of the policy and amending 15 others which, the Ulema claimed, "clash" with the provisions of the Quran and Sunnah (sayings and examples from the life of the Prophet). Suggesting the inclusion of guidelines "in the light of the Quran and Sunnah" while taking any decision regarding women's rights, the Ulema Committee recommended abolishing the section that recommends steps to implement the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Committee also asked the Government to cancel the initiative to reserve one-third of parliamentary seats for women and the application of comparable reservations to local elections.
Hafez Maulana Ziaul Hasan, Chairman of Sammilito Islami Jote (United Islamic Alliance), a liberal Islamic organization, on April 28, 2011, however, noted, "The review (Ulema) committee could not pinpoint any verse in the Quran that the Women's Development Policy contradicts. It also failed to show any provision of the policy that contradicted the Quran and Sunnah ."
Resistance to the hue and cry against the NWDP is significant. The leaders of Gausul Azam Maizbhandari Parishad [GAMP. Gausul Azam Maizbhandari Shah Sufi Moulana Syed Ahmadullah was a Sufi saint who started the Maizbhandari Sect. GAMP preaches his religious practices and works for the development of society], an Islamic social organization, on April 12, 2011, criticized IABC for creating an 'anarchic situation' in the country during protests against the women's development policy. Syed Saifuddin Ahmed Maizbhandari, Secretary General of the organization, stated, "Creating anarchic situation and sufferings for people are considered as the most heinous activities in Islam. Amini and his followers have done such heinous activities on the hartal day (April 4)."
However, IABC's Amini has identified the policy's Section 23.5, which speaks about opportunity and participation in employment, wealth, market and business for women, as 'un-Islamic'. Further, Section 25.2, which seeks to give women full control over the wealth they accumulate through earning, inheritance, loans and market management, is also declared 'anti-Islamic'. Amini insists that the IABC was not opposed to policies for the development of the women, but these must be formulated in the light of the holy Quran and Sunnah.
Various scholars have contested Amini's claims. Maulana Mohammad Ziaul Hasan, an Islamic academic from the Islamic Foundation argues, "Any literate person will understand that the word 'wealth' in Section 23.5 does not mean inherited wealth. Similarly, the word 'inherit' in section 25.2 does not imply equal share of property to women." Noted educationist Prof. Sirajul Islam Chowdhury declared, on April 18, "Amini's comments are very objectionable and tantamount to treason for denial of the Constitution." Professor Chowdhury asserted that Amini had taken a direct stand against the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights for all, irrespective of gender. Besides, other scholars noted, the women's development policy is not a law, but a guideline upholding the Constitution and existing laws.
Rattled by the protests, however, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sought to appease the fundamentalists and announced, on April 20, 2011, that her Government had removed all contradictions from the NWDP to make it 'confusion-free': "After going through the Quran, especially Surah an-Nisa, we have removed contradictions from the policy." Hasina reiterated, further, that AL would never enact any law or adopt any policy which conflicted with the Quran or Sunnah. She added, further, that the Government would also append to the policy, the religious and social reservations mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. At the same time, she asserted that vested political groups were carrying out propaganda against the women and education policies in the name of religion and urged Islamic scholars to remain alert about such attempts. Again on April 26, the Prime Minister noted that a certain quarter "trading on religion" had been trying to mislead people by misinterpreting the NWDP, although Islam as a religion never approves inequality between man and woman.
Significantly, on December 7, 2010, the AL Government had approved the National Educational Policy (NEP) 2010, which prescribes a uniform curriculum and syllabus to be followed in general, madrassa and vocational education. Quami madrassa (private seminary) administrations were asked to form a commission and determine what they want to introduce in their institutions. All educational institutions were required to register with the Government to gain legality.
The Islamists, who favour the implementation of the Sharia have clubbed both NWDP and NEP together, and have opposed these measures as an unwarranted interference in their religious affairs.
The successful implementation of the NWDP and NEP could mark the beginning of a new era for Bangladesh, where Democracy has been restored and carried forward by two women Prime Ministers. Nevertheless, given the complex range of initiatives that the Sheikh Hasina Government has introduced to curb the activities of Islamist terrorists, extremists and fundamentalists, a delicate balancing act will be necessary to ensure that the system, long perverted by dogma and extremist ideologies operating at the very centre of power, is not tipped over into a fundamentalist backlash that would wipe out the gains of the past year.
First published in SOUTH ASIA INTELLIGENCE REVIEW, Weekly Assessments & Briefings, Volume 9, No. 44, May 9, 2011
Sanchita Bhattacharya is Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management