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Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 22, No. 1, pp. 37–48, 1999 Copyright © 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd Printed in the USA. All rights reserved 0277-5395/99 $–see front matter

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VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IN BANGLADESH: ISSUES AND RESPONSES
Habiba Zaman
Department of Women’s Studies, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, V5A 1S6, Canada

Synopsis — Women are everyday targets of discrimination, exploitation, and violence in Bangladesh. This article deals with various forms of violence and their shared links and common roots in the sociopolitical and ideological relations between men and women in Bangladesh society. It raises the issues inherent in considering the complexity of violence and presents cases of resistance against violence. The significant role of women’s groups and other nongovernment organizations in bringing about the kinds of qualitative change necessary to establish rights for women in Bangladesh is highlighted. © 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

In contemporary Bangladesh, violence against women appears in a myriad of forms, ranging from wife abuse to rape, dowry killings, acid throwing, sexual harassment, and sexual slavery through international trafficking in women. While it has been well established that women in Bangladesh are everyday targets of discrimination, exploitation, and violence (Arens & van Beurden, 1977; Jahan, 1994; White, 1992; Zaman, 1996), these issues have received attention only in the past few years from feminist scholars and activists. This paper deals with various forms of violence and demonstrates their shared links and common roots in the socio-political and ideological relations between men and women in Bangladesh society. Broadly defined, violence is an act of aggression occurring in both personal and social contexts, and, therefore, includes women’s experience of both domestic violence and violence outside the home. A popular assumption

This is a much shorter and revised version of a monograph (in progress) to be published by the Life and Peace Institute, Uppsala, Sweden. The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers and the editor for their comments and suggestions. Research for the article was partially funded by the Simon Fraser University President’s Research Grant (January 1996–August 1997). I am particularly thankful to Hasina Khanam Lata for collecting some of the research materials used in this study.

in Bangladesh is that violence against women is pervasive only among poor and workingclass people, but the facts tell a different story. Violence against women cuts across the boundaries of age, education, class, caste, and religion. The existing social, economic, and political structures, such as property rights, state laws, policies, and discriminatory treatment along gender lines, are exploitative in nature and ultimately deny women their socioeconomic autonomy at every stage of their lives. Subtle yet overt forms of violence are used on various occasions and at different stages of women’s lives. Although it is possible to discuss various forms of violence separately—for example, sexual harassment in one case, rape and dowry deaths in another—one form of abuse tends to flourish and feed off others. Any examination of the forms of violence in a piecemeal way may result in a fragmented view and minimize its extent and its insidious nature. Therefore, it is essential to examine the common roots of violence and how they are linked in order to chart a direction toward alleviating the problem in Bangladesh. My own experience of growing up in Bangladesh and also my research among rural and urban Bangladeshi women (Zaman, 1995, 1996, 1997) have been extremely valuable in shaping my analysis of women’s issues in Bangladesh.
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38 Habiba Zaman My approach to the study of violence against women in Bangladesh is influenced by the socialist feminist approach. The feminist movement has transformed violence against women from a nonissue to a social issue. bloody civil war that ensued in East Pakistan resulted in the breakdown of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent country (Jahan. especially by the writings of some socialist feminist scholars (Arens & van Beurden. These kinds of development policies have generated new forms of violence. and Punjab) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). For socialist feminists. violence is the result of economic exploitation/deprivation and market systems. 1995). BennholdtThomsen. to some extent. the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947 by the colonial rulers. has endured much political turmoil in its history. After 200 years of British rule. economic. ecofeminism. . 1971. by the human rights approach. render women exploited and susceptible to male domination. see Coomaraswamy. 1995). including inheritance and ownership. During the two and a half decades of Pakistani rule (1947–1971). The human rights approach to violence against women is based on the rights of individuals to be free from fear and the right to be secure in the family and the community (Coomaraswamy. The economic deprivation of women and the patrilineal nature of property relations. where population control policies like “family planning” are regularly carried out by force (Hartmann. including sexual violence as one of the most striking features of development (Schrijvers. which. SOCIOPOLITICAL HISTORY OF FEMINISM IN BANGLADESH Bangladesh. the socialist feminist approach. According to the socialist feminist view. North West Frontier Province. the drive to control poverty and the drive to control women’s fertility in countries like Bangladesh and India have led to a new form of violence against poor women within their homes and in public spheres. This exploitation is further reinforced in the name of cultural values and beliefs and by the laws and practices of the state. In 1970. In contemporary feminist writings. I consider that issues of exploitation and violence against women in Bangladesh are largely structural and systemic problems. Mies. after almost a decade of military dictatorship. Pakistan was further divided into two: West Pakistan (now Pakistan. I examine various aspects of these issues in this article. 