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Does God Hate Women? A Bangladeshi Murder Case

Credit: Jason Beaubien/NPR

STOCKHOLM / ROME, May 20 2019 (IPS) - On 6 April, nineteen-year-old Nusrat Jahan Rafi was by a fellow student brought to the roof of their school. She told Nusrat that a friend of hers was beaten up there. Unknown to Nusrat, Moni who was four months pregnant at the time, had earlier bought burqas and gloves for three of the men who were awaiting them on the roof. Another girl, Umma, was already there beckoning Nusrat to come up. However, when Nusrat entered the roof Umma threw her down and tied her legs. The burqa-dressed men surrounded the defenseless Nusrat, demanding her to withdraw accusations of sexual harassment against the schools´headmaster. When Nusrat refused to give in, one of the men held her head down, while another poured kerosene over her and set her on fire.

The killers wanted it to look like suicide, but were surprised during the murderous act and fled the scene. Nusrat was rushed to hospital with 80 percent of her body severely burned. In the ambulance, she recorded through her brother´s mobile phone what had happened. He had ever since his sister approached the police on 27 March to raise her complaint, been worried about her safety. When Nusrat returned to school to sit her final exams her brother accompanied her, but he was not allowed to enter and did not see his sister until she was brought out of school with lethal injuries. Nusrat died four days later and was followed to her grave by thousands of shocked citizens from her small hometown of Feni, 160 km south of Dakha. Even if it was committed in a madrassa, a Muslim school, it is doubtful whether the murder actually had anything to do with religion. It was more likely connected with power, manipulation, and corruption.

Siraj-ud-Daula, the headmaster accused of inciting the murder, had molested Nusrat at least three times before her family told her to file a sexual harassment case. It was far from the first time Siraj-ud-Daula was accused of sexual assault and unethical behaviour. Three years before Nusrat´s accusation Siraj-ud-Daula had after several allegations been expelled from Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political party. However, he joined the Awami League instead, becoming a member of its local administration. It has been reported that the ruling party accepted Siraj-ud-Daula after it had received ”some financial benefits through him.” Police witnesses stated that over the last 18 years, at least 15 locally influential people had received money and gifts from the regularly incriminated Siraj-ud-Daula.[1]

Siraj-ud-Daula´s local influence may have been one reason for the police´s reluctance to act upon Nusrat´s complaint. The local police force ought to have provided her with a safe environment to recall her traumatic experiences. Instead, the officer in charge filmed her statement with his mobile phone and later leaked the video to local media. The police first stated that Nusrat´s complaint was ”no big deal” and delayed the arrest of Siraj-ud-Daula, who after being taken into custody even was able to mobilize a protest demanding his release. One of the accused murderers, Hafez Abdul Kader, was a teacher by the madrassa headed by Siraj-ud-Daula. This teacher had earlier been active in Islami Chhatra Shibir, the student wing organization of Jamaat-e-Islami.

The murder of Nusrat and its connection with corrupt political and religious leaders raises questions about rampant misogyny, patriarchalism, the connection between religion and politics and many other sensitive issues that for decades have plagued Bangladesh. Nevertheless, massive demonstrations following upon the murder indicate a strong tradition of diversity and inclusion, a will to progress and change. The story of Bangladesh is not the story of a secular country turning to Muslim radicalism, it is about a country that against all odds has survived almost unbelievable hardships and appears to be prepared to take a stand against religious bigotry, and hopefully rampant corruption as well.[2] Twenty-three persons have been arrested in connection with the heinous crime in Feni, several police officers have been transferred and suspended from service, while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has visited Nusrat´s family, promising that ”None of the culprits will be spared from legal action.”

Sheikh Hasina´s political career may serve as an illustration to Bangladesh´s difficult transformation since its dependence in 1971, which followed upon a nine-month war that have caused three million deaths, including the mass murder of civilians. The numbers of victims, through declassified documents from the Pakistan government provide clear evidence of a campaign of genocide ordered from the top down. The scars have not been properly healed and religious conflicts tend to rip them open.

Awami League, the party headed by Sheikh Hasina´s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, won the general elections of 1973. Two years later members of the armed forces murdered Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his family, including his wife, two adult sons, their newly wed wives and their 8 year old small son. Being in Germany at the time saved the lives of Sheikh Hasina her sister Sheikh Rehana The murders were part of a coup mainly carried out by soldiers with a Pakistani training, who disliked Sheikh Mujibur Rahman´s move towards a secular form of government. Among other actions, he had been instrumental in banning Jamaat-e-Islami, a movement that had opposed the independence of Bangladesh.[3]

Sheikh Hasina, one of the world´s most powerful women, has been in and out of power, in and out of prison. She has survived assassination attempts. Several members of her party have been murdered and its meetings interrupted by lethal grenade attacks.

It is no coincidence that Feni´s madrassa was established by Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist political movement founded in British India to develop “an ideology based on a modern revolutionary conception of Islam,” intending to educate an elite able to amend ”erroneous ways of thinking” from the top down.[4] About 90 percent of Bangladesh´s population define themselves as Muslims and the nation´s various governments have been involved in a precarious balancing act involving an extreme fundamentalist minority and a huge population striving for general well-being.

Sheikh Hasina´s administrations have on several occasions tried to curb upheavals fuelled by Islamist opposition. For example, in 2010 the governing Awami League established a war crimes tribunal to address atrocities perpetrated during the War of Independence. Several Muslim leaders were convicted, causing a wave of Islamist terrorism, peaking between 2013 and 2016 when secularist activists, homosexuals, and religious minorities were viciously targeted. The Government’s eventual successful crackdown in June 2016 resulted in the arrest of 11,000 persons, within a little more than a week´s time.

However, horrific incidents like the one in Feni indicate a fault line in the Bangladeshi Constitution stating that in family matters religious law trumps civil law. Thus, when it comes to divorce, inheritance and child custody, the law overwhelmingly favours men. This basic differentiation filters through the entire society, making violence against women almost omnipresent, though hidden and largely unpunished. Nevertheless, progress is being made. Girls and boys have achieved parity in primary school admissions. After decades of investment in public health, great strides have been taken in reducing maternal mortality and increasing access to village-level health programs.

There is hope that a general misconception that religion is beyond respect for human rights will eventually disappear. Fundamentalism indicates an avoidance of personal responsibility by clinging to what is assumed to be the literal words of God. However, any text is subject to human interpretation. Accordingly, human fallibility tends to distort what is written, making it impossible to irrationally adhere to words of God. All that may be achieved is a limited human interpretation of God’s will. Religious experience is dynamic and effervescent and furthermore influenced by politics, power, and greed. It cannot be bottled up and fixed for all times. Any offender of human rights has thus to be judged in accordance with human law and not by what is perceived as divine law. Accordingly, those who instigated and committed Nusrat´s murder, as well as those minimizing and defending their crime, should not be allowed to place judgment in what they assume to be divine justice.

[1] Information in this article is based on reporting from BBC and Dhaka Tribune.
[2] Anam, Tahmima (2016) ”´Is Bangladesh Turning Fundamentalist? – and other questions I no longer wish to answer,” The Guardian 16 May.
[3] Jamaat-e-Islami was re-established after the coup.
[4] Adams, Charles J. (1983) “Maududi and the Islamic State,” in Esposito, John L. (ed.) Voices of Resurgent Islam. Oxford University Press.

Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author.

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