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Fatwas are out, rule of law is in

Govind Acharya
Oakland, California
USA

As I was browsing the web the other day, I happened upon an article that caught my eye—the Bangladesh High Court had ruled that fatwas were unconstitutional. What great news for all those who feel that many in the country uses this form of punishment for their own personal gain or to stifle dissent. Most of these fatwas are targeted towards women that are simply trying to live within their constitutionally guaranteed protections. Why should someone just go around issuing edicts just because they claim to be holier than thou? 
Needless to say, this has angered these folks tremendously. Some of them have decided that to take revenge on the court for conducting themselves in this way. Why, they even decided that they could use a local mosque to lynch a policeman. This act is despicable. However, this is simply one of many despicable acts that have been committed in the name of these edicts. For example, in a press dispatch from Amnesty International dated, January 5, 2001, there is mention of a fatwa issued against Noorjahan Begum and her husband in 1993. Their crime—they got married after Ms Begum received a legally sanctioned divorce. Let’s assume for a moment that Begum and her husband committed a crime. The proper procedure would be to have FIR taken by the police, then a trial, in order to ascertain guilt. Needless to say that did not happen here. What did happen was that the villagers buried her and her husband in the ground up to their chest and were stoned. She died, but her husband survived. I wish to reiterate that she committed no crime. 
This ruling against religious edicts is part of the conflict that has divided the country since it won its freedom from Pakistan in 1971. During the struggle, many of those who are now bemoaning the loss of their power to judge, jury, and executioner, are the same characters that backed Pakistan in the war. A Bangladesh that heralded the triumph of Bengali nationalism was not compatible with the aim of many who wished Pakistan to be united under the flag of Islam. While I don’t wish to argue about whether an Islamic jurisprudence would be a valuable addition to the existing structure, I will say that having a situation where seemingly random people can commit murder at the expense of a rich and beautiful religious tradition. I am truly saddened at how certain people use religion for their own purposes. This is not, of course, unique to Bangladesh. But, in a nation that prides itself on its Bengali character, regardless of faith, fatwas are simply incompatible with the spirit that was evident in the end of 1971. 
We must applaud the High Court for their brave stance on this issue. It is up to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Opposition Leader Khaleda Zia to come together in their appreciation for what has been done. Both must state unequivocally that the threats to pro-women NGOs and High Court justices must end and those making threats must be arrested. I am further calling on Opposition Leader Zia to renounce such actions even though it may not seem to be in her best interests. For, a Bangladesh that is bound by the rule of law can only help all the citizens of Bangladesh. 
Below, appears the Amnesty International press release on fatwas:
Amnesty International today welcomed this week's landmark Bangladesh High Court ruling that fatwas -- religious edicts issued by the Muslim clergy – are illegal. The court also ruled that such edicts, most of which are issued against women, must be made punishable by an act of parliament. 
"This is a significant and most welcome development which sends a clear message that discriminatory practices against women, particularly in rural areas, are unacceptable and must stop," Amnesty International said. "The division bench of the High Court which made the ruling, and the Bangladeshi women's rights activists who presented the court with evidence against the practice of fatwa, are to be congratulated." 
Dozens of fatwas are issued each year by the rural clergy at village gatherings after receipt of complaints, usually against women who assert themselves in village family life. They impose flogging and stoning, and other humiliating punishments such as shaving of heads, insults and beatings. They are also often involved in their execution. 
In many cases, there appears to be a financial motive involved. Fatwas can be a source of income for the local clergy, known as Fatwabaz (in fatwa business), who justify their deeds in the name of religion. In October 2000, the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance reported that 26 fatwas issued in the previous year were an attempt "to stifle any efforts to emancipate women." 
In 1993 a fatwa was issued against 21-year-old Noorjahan Begum and her second husband on grounds that their marriage was un-Islamic. Noorjahan had married for a second time after she had taken action, which she thought was in line with accepted practice, to end her first traumatic marriage. She was buried in the ground up to her chest, and stoned to death by villagers. Her husband survived the stoning. 
Last July, Rashida, a housewife from Sylhet District, was reportedly flogged 20 times in public. A local clergyman issued a fatwa on her for allowing a man who had called to see her husband to wait in her house until the husband arrived. With her husband chronically ill, Rashida had assumed the position of the head of the family. 
The landmark judgment was delivered by two renowned justices of the High court, Mohammad Gholam Rabbani and Nazmun Ara Sultana -- the first woman judge in the country. Amnesty International is concerned they may be targeted by Islamist groups and is calling on the government to ensure their safety. 
"This judgment highlights the failure of the government to provide protection to women against the practice of fatwa. It must now follow the example of the judges and take action to bring to justice any person who issues a fatwa and to ensure that such unlawful edicts are punishable by law."

The columnist is Bangladesh Country Specialist for Amnesty International, USA

 


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