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Women in Shahbag: Building a New Bangladesh

First published on: Tehelka Blog, 18 April, 2013.

In the last two and a half months, Shahbag Movement has been through many highs and lows. The movement started as a youth uprising – inspired by the primary teaching of our constitution – demanding justice for the bloodshed that happened 42 years back. Activists and general people want the highest punishment for the war criminals and banning of Jamaat-e-Islami from politics. These demands remain the main focus of the movement despite turmoil over the last few weeks.

Jamaat has always portrayed any action against them as “anti-Islamic”. This has been easy for them, thanks to their party’s name, but whatever action they take has very limited relationship with the proper teachings of the religion. Since the 10th day of the movement, when blogger Rajiv was murdered, Jamaat-e-Islami has been labelling the movement as anti-Islamic. Though this has caused few people to move away from the movement, most of the activists and protestors are staying true to the cause and are still steadfast in their demands for justice.

The movement is in full swing all over the country and abroad. Shahbag movement has been successful in creating a Gonojagaran Mancha in every district. There are various kinds of programmes and activities going on to keep the pressure on the administration to take all necessary steps to hold fair trials of the war criminals. The movement took a very interesting turn on 6 April when Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamic organisation, held a rally and huge gathering in Dhaka. Though Hefazat wanted to establish it has no link with Jamaat-e-Islami, many of the Hefazat’s top leaders are associated with Jamaat. Hefazat’s demands would directly benefit Jamaat and its allies.

Hefazat has presented a 13-point demand, which goes against the spirit of the Liberation War and women’s empowerment in Bangladesh. Their demands clearly stand against secularism and social justice, as per the constitution. Hefazat also wants to put a stop to what it believes to be “foreign” or “un-Islamic” cultural practices, and mingling of boys and girls in public. Also, among the demands are: abolishment of the “anti-Islamic” inheritance law, modern education policy, and development policies benefiting women. This would mean women won’t be allowed to get equal share of property as their male siblings, women have to cover themselves according to Sharia (Islamic law), and their mobility will be restricted. Hefazat is also demanding to make Islamic education compulsory at all levels – from primary to higher secondary.

Fortunately, women of Bangladesh have boldly stood against these demands, and so did the government. Unfortunately, however, Hefazat is holding violent protests to establish its demands. They have beaten a female journalist on the day of their rally in Dhaka for “being a woman and covering their activities for the TV station she works for”.

It should be mentioned that Shagbag movement was successful from various ends but the outstanding female participation has earned a loud applause from around the world – marking themselves as equal progressive stakeholders of the development happening in Bangladesh. This has a major role in the upcoming general election as well. The working women will be crucial players as vote banks for the next election.

We are expecting the general election in 8 months. This will be one of the most crucial elections in terms of the present context and for the future too. If the current Opposition party BNP wins the election, it will be interesting to see their actions as Jamaat’s ally.

On 17 April, an article in the daily Prothom Alo caught my eye. It says that the Pakistan election commission has given a ruling against using religion as a tool in the upcoming election. For a country like Pakistan, and also for any other nation for that matter, it is important to go beyond religion when it comes to politics. Politics and religion should not be allowed to mix. We too hope for a similar ruling from our election commission.

International Crimes Tribunal Bangladesh has concluded the proceedings for Ghulam Kamaruzzaman and Ghulam Azam – war criminals and Jamaat leaders. The country is eagerly waiting for the verdict. We anticipate that Jamaat will again break into violent protests nationwide if the verdict goes against their interest. The government and law enforcing agencies are required to plan security checklists to avoid further violence against the people of the country. Shahbag movement has various programmes in the upcoming days to reinforce the primary demands of the movement. The coming days might be harder for Bangladesh; however, unity will decide our fate.


First published: 18.04.2013

The recent political turmoil in Bangladesh has taken various turns and twists in the last two months. I have spoken about the spirit of Shahbag, war criminals, atheism and so many other issues. I always think, talk and write as a human being. The joys I experience, the disappointments I face, successes that I achieve all are above any gender issues. I hardly consider myself to be different as a female. I am glad simply to have been born. It doesn’t give me extra pride nor doesn’t make me insecure about being a woman.

Growing up in Bangladesh was never a threat to me, being a member of the “second sex.” Our cultural history shows that our part of the world gave women utmost respect, love and affection. I have seen my female family members always rise and shine in their own grounds and how their male counterparts support them. I have been brought up just like any other boy in my family and, in many cases, I have enjoyed more or demanded more freedom than my brothers. However at the age of 34, after I became a mother, I thought about being a woman in my country.

The Jamat E Islam very tactfully termed the Shahbag movement an atheist movement, since all the war criminals are the leaders of Jamat, the political party based on the Islamic Revolution. Hefazat E Islam launched a major showdown in Dhaka on April 6. It is assumed that over five hundred thousand Islamic activists came to the capital to protest against the Anti-Islamic opinions in blogs. They have given 13 points charter for the government to approve and immediately execute or else they will create anarchy in the country and cause a system shutdown.

The thirteen-point demands are real threats to the primary spirit of the Bangladeshi constitution. Secularism and social justice are being questioned and there are demands for change according to Islamic law. The Hefazat also wants to end all “alien” cultural practices such as immodesty, lewdness, misconduct, the culture of free mixing of the sexes, candle lighting in the name of personal freedom and free speech. They also demand the abolishment of the anti-Islamic inheritance law and women’s development policy. They want to make Islamic education compulsory in all levels from primary to higher secondary schools.

A 1971 war poster saying, “Women and daughters of Bangladesh are freedom fighters.”

The demands are extremely gender-biased and unacceptable in the present context of the world. Presently Bangladesh is a country where both the government and opposition is led by female leaders, 32 million women are working in the garment industry (the “bread earner” for Bangladesh). Female students fare better than their male counterparts in schools and the paramilitary also boasts of women troopers. If the demands of the Hefazat are to be met, they will stall the development of half of the nation.

In a news report published on April 6 in the website BDNEWS24, a garment worker said “Who will feed our families, if we stay home?” She feels insecure about the well-being of her family since she knows if female members don’t earn, the entire family will starve.

Hefazat activists, on their end, have resorted to cruel means. Nadia Sharmin, a TV reporter was brutally beaten by them while she was reporting on their meeting on April 6. They did not like the fact that a woman was reporting about them. The Hefazat believe that women should not venture outside without being accompanied by a male member. She has to cover herself in a proper manner. The Hefazat’s attitude is absolutely unacceptable; people from all walks of society have protested and demanded punishment. No one has been arrested yet. Islam doesn’t teach violence or disrespecting women. However these pseudo Islamists are violating the rules of Quran, as well as the laws of the state.

Bangladesh has achieved the United Nation’s millennium goalsin female empowerment in the past decade. The progress is highly commendable and higher than neighboring countries. To achieve the economical stability and development goals such illogical demands cannot be entertained. The government has rightly ignored these demands; however the upcoming election is the most crucial elections Bangladesh has ever faced. The vote war has put the nation divided into many opinions. I strongly pray and hope that the people who use religion as a product to abuse the power do not win, the female voters of 18-40 years will turn out to be critical for the winner.

Author: Aziza Ahmed

Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan

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