1988. Baluchistan. East Pakistan was effectively turned into an internal colony of West Pakistan through cultural and political subordination of the Bengali people and economic exploitation of resources. I also briefly review women’s rights or lack of rights under Islamic laws. a national election was held for the first time and the Awami League led by Sheikh Mujib from East Pakistan won an absolute majority (160 of 300 seats) in the Parliament. Socialist feminists combine an analysis of the impact of patriarchy with some aspects of a more traditional Marxist approach to address issues of exploitation and violence against women. consisting of Sind. one can identify at least four different approaches to the study of violence against women. Instead of transferring power to Sheikh Mujib and his East Pakistan-based party. 1980). and to abuse in interpersonal and social relationships. discrimination and exploitation stem from lack of recognition of the value of women’s productive role as well as domestic work. I present examples of social. I discuss resistance and empowerment by women’s groups in Bangladesh. continue to legitimize unequal rights and discriminatory treatment of women in Bangladesh. The partition was based solely on religious lines—Hinduism and Islam. 1986) and. 1977. I briefly outline the sociopolitical history of feminism in Bangladesh. and use several case studies drawn from secondary sources to demonstrate the extent and kinds of violence against women in Bangladesh. First. These are the radical feminist approach. and legal discrimination that ultimately facilitate the growth of covert and overt violence. 1993). geographically located in the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent. However. however. Nair. India and Pakistan. In closing. thus creating two independent countries. the military regime clamped down on the Bengali civilians and police forces on March 25. 1992). The 10-month. and the human rights approach (for further details. To illustrate unequal treatment of Bangladeshi women at various stages of life. and given birth to various types of women’s groups to resist violence. 1995. in the name of Islam. because I strongly consider that collective rather than individual actions can lead to promotion of women’s rights.

000 women. This becomes especially clear in an examination of women’s rights and of laws relating to violence against women. This new feminist consciousness was further promoted by two important developments during this period: (a) the growing international concern with the status of women as reflected in the propagation of the 1975 United Nations Decade for Women. property rights. under the rules of inheritance.” Kabeer further remarks. a wife inherits only one eighth of her husband’s property if she has only one or more children and one fourth if she is childless. such as succession. In conjunction with the general laws of the country. following the principles of sharia (Islamic principles and teachings). Muslim Personal Laws perpetuate gender inequalities by placing women under the control and authority of men. 1988). 1990). meaning to free the occupied homeland from the Pakistani forces. During the Liberation War. In recent years.Violence Against Women in Bangladesh 39 People in Bangladesh named this war the Liberation War. Furthermore. such as a brother or father of the deceased. 110) the media (especially newspapers) in bringing to light the abuse of young married women for nonpayment of dowry (Jahan. Therefore. A leading feminist and human rights activist documented unprecedented stories of women’s active participation in the Liberation War and of the psychological suffering caused by the Pakistani army’s ruthless violence against them (Imam. In brief. a term which later came to be used in a derogatory way. 1988. and (b) the role of women’s organizations and . The western media continuously labeled this as a civil war or internal affair of Pakistan. men always inherit more than women. The inequality that women in Bangladesh face in nearly all aspects of life is legitimized and reinforced by the existing socioeconomic order and the state system. a daughter inherits only half of a son’s share. Islam as a religion plays a vital role in determining women’s rights and obligations. a controversial feminist writer now in asylum in Sweden. In postindependence Bangladesh. “For some groups of middle class women. including women and children. women’s issues and violence against women in Bangladesh have received both national and international publicity because of the case of Taslima Nasrin. the violence against women continued in Bangladesh. the Pakistani military brutally killed thousands of unarmed civilians and raped close to 30. During the initial phase of postindependence. and oppression of women in Bangladesh (Riaz. p. sexual discrimination. and fundamental rights (Ahmed & Chaudhury. While the “hisstory” books in Bangladesh documented men’s heroic actions and contributions. gender violence. custody of children. not only is gender inequality practiced. marriage. women violated by the Pakistani army were labeled by the Mujib government (1972–1975) as birangana (war heroines). “this period may have marked the birth of a feminist consciousness in the sense of revealing the common thread of oppression uniting them with poorer women” (Kabeer. gender inequality and its resolution in gender violence is embedded in the socioeonomic political structure of Bangladesh. 1995. a daughter inherits a fixed share and the rest of the estate is inherited by other agnatic relatives (relatives only on the male side of the family). In many instances. For example. 110). (p. divorce. which initially diffused the actual situation. Nasrin has been highly vocal through her writings against religious fundamentalism. 1975). women’s roles in the war and their contributions to the Bangladesh liberation movement have remained to date largely ignored by historians in the country. there is a difference be- Many non-Bengali families were targeted and tortured by these armed youths and members of the Rakkhi Bahini (paramilitary forces). 1980). Kabeer (1988) notes: The rape of thousands of Bangladeshi women—from all classes—during the occupation of Bangladesh [by the Pakistani army] was followed after liberation by a period of lawlessness when armed Bengali gangsters abducted women and forced them into “sten-gun weddings” [weddings under gun threat]. maintenance. 1983). Muslim Personal Laws. Zaman. Millions of people. govern significant matters. 1997). WOMEN’S LEGAL RIGHTS AND PRACTICES In Bangladesh. but the demonstration of unequal power relations between sexes is encouraged in order to perpetuate the interest of the patriarchal order (Jahan. if there are no male children. fled to India as refugees (Mascarenhas.

