Bangladesh’s Secret Weapon Against Extremism

Posted on 09/22/13
By Faiz Sobhan | Via Dhaka Tribune
UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women walk in Dhaka, organized by BIWTC Workers Union . (Photo by International Transport Workers Federation)
UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women walk in Dhaka, organized by BIWTC Workers Union . (Photo by International Transport Workers Federation)

Since the late 1990s, Bangladesh has witnessed an increase in militancy and violent extremism that has exposed women to greater threats than before. Such kinds of extremism prevent women from being emancipated economically and socially.

In Bangladesh, a number of Islamist extremist groups believe women should not have a prominent role in society. Earlier this year, Hefazat (-e-Islam, a radical group) brought out two massive rallies of tens of thousands of supporters in Dhaka. It released a 13-point demand including calls for a ban on “free mixing” of men and women in public, the ending of what they term “shameless behavior and dresses” and declaring Ahmadiyyas as “non-Muslims”.

Moreover, for the past several years, Islamic extremists in Bangladesh have issued fatwas as a major tool with which to tread on women’s rights in Bangladesh, as part of their attempt to spread their ideology.

Despite the High Court making clear that fatwas have no legal status in Bangladesh and directing authorities concerned to take punitive action against people involved in enforcing fatwas against women, Islamic clerics are still presiding over self-proclaimed courts that use Sharia Law to issue fatwas to deal with crimes such as rape and domestic matters such as extra-marital relationships. This practice continues to prevail in remote villages where government agencies, including the police, do not have immediate access.

Between 2000 and 2011, at least 500 fatwas have reportedly been issued accusing women of adultery. Most of these women were from rural areas, where their crimes were determined by influential local leaders and mullahs who assumed the role of both judge and jury-based on their own interpretation of Islam. Often such unofficial tribunals have been found handing out extra-judicial punishments.

In Bangladesh, women’s groups and civil society are actively working at increasing economic empowerment for women as a bulwark against the negative messaging of extremist and violent extremist groups.

After the rally by the Hefazat in Dhaka on April 6, there was an immediate and strong response by a group of 68 NGOs working on women’s empowerment, human rights and development. They agreed to form a Social Resistance Committee (SAC) to counter what they believed was an attempt by extremists to turn Bangladesh into a “Taliban-style pariah state with the policy of subjugating women.”

In July, a video posted on Youtube and Facebook showed the Hefazat leader, Sheikh Allama Shafi, calling for women to be deprived of their freedom, as well as education and employment. Among other things he said of girls, and I quote, “You spend thousands of takas (Bangladesh’s currency) to send her to school, high school, college. Allow her to study until the fourth grade. This is all she needs, to keep the household accounts after she gets married.”

Women therefore have a vital role at the forefront of not only national but regional or international efforts as well, to counter extremism.

The UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security was an important step towards international recognition of the importance of gender in effective conflict management and in post-conflict stabilization. Last year, the Security Council supported the UN Secretary-General’s pledge “to promote the active engagement of women’s organizations in peacemaking and peace-building.”

In Bangladesh there has been a long history of struggle for women’s emancipation including the active role of women in the war of independence in 1971. Over the years, Bangladesh has introduced various laws and regulations to safeguard women’s rights but much more needs to be done in this regard.

Bangladesh was one of the earlier signatories of the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Laws enacted to increase protection include the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act introduced in 2000 and the Acid Crimes Prevention Act 2002. In 2011, Bangladesh’s Cabinet agreed on a National Policy for Women’s Development.

However, women not only in Bangladesh, but around South Asia, continue to face discrimination, exclusion and injustice and are victims of violence. This is why women’s organizations need to be much more pro-active in advocacy programs and implement a series of measures so as to safeguard women’s rights to protect them from all forms of extremism.

Ultimately, there are a number of factors that serve as drivers of violent extremism in Bangladesh and elsewhere in South Asia. Although social injustice or being marginalized can to some extent explain the process of violent extremism, such factors alone cannot explain the phenomena.

In every case it is essential that strong measures be taken by women and civil society organizations to successfully counter the menace of extremism, whether violent or non-violent. This can be achieved by underscoring the vital role women have to play in society, as well as, by creating better opportunities for women to more participate fully in their country.

This article was first published in Dhaka Tribune, a leading Bangladeshi daily. 

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