Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ’s hartal

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by rahnuma ahmed

Islami Oikya Jote procession, `We reject inheritance law which changes Quranic devolution of shares'

Apnader naamte hobe, he said, after I’d mentioned the personal exigencies which led to my two-week absence from these pages. He’s a good friend, a careful and discerning reader of what I write.

You [women] must enter the fray. He was shocked at the recent daylong country-wide shutdown called by the Islami Ain Bastobayon Committee (Committee for the Implementation of Islamic Law). And equally shocked at the response, or lack of, by women’s organisations.

[But] I’m in the fray, I replied, chewing a morsel of chicken and rice. I was having lunch at New Age. As he nodded his assent somewhat distractedly, I debated whether I should remind him of the collection as well, which I had collated and translated several years ago, a task begun and accomplished when the BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami led government was in power, when serial bomb blasts, blamed exclusively (the role of state intelligence agencies is still unclear) on Muslim radicals, killing dozens, maiming scores more, occurred over a period of several years, initially termed a “media creation” by the-then government.

The volume, Islami Chintar Punorpothon: Shomokalin Musolman Buddhijibider Shangram, 2006 (Reinterpreting Islam: The Struggles of Contemporary Muslim Intellectuals) consisted largely of interviews, some essays and public lectures of contemporary philosophers and intellectual/activists, nearly all of whom are believing and practicing Muslims. They debated issues and challenges facing them, ranging from imperialism to the notion of an Islamic state, modernity, terrorism, minority rights, the need to re-imagine the relationship between the creator and the created, (according to some) a need to re-imagine the creator Himself, the method of reading and interpreting the Quran, gender relations, hijab, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, rationality etc. etc. Despite differences among Islamicly oriented political parties and groups in Bangladesh, most vocal, and receiving the greatest media attention, were those who spoke of “capturing the state.” That Muslims elsewhere debated a large array of issues seriously and critically, was unknown to Bangla readers in print.  I had considered it urgent to broaden the intellectual space within which debates over Islam and what it meant to be a Muslim are conducted, and because, as I would quip to friends, if Islam is now imperialism’s battleground, surely, one must not make oneself absent from the field. Or we may end up lending our shoulders to imperial guns being fired in the cause of the war on terror.

Memories surfaced of my publisher’s apprehensions prior to the publication which fortunately came to nought. The moment passed. I didn’t mention it to my friend.

I had gone to New Age to tell Nurul Kabir, editor of this daily, that I had watched him on TV the night before, that his analysis of the politics of the Policy, and of the April 4 hartal, was most illuminating. He had pointed out that Islami Oikyo Jote leader Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini’s allegation—the Awami League-Jatiya Party led government had gone “against the Quran by adopting such a policy”—was false. That the government had back-pedalled, that the 1997 draft of the Women Development Policy proposed by the-then Awami League government had stipulated that women should receive “equal” shares, not half that received by her brother, whereas the Policy, updated and finally passed by the cabinet last month, had been revised. It now says that a woman should “exercise full control” over her earnings, inheritance, credit, land, and income derived from commerce. This particular phrasing, insisted Kabir, means that equal inheritance is no longer on the score-card.

And yet IOJ (actually, a faction, which also happens to be a component of the four-party opposition alliance) had opposed the Policy (in addition to the High Court’s ban on fatwas, and the National Education Policy) on the grounds that it gave women equal shares. Their banner reads, We reject inheritance law which changes Quranic devolution of shares (see photo). According to Islam, declared Amini, “a woman can never be equal to a man.” While Sheikh Hasina was correct in pointing out that there was “nothing in the women development policy that contradicted the Quran and Sunnah,” that Amini was “misleading” the people, (New Age, April 4, 2011), the prime minister, said Kabir, had been reticent about the details.

The silence of women’s organisations is deafening. It’s because of a combination of several factors, he’d said. Larger women’s organisations are allied to the Awami League. Their silence expresses their political subservience to the ruling party’s interests, at the cost of sacrificing women’s interests. In addition to this, the NGO-isation of women’s organisations in the 1980s has meant that women’s issues pursued are donor-driven and project-based. Funding is crucial, he said. Seeking funds is time-consuming.