These practices are tacitly condoned and are legitimized through laws and customs in the name of cultural and religious practices that blatantly discriminate against women. and suffers social stigma and often insurmountable difficulties in earning a living after divorce. The legal conditions in which women live in Bangladesh increases their vulnerability to male violence. married daughters are expected to give up their inheritance in exchange for naior (the right to visit father’s/brother’s home— baper bhaier bhita). Women rarely go to police stations for protection because there are many cases of rape and sexual assault of women in police custody. My brother. the legal requirement of proving the rape through physical examination exposes the woman to tremendous shame and social disgrace. has done very little so far to diminish women’s vulnerability or protect them from violence. I interviewed several women (presently unattached—either separated or divorced) who told me how much physical and mental torture they had endured in their marital relationship before leaving their husbands. and thus perpetuate violence against women.40 Habiba Zaman tween women’s inheritance rights and actual practice. Thus. the requirement of proof also includes at least three witnesses! Jahan (1994) provides examples of many cases of rape. told me that the moment the police will be informed. which governs marriage and divorce. whereas. allows up to four wives. GROWING UP AS A WOMAN IN BANGLADESH A woman in Bangladesh experiences neglect and various forms of discrimination and violence systematically from the moment of birth. In the name of local custom and culture. All of the women are currently economically independent and their experiences have made them conscious about women’s issues. Jahan (1994) also gives examples of the sex bias that exists in law enforcement in Bangladesh. absence of state support.1 Such stories are common in Bangladesh. Then my husband will bribe them to be silenced and will increase his physical and verbal abuse. and the legal procedure. derived from the British Penal Code and Common Law. As a result. inequality. Muslim women never enjoy equal rights in marriage and remain vulnerable in marital life. I augment this section with my own personal experience of growing up in Bangladesh. For example. whereas a woman seeking a divorce has to undergo extensive and complicated legal/judicial procedures. and the legal systems backed up by the state agencies condone gender discrimination. The fact that there are specific conditions under which polygamous marriages are allowed in Islam seems to be scarcely remembered while taking a second wife. and this puts women in a more dependent and vulnerable position. According to their accounts. such as economic dependency. . male suspects or aggressors remain free even when they are formally identified by the affected women. in many instances. more women stay in marriages. rather than seek divorces. The Bangladesh legal system. and abduction where women were deprived of justice due to minor technical or legal issues. 1968). where traditional village benches may adjudicate such incidents in the light of Islamic law. In this section. I demonstrate the state of Bangladeshi women’s vulnerability by showing how these discriminatory practices affect women throughout their lives. who is also compassionate. The result is that many women lack property or resources to fall back upon in the event of divorce or a husband’s death. their sufferings were made worse by a number of factors. The Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. Women accused of having hurt or killed their assaulters are usually promptly arrested. During my research in Bangladesh in the summer of 1996 and 1997. molestation. from birth to childhood to adolescence to adulthood. which seems particularly prolonged when divorce cases are initiated by women. when a woman is raped. In rural areas. It is clear that the legacy of the British Penal Code. even abusive ones. Muslim Personal Laws. The husband in a marriage has a unilateral right to divorce without even showing grounds. they will contact my husband and will mention the charges laid. One of the women I interviewed shared this story: I wanted to go to the police station to report my husband’s physical torture and verbal abuse. provided each wife is treated equally (Qadir.

