Moral and material issues stir up some hot debates

Anbarasan Ethirajan

While political disputes have arisen over issues such as Islamic law and plans to try those accused of war crimes, most Bangladeshis are currently more concerned about the price of food

The recent death of a 14-year-old girl, Hena Akhter, in a remote village about 80 kilometres from the capital Dhaka, triggered a wave of protests and outrage in Bangladesh and abroad. She died a week after she had received about 80 lashes in public for allegedly having an affair with a married man. Both were punished following a fatwa, or religious ruling, by a village court consisting of elders and a Muslim cleric. Her parents said she died of her injuries.

The High Court has ordered an investigation into the incident after allegations that there had been attempts to cover up the case. The public lashing took place despite the High Court’s 2010 ban on all punishments like the caning or beating of women in the name of fatwa. The whole episode has once again highlighted the ongoing tussle between conservatives and those who support secular values in Bangladesh, which is the world’s third most populous Muslim nation.

Bangladesh has, of late, been trying to portray itself as a moderate Muslim-majority nation rather than an Islamic state. Islam is the state religion but nearly 90 percent of the country’s estimated population of more than 150 million adhere to a moderate version of the faith. Both the government, led by the Awami League, and the courts have been taking measures to restore the secular principles upon which Bangladesh was founded in 1971.

However, the re-emergence in rural areas of fatwas and illegal punishments in the name of Islamic sharia law has shocked community leaders and civil society activists. For years women’s rights’ campaigners have been fighting against discrimination in the name of religion. Last year, in a landmark verdict, the High Court ruled that no one can be forced to wear religious clothing – like the burka or skull caps – against their wishes. The ruling came after reports that some deeply religious officials and head teachers were forcing students and colleagues to adhere to a strict Islamic code. Although the courts have been issuing bans and rulings against illegal fatwas and decrees by village courts, the question is how far they are effective outside the capital Dhaka, especially in the remote rural areas. “Part of the struggle, I think, for many organisations, activists and also for the government itself, is how to lessen the gap between what are the standards that have been set down and what are the values that are being espoused through the courts,” says Sarah Hossain, a human rights lawyer based in Dhaka.

The other issue that has been dominating the political agenda in recent months is the government’s attempts to try those Bangladeshis accused of committing mass murder and atrocities during the country’s secession from Pakistan 40 years ago. A war crimes tribunal was set up in March 2010 for this purpose. Official figures estimate that 3 million people were killed and thousands of women raped when Pakistani forces tried to stop Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, from becoming an independent nation.

Some of the alleged collaborators happened to be members of the country’s largest Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a partner in the main opposition alliance, led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). A senior leader of the BNP, Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, arrested in late December, has been accused of war crimes but denies the charges. The BNP and Jamaat have dismissed the tribunal as a political show trial. Despite these criticisms there is a widespread consensus in the country that the prosecution of war crimes is long overdue.

“In the past 20 years, there been a lot of learning, as an experience, how a war crimes tribunal can help a country get to grips with its past,” says Hossain. “Even tribunals which are under-resourced, as in Sierra Leone for example, have set quite remarkable examples not only in terms of some of the judgements they have come up with but in the way they have reached out to local people and to the public at large on what is happening inside these tribunals.”

For the most part, ordinary Bangladeshis have more pressing concerns. In recent weeks, there have been protests against rising prices (which have gone up by as much as 30 percent in the last year), power shortages and alleged human rights violations by the security forces. Discontent has especially been triggered among poor people – nearly 40 percent of the country’s population live below the poverty line on less than a dollar a day. The government is already distributing rice, the country’s staple food, at a subsidised rate, particularly to those in the lower-income group, but that does not satisfy demand. Experts have warned that if food prices continue to increase this could spark social unrest.

About the author:

Anbarasan Ethirajan is a journalist based in Dhaka


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