It was a shame, insisted my friend and Kabir, over lunch. Why were women’s organisations not out in the streets protesting Amini’s fabrication? How could they not rise up in protest at the AL  government’s betrayal given that they had struggled for “equal shares” to inheritance for many years? Why did they not insist that equal shares be re-inserted into the Policy? By lending its tacit support to the hartal, the BNP too, they asserted, was a party to the betrayal, as were women’s organisations affiliated to the BNP. Khaleda Zia had cautioned the government to not attempt anything which would hurt the religious sentiments of the people. It could lead to chaos and anarchy, she said, while adding that the country had made significant progress in women’s development.

It could be argued, said Kabir on TV, that the government stood to benefit from the hartal. Having incurred the displeasure of western governments at its recent treatment of Grameen Bank’s Dr Yunus, “the blue-eyed boy of Washington,” the hartal against the government’s (purported?) position on equality for women would, in all likelihood, lend credence to Sheikh Hasina’s pronouncements that she was a bulwark against Islamic militancy. Unlike her political opponents, i.e., the BNP-Jamaat government, which had “turned the country into a haven for terrorists and militants” during its rule (2001-2006). It would be music to western ears, it would enable her to curry favour back with western rulers.

It could also be argued, said Kabir, that the government was fully aware of the benefits of the hartal. Is it not strange, he asked, that a Dhaka court which had issued summons’ and arrest warrants against Amini on March 31—in two cases, one for defamation (Amini had threatened to “pull down” the prime minister), the other for sedition (he had indirectly uttered a “death threat” against the prime minister)—soon retracted both orders? According to press reports, the chief metropolitan magistrate said, the magistrate had made a “mistake” because he was “new” to the job. The greenhorn was advised to lift both orders. He readily complied.

Being for, or against the Quran, is highly emotive. The bipartisan nature of political allegiances runs through the gamut of all institutions of state and society, from the administration to the judiciary, the army, state intelligence agencies, and onwards, to universities, schools and colleges, trade unions, business associations, neighbourhood clubs, and so on. I find both party parochialism, and unproblematic understandings of modernity, secularism and religiosity, deeply perturbing as they foreclose a deeper understanding of history, both colonial and post-colonial. Of historical processes that were accompanied by forces of coercion and compulsion as well as instilling desires, that have made us what we are, and what we aspire to be. And unless one understands one’s past, how can one dream and struggle for tangible futures?

It would be amiss of me if I were not to acknowledge that intolerance, at times, bordering on hysteria, which prevent us from conducting reasoned discussions, are partly due to the events of 1971 when Bengali collaborators had claimed to speak in the name of Islam, as had Pakistani rulers. To the events of 1975 and after, the killers of Sheikh Mujib had been rewarded, alleged war criminals had not only been politically reinstated, they had been installed as rulers, in 2001. These set of memories have been paralleled by bouts of amnesia among those who lay a monopolistic claim to 1971. Of forgetting that Sheikh Hasina had sought Golam Azam’s blessings after 1991 elections; that the Awami League had entered into a pre-electoral deal with Khelafat Majlish in 2006. The rest of it, in my opinion, is due to intellectual laziness.

It is this that prevents us from re-examining our history, that leads those who claim to be the thinking sections of society (as opposed to those whom they view as being the illiterate masses, who need to be led and guided) to nurture common-sensical assumptions. Ones that feed off the binary dichotomy of religion versus secularism. For instance, it is unproblematically assumed that British rule was progressive for women because it led to increased secularisation, whereas the truth of the matter is that the process of Islamisation in the Indian subcontinent was initiated by the British colonial state when it gradually applied the principles of Islamic law. This meant that Muslims either decided, or were compelled by the courts, to order their lives and relationships, in accordance with the principles of that part of the sharia which westerners call “family law” i.e., marriage, divorce, rules of inheritance etc.

Another common-sensical assumption, deeper to British rule=secular, one that prevents us from critically examining the present too in our search for gender equality, is that secularism is neutral, it is devoid of relations of power. More specifically, of gendered relations of power. But that is not the case, and it is these issues that I will delve into, next week.

[concluding instalment next week]

Published in New Age Monday April 11, 2011

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This entry was posted in Bangladesh, Colonialism, development, Governance, Rahnuma Ahmed, war on terror and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ’s hartal

  1. Pingback: Bangladesh: Protests Against Women Development Policy · Global Voices

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