the more status she will earn in the house of her in-laws. In Bangladesh. an elderly woman. however wealthy the family is. The dorm was surrounded by tall brick walls and had male guards on duty 24 hours of the day. When my fourth and youngest sister was born (all my siblings are sisters). Metaphorically. had a lower position than I did in the hierarchy of the dorm administration. who. In Bangladesh. “a woman can be expected to be maintained by her husband as long as she is obedient. Noman. In contrast. and thus her arrival is not ritually recognized by the family and the community (Jahan. a daughter is likely to be regarded as a burden by her own family. The status and future of a marriage is dependent upon the wife bearing children. The prevailing social attitude is that the earlier the daughter’s marriage takes place. young Bangladeshi feminists call it the “sundown law. As a young.Violence Against Women in Bangladesh 41 Ritualistic discriminatory practices begin at the time of birth in Bangladesh. my paternal grandfather was so upset he refused to see her. In general. the body of a newborn male child is touched with a stick. In contrast. for any visit outside the boundary of the home. to comply with the sociocultural values and practices that favor boys. unmarried (therefore unattached). A son creates joy and optimism for the family. by the time a girl attains puberty. In rural areas. 101). as men have control over the means of production by virtue of ownership of land or property. assisting her mother in the kitchen. the more blessings befall the parents. female students of Dhaka University protested and staged demonstrations against this law and forced the university authorities to relax it so that women could use the university library until 9:00 pm. shy. a girl is taught to sacrifice her individual iden- tity for the religious and social values that make up an ideal wife and a good mother. you take all the trouble to nurture the plant. For example. and submissive quality of the female. her parents or guardians are seriously concerned about protecting their daughter’s premarital chastity. or even a minor child.” 1994). The adult life status of a woman is symbolized by her marriage. Although I was a faculty member. From childhood. the birth of a male child is announced through azan (Muslims’ call for prayer). As Kabeer notes. a woman is expected to be escorted (particularly after sundown) by a close male relative. so also men have control over women’s sexuality and reproduction throughout their lives. the best food is served to male members of the family. and performing other household chores rarely recognized in national surveys or statistics. This unequal gender relationship in social structure makes women vulnerable to subtle and overt forms of violence. 1988. 1975. 101). the more sons a woman will bear. I was able to stay outside beyond sundown only with prior permission from the superintendent. malnutrition rates among girls in rural Bangladesh are reportedly four to five times higher than among boys. incidentally. whereas the newborn female body is touched with a glass bangle and a lazzabati vine—a plant whose leaves fold when it comes in contact with other substances (Rahman. female faculty member in a Bangladesh university. 1994). p. A son is always preferred over a daughter for schooling. . 1988. patience and modesty. a girl in Bangladesh spends much of her time looking after younger siblings. a child’s sex accounts for variations in access to basic necessities of life more than any other factor. which is expected to be arranged by her parents or male relatives. I lived on campus in a female students’ dormitory. faithful and fertile” (Kabeer.” Recently. this ritual indicates the strength and unbendable quality of the male as opposed to the fragile. During this stage. Furthermore. Physical care of the daughter and her schooling have been compared to “watering the neighbour’s tree. After all. According to a Daily Morning Sun article (“Malnutrition Rates Higher Among Girls. doing the cleaning work at home. welcoming the person to the Muslim community. no azan is given when a girl is born. boys are considered to be assets who remain in the family to carry out responsibilities in later life. a girl in Bangladesh is expected to have two important virtues. p. I was young and unmarried! I needed to be supervised and protected! I achieved my adult status only after I married. 1983). For example. and only then was I able to maneuver through the mechanism of social control and free myself from various forms of subtle violence adopted even by the university culture. Also. Nowadays. In adolescence. but the fruit goes to some one else” (Kabeer.2 Nutritional deprivation is one example of the subtle violence perpetuated on women. Due to patrilineality. whereas a daughter receives a half-hearted welcome. I was expected to return to the dorm before sundown.

a graduate student. was murdered in her own bedroom in the residence of her father-in-law on October 18. (Kabeer. according to one account. 1988). 1993) and the murder of Fouzia Rahman Champa (“The Murder of Fouzia Rahman Champa.” 1989. their marriage was strained. The statistics reported by Jahan (1988) are based on the news reported in the newspaper. on December 31. the news media created tremendous public interest in the case and sup- . Fouzia Rahman Champa. One should read these statistics with caution and with certain factors in mind. acid throwing and mutilation. found guilty of first-degree murder. and sentenced to death. The young couple’s marriage was arranged by the family. Kabeer notes: A ban on media coverage of political events by the martial law regime under Ershad in 1985 deprived journalists of their usual stories and forced them to seek out alternative material. Sharmeen’s murder created a nationwide uproar. 1988. Munir took Sharmeen on a honeymoon trip to the port city of Chittagong. p. 1989. Sharmeen discovered that Munir was fond of alcohol and extramarital relationships. 1993. After a court case that lasted 4 years. The newspaper coverage of violence against women depends upon multiple factors. The investigating team later arrested Munir. which she resented strongly. was killed by the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War.” Physical torture and beating are common causes of death in murder cases (Jahan. Upon investigation. he was executed on July 26. Violence against women has not been a social issue in Bangladesh until recently. increasing stress in male–female relations in the family. The investigating officer arrested Fouzia’s three brothers-in-law (two were her husband’s brothers and one was her sister-in-law’s husband). were well-established physicians in Dhaka. On April 7. married an engineer. Their decision to focus on crime turned into a sudden and startling upsurge in coverage of violence against women—rapes. Police recovered Sharmeen’s blood-covered body on April 9. aged 32. I illustrate the nature of violence against women in Bangladesh by referring to several well-known cases that have aroused concern and awareness especially among women’s groups and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) working to counter violence against women and to achieve equal rights for both sexes. abduction. brought about by changing socioeconomic processes. p. Drs. aged 19. In recent times. Despite his parents’ best efforts to save his life. a net increase of 20% over a 5-year period (Jahan. and the state’s basic reluctance to change laws and policies that perpetuate male violence toward women. 203). Sharmeen Akhter Reema. Soon after the marriage. 120) Jahan (1988) identified the following factors contributing to increased gender violence: an increase in the general level of acceptance of political violence in society. who admitted to the killing. the news media followed the story and were successful in sensitizing the public mood about the case.4 to 32. the judge convicted the three men and sentenced each to 33 years of imprisonment. as a distinguished journalist and reporter for the British Broadcasting Corporation. Munir was tried. In the case of Sharmeen. 1988. 1988. Munir Hossain. and her father-in-law were in India for medical treatment. although they were a newlywed couple. In the case studies that follow.7%. due mainly to certain historical-political factors. At the time of the murder. 1989. 1994b. and no government statistics or systematic police records exist regarding this issue.42 Habiba Zaman CASE STUDIES: VIOLENCE AND RESISTANCE Between 1980 and 1984. Munir’s parents. the incidence of reported violence against women rose from 12. her husband. Sharmeen was the youngest daughter of Nizamuddin Ahmed who. 1994c). Meherunnessa and Abul Kasem. As a result.” 1994a. Shahidul Islam. Murder One can rarely read a daily newspaper in Bangladesh without coming across a headline that reads “Housewife Killed. it was found that the murder was the result of family violence over a trifling matter. in a thirdyear honors program at Badrunnessa Women’s College. The two cases cited above were publicized across Bangladesh and in both cases the perpetrators were punished due to various factors. two such cases have been widely publicized by the media: the murder of Sharmeen Akhter Reema (“The Murder of Sharmeen Akhter Reema. dowry deaths.

the suspected murder case became a sudden death case. the same news media focused more on Fouzia’s beauty and charm—a sexist ploy—rather than the actual incident. According to the Weekly Holiday. as there is no state regulation restricting its use. acid is not normally available except in laboratories and medical stores. However. Domestic violence Despite the fact that domestic violence is. a renowned journalist. The Daily Star. For instance. Dowry deaths Theoretically. in the last two decades.3 Due to the social standing and influence of my relative’s father. a large number of suicide cases involving women are the result of depression. Islam as a religion does not approve of dowry. However. guaranteeing that society in the future will accept this incident as a normal death! Acid-throwing Acid-throwing is an innovative form of brutal violence against women that is rising at an alarming rate in Bangladesh. In addition. 1994. a female relative of mine committed suicide. and a mortem and police enquiry were not pursued.Violence Against Women in Bangladesh 43 port for Sharmeen because Sharmeen’s father. cars. reported four cases of acid-throwing in the first 3 months of 1994. this violence not only damages the woman’s body (if she survives such an ordeal). There is no na- . 38 (15%) were girls below 9 years old (Jahan. her husband had killed her. such as Janakantha. jewelry. etc. Sukla died after 3 days of unimaginable suffering (“The Murder of Sukla Rani. law enforcement agencies in Bangladesh cooperate with the perpetrators and hide domestic violence under the shadow of “suicide” in cases of murder and “normal death” in cases of suicide. in one form or another. but cases involving young children are not uncommon. Dhakabased dailies. For instance. it is rarely addressed in Bangladesh. mental torture. almost routine in many Bangladeshi families. In most cases. Rape Rape cases in Bangladesh remain largely unreported because of the social stigma and loss of family honor (izzat) that results. Women’s groups have been demanding stricter control over the sale and use of acid. Raped women are mostly teenagers. distant relatives and friends heard that the incident was a suicide. the state’s liberalization policies have opened up a market for luxury goods (televisions. these statistics are problematic. Unfortunately. but suicide is often passed off as normal. In the case of Fouzia. p. acid throwers target a woman’s face.” 1993. In Bangladesh. VCRs. In the summer of 1997. 8). as they are totally based on newspaper reporting. dowry has now become a part of wedding and cultural practices for various reasons. made every effort to put the accused behind bars. the gang broke in and completely defaced Sukla by throwing acid on her face. Between 1983 and 1985. In reality. Incidents of acidthrowing began in the early 1980s. when I was in Bangladesh. On January 6.” 1994). but puts a stigma on her. In many cases. who was. anyone can procure this high-risk but low-cost substance without constraint. Fouzia’s father. incidentally.) and the easiest way for men who aspire to own these goods to acquire them is through a dowry at marriage. Members of the gang reportedly became furious. 1988). The target of the first violence was a school student named Sukla Rani from Mani- kganj. had been brutally killed by the Pakistani military. This case has three dimensions: Close relatives had no doubt that this was a murder. The newspaper journalists collectively paid their tributes to their colleague in this way. 159 (62%) of 256 reported cases were young women between 10 to 19 years of age. some suspected that since my relative had been in an abusive relationship. and violence in the family. due to the family’s fears of social and religious sanction. Dowry-related violence against women has been increasing. Acid-throwing is a constant threat that effectively makes young women psychologically subservient to men’s power. and the police possibly recorded the same. This was reported to the police. however. It is reported that members of a gang regularly harassed her on her way to school. and The Daily Sangbad. while Sukla was sleeping in her room. rich and could afford to pursue the case. “Twentyfive out of 48 murders were related to discords over dowry and [the women] were killed for the sake of dowry” (“Dowry Murders.

several women who worked in the agricultural field as wage laborers were ostracized by the village leaders for breaking purdah (seclusion) restrictions (Zaman. however. brought up the case of Nurjahan at the national level. however. Women’s groups.” (Akhter. but survived the incident (“The Case of Nurjahan. Nasrin has been writing on women’s issues in Bangladesh since the mid-1980s. Farida Akhter. The following case studies narrate the extent of religious violence against women. particularly Mahila Parishad. and violation of religious norms and practices is met with sanctions by the community. RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISM AND GENDER VIOLENCE The ideology of Islam is used to exert male control and power over women and to perpetuate women’s exploitation. as are unequal power relations between the perpetrators and the women who are raped. In rural Bangladesh. women are taught to follow and honor the traditional religious values. Nurjahan’s case caused anger and uproar in Bangladesh and a number of groups worked collectively on her case. Nurjahan survived the stoning but allegedly committed suicide in humiliation. Women’s groups organized protest meetings. the perpetrators would undoubtedly have gone free without the collective efforts of these groups. Nasrin attracted international attention after the publication of her book Lajja (Shame) (Nasrin. the national media repeatedly raised the issue of religious violence. from the village of Chatakchara in the Sylhet district. Later on. Nurjahan stoned to death Nurjahan (age 21). A local salish (informal village court) found the second marriage “un-Islamic” and sentenced Nurjahan and her husband to death by public stoning. Lack of action by government and reluctance on the part of the law enforcing agencies to deal with reported cases are responsible for low reporting (Bhuiyan. According to the fatwa (religious opinion). A recurrent theme of her writing revolves around the sexual discrimination and violence prevalent against women in Bangladesh. Call for Taslima Nasrin’s death The case of Taslima Nasrin. fatwas do not have any legal sanctions in Bangladesh. . nine religious fundamentalist leaders were arrested and each sentenced to 7 years imprisonment (“Nine Religious Fundamentalist Leaders Imprisoned. Nurjahan was to be buried in the ground up to her chest and stoned publicly for allegedly having an adulterous relationship. It is important to note here that fatwa is a religious opinion by clergies based on their inter- pretation of the Koran. Another result of this case is that Mahila Parishad published a poster saying: “Resist Fundamentalism: Stop Killing Women. . because Nurjahan’s family lives in poverty. my translation). where I carried out research in 1984 and 1985. fatwa is not given only to Nurjahan . a leading feminist and activist. 1994). a women’s organization that has been active at the grassroots level since 1970. Eight local lawyers (all male) worked without any fees.44 Habiba Zaman tional research or data on rape. 4. appealed to them in her column: “Honourable Prime Minister and Leader of Opposition Party [both are women]. perpetrators can find ways to keep themselves above the law. . p.” 1993. 1996). the internationally famous Bangladeshi feminist writer now in asylum in Sweden. The local mullahs (religious leaders) alleged. is a classic example of the threat of violence from rising fundamentalism in Bangladesh. and sent a representative to the remote village where the incident happened. Her parents arranged the second marriage. Her husband received the same punishment. . A physician by profession.” 1994). 1993). In addition. fundamentalists are also issuing fatwas to you . 1994. and high-level corruption in law-enforcing agencies. As a result. In Tarapur. Because the law-enforcing agencies were inactive until nationwide publicity of Nurjahan’s case. . religious leaders are influential in determining codes of social behavior in the name of religion. in most instances. Particularly in rural areas.” The female leaders of the two major major political parties appeared indifferent to Nurjahan’s case. remarried after divorcing her first husband. . 1991). The book depicts the agony of a Hindu family during the riots in Bangladesh after the demolishing of the Babri mosque in India in 1992. that her second marriage was not performed in accordance with Islamic law.

The Government of Bangladesh brought a case against her and. such as Amnesty International. which ruled against their activities. the Vedas. Nasrin visited Calcutta and was interviewed by a local English daily. including one on violence against women. Fazl (1994.Violence Against Women in Bangladesh 45 Hindu fundamentalist parties in India used the book to further their cause by distributing copies of an unauthorized translation all over India. issued a fatwa sentencing Nasrin to death. Nasrin’s lawyers were able to negotiate with the government for her exile in Sweden. Nasrin denied that she made such remarks and issued the following clarification: “I hold the Koran. 1986).250) on her head. for various geopolitical reasons. 1995. put a bounty of Taka 50. the NGOs have set women’s empowerment as their priority. UBINIG has organized 12 workshops pertinent to women’s issues. She fled the country in 1994. and the National Federation of Indian Women. there has been a significant increase in awareness of violence in Bang- ladesh.g. Nijera Kori. the workshop explored issues while creating grounds for raising awareness among a cross-section of women (UBINIG/ Women and Development Policy. murder) was sporadically published by various newspapers before 1985. p. With support from international groups. due to pressure from international organizations. This example demonstrates women’s groups’ successful challenge to the hegemonic ideology of the society and defiance of the existing male-dominated power structure. 23). particularly by women’s groups and NGOs. Rahman reports: One women’s group in BRAC’s program was not only able to defy the salish. the media in Bangladesh have been playing an important role in recent years in raising awareness about violence against women. p. media cover- . who made various attempts to shut down activities of the so-called “foreign” agencies. In the published article (Wright. On her way back from Paris. p. The Indo-phobic quarter in Bangladesh propagated the rumor that Nasrin received a large sum from Bharatiya Janata Party to write the book and destabilize communal harmony in Bangladesh (Riaz. Proshika. Although news about crimes and violence against women (e. (Rahman. 1994). suicide. Women’s groups (such as Mahila Parishad. In response. NGO activities in many rural areas in Bangladesh have met with considerable resistance from Islamic religious leaders. Using a feminist analytical tool. Indeed. Oxfam-Canada) are working not only to improve women’s socio-economic situation but to empower them. she was reported to have said that the Koran was written by a human being and that she wanted the Koran to be totally revised. Nasrin’s case was supported by some women’s groups. Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee [BRAC].” However. 439) Recently. 1995). Women for Women: Research and Study Group) as well as international NGOs (for example. Bangladesh Women’s Journalists Forum. thousands of women from various groups and women’s organizations marched the streets of Dhaka in April 1994 to demonstrate against the fundamentalists’ attempts to shut down NGO activities supporting clinics and schools for girls. the International Writers’ Association. since 1986. UBINIG [Women and Development Policy]. These two organizations have had success in developing skills and consciousness among rural women. 1997).. p. and demanded her trial on charges of blasphemy. Grameen Bank. 7) reported that 22 organizations had signed up with Rokeya Kabir. who declared: “The case of Taslima must be withdrawn. the Institute of Democratic Rights. 1994. however. the government’s actions instead strengthened religious fundamentalists’ solidarity (Zaman.000 (US $1. It is the mullahs who should be put on trial for committing repression on women through fatwas and unauthorised Islamic courts. For example. 21). The Bangladesh government banned the book in July 1993. WOMEN ORGANIZING FOR CHANGE: ACTIONS AND STRATEGIES In the last few years. The religious right in Bangladesh launched a campaign against her. but also to call for a separate salish of its own. The situation took a dramatic turn at the beginning of June 1994. The Statesman (May. provided her security and protection. director of the Women’s Development Forum. In addition to the roles of women’s groups and social activists. rape. and the Bible and all such religious texts determining the lives of their followers as out of place and out of time” (Riaz. 1994. Both BRAC and Grameen Bank have a long history of working with women in rural areas.

The villagers discovered the body and reported it to the police. they simultaneously denounced further atrocities and inaction by state agencies. The Yasmin case created massive public awareness about the ineffectiveness of the state. which was treated earlier. Gender relations that favor men and discrimination against women. I have explored the issue of violence against women in Bangladesh from a socialist feminist perspective by linking socioeconomic structures and ideology to gender violence. sent Yasmin to Dhaka from Dinajpur to work as a domestic. word soon got out that it was the police who had escorted Yasmin the night before. At the time of this writing. out of desperate poverty. and dumped her body in a rice field. The nation was shocked and further outraged. including NGOs funded by international donor agencies. The incident led to a tense situation in the area and the public demanded a full-scale judicial inquiry into the case. CONCLUDING REMARKS In this article. Brutal rape and murder of Yasmin by policemen The story of Yasmin. and violence against women. Three policemen. Three policemen volunteered to walk her to the village several kilometers away. The police administration fabricated their own story. the Prime Minister. and brutality entrenched in the socioeconomic and political structures of Bangladesh. Several women’s groups have joined the Sammilita Nari Samaj (United . was arranged. clearly establish that pervasive violence against women is a serious social and development issue. systemic police brutality. the hearing has not been completed. A mass protest and demonstration. The Prime Minister also accepted the 7-point demand of the public in Dinajpur. Her mother. However. The local people continued to be outraged with the inaction of the district administration.46 Habiba Zaman age since then has created awareness about systemic violence against women. is typical. formed an action forum called Sammilita Nari Samaj (United Women’s Forum). Yasmin was returning home to visit her mother. Diverse women’s groups. The analysis and the case studies presented here demonstrate that violence against women in Bangladesh has both structural and systemic dimensions. immediately flew to Yasmin’s village and met Yasmin’s mother. the transfer of senior police officials for negligence of duty. as individual acts. The police opened fire indiscriminately. at all levels. killing eight persons and injuring many more during the demonstration. but were the result of prolonged injustice. a 14-year-old girl. Sharifa Begum. Women’s groups and the media are closely monitoring the case. She arrived by bus at a small market place early in the evening on her way home. Suspecting that the police were responsible for this brutal murder. a public inquiry and investigation into police conduct in the rape and murder of Yasmin. While accepting various agendas to stop violence against women. and some people from the crowd stormed the police office. the public was outraged. supported by women’s groups and organizations. together with state and institutional biases. raped Yasmin that night. The prosecution of the Yasmin case has been transferred to a special court in Dinajpur. The response of women’s groups and their strategies to counter violence is an emerging trend in Bangladesh. The protests in the form of a mass (mainly women’s) movement did not happen accidentally. Protests against the murder of Yasmin produced a mass uprising that shook the country and brought women’s groups together to challenge structural and systemic violence. labeling Yasmin a prostitute in an effort to disassociate themselves from her and avoid any responsibility. murdered her. and appropriate and exemplary punishment of those found guilty. exploitation. which included compensation to Yasmin’s mother and those killed during the demonstration. The headings of the media reflected public reactions: “People’s Revolution in Dinajpur” (1995) and “NGO Forum in Beijing: Denounce Yasmin Murder in Beijing” (1995). including one officer. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was criticized for her irresponsibility and lack of action and this question was then raised: How dare she participate in an international women’s conference to solve women’s issues while a young woman was murdered by police? To save face for the government and respond to the public’s demands in some way. since Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was attending the Fourth World Women’s Conference in Beijing. after returning from Beijing.

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