Women, Islam, and the State:
subordination and resistence
Tazeen Mahnaz Murshid
University of North London


 After a period of political oblivion, the religious right in Bangladesh has not only made electoral gains but also successfully engaged in political alliances which allowed it to campaign virtually unopposed for an Islamic state where women could step outdoors only at their own peril. The many speared campaign has targetted development organisations which empower women through offering loans, skills training and employment opportunities. It is argued that female emancipation is not part of God's plan. Schools for girls have not remained unscathed. Women who dared to challenge existing social codes, alongside those who did not have been equally victims of violence and moral censure. These activities are at odds with the development objectives of the state. Yet, at times the role of the state has been an ambivalent one. Where decisive action could have stemmed the tide, none was forthcoming.

This paper seeks to examine the position and status of women in Bangladesh in relation to the interplay of religion and politics. In order to do so it will first present some relevant backgound information on the history of the country and recent data on socio-economic indicators of female status. A discussion of the nature of women's subordination and resistance follows: the women's movement, though weak, has achieved some success in negotiating policy changes at the state level. Therefore, its interactions with the state merits some attention. An assumption shared by feminist scholars is that the postcolonial state reinforces gender inequality and sanctions injustices against women.1 This view will be examined within a context where political Islam is an important force to be reckoned with.

It is argued that the position of the state is compromised because of the alliances it has had to forge with the religious right. In particular, the Jama'at-i-Islami Party may be mentioned, for it is committed to the establishment of its own vision of an Islamic state, wherein the public role of women would be significantly curtailed. In order to demonstrate the implications of the rise of the Jama'at for female emancipation and gender equality the paper will examine its response to the feminist writer, Taslima Nasrin. Her works will be analysed in an attempt to put into perspective the nature of her 'offence' and the expectations of society from women.


 Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation state in 1971 committed to a secular liberal democracy. While its secular politics was compatible with ideas of gender equality, the new government was too busy dealing with the ravages of war to pursue this objective creatively. Nor was there a significant women's movement at the time to influence policy. A major concern of the state was to rehabilitate destitute or raped women, often marriage was regarded as the only means.2 Subsequently, government and non-government initiatives were focussed on securing gainful employment for such women. As a result, initiatives such as skills training and encouragement of cottage industries based on traditional crafts which could be marketed abroad were pursued. It was a time when organisations such as BRAC and Grameen Bank were established, mobilising, educating, organising and conscientising women in an attempt to help them throw off the shackles of subordination and achieve some degree of financial security, i.e., control over their own earnings.

 Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's secular government was overthrown in 1975. After a series of military coups, Ziaur Rahman emerged as the next head of state with strong army backing. Hussein Muhammad Ershad, a repatriated military officer, became president after the assassination of Zia in 1981. Zia and Ershad pursued similar policies: decentralisation through the creation of gram sarkar and Upazila Parishads to gain new support bases in rural areas and increase the influence of the rural rich; winning the support of the Islamic orthodoxy by institutionalising Islam at the state level, while subscribing to women and development (WID) policies. There was also a to the right in international alignment.

 Both under Zia and Ershad, state policy on women pulled in opposite directions. At one level, it supported development initiatives funded by foreign donors which aimed to empower women; at another, it capitulated to the forces of religious extremism which sought to reverse this process. Kabeer has argued that both Zia and Ershad played a

... blatant balancing act between the conflicting gender ideologies implicit in different aid packages ... to accommodate the conflicting demands of the Saudis and the Americans by preaching Islam while practising population control.3
While the principle underlying the argument is valid, the examples cited reflect a bias. The argument assumes the view that birth control is not sanctioned in Islam whereas in fact, this is the interpretation given by some groups, including the Jama'at, while others disagree on the grounds that the Koran makes no explicit or implicit statement on the issue.4 Therefore, some believers would find no contradiction in the policies.

 With the fall of Ershad and the resumption of the electoral process, a civilian government was installed in 1991. But, the party in power, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, founded by Ziaur Rahman, originated in the army; hence, it continues to maintain strong links with it. In addition to this, the acute crisis of governability faced by the state under Khaleda Zia because of a non-functioning parliament, makes it unlikely that it will deviate from the path of Zia and Ershad in its internal and external policies.

Socio-economic status of women

 Bangladesh is a low income developing country with a population of 114 million growing at the rate of 2 per cent per annum. The female population is approximately 48.6 per cent. Eightyfive per cent of the population is rural. The economy is primarily agrarian: 36 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) originates in agriculture. The manufacturing sector accounts for only 10 per cent of the GDP.5 The country is aid dependent for a large share of its development expenditure. This was 35 per cent under Mujib, 40 per cent under Zia and 48 per cent under Ershad in the early years, 1981/82 to 1984/85; subsequently, down to 42 per cent in the budget of 1986/87 to 1987/88.6 Under the current elected government of Khaleda Zia, $1.8 million in aid meets two-third of the country's development expenditure.7

 The socio-economic indicators of female status reveal that women bear a disproportionately high share of the country's underdevelopment compared to men. The literacy rate for women, 15 years and above, is 24.2 per cent compared to 45.5 per cent for men of the same cohort. Their life expectancy is 55.4 years as against 56.4 years for men. The daily per capita calorie intake for women is 1,599 k cal while for men it is considerably higher, 1,927 k cal. The wage rates for women is 58 per cent of men's for the same job, dropping to 43 per cent during the slack season. As much as 43 per cent women and only 8 per cent men earn less than Tk 100 ($2.5) per week.

 Despite this bleak picture, there has been an increase in the levels of female participation in the national economy. Between 1983/84 and 1985/86, the economically active female population rose from 2.4 to 3.1 million. Between the years 1985/86 and 1988/89 women contributed an annual increase of 4.2 per cent to the labour force against the national average of 2.6 per cent. More phenomenal changes occurred in urban areas: while the economically active population grew at the rate of 7.1 per cent annually, this was 50 per cent among the female population!8

 There has been a steady transfer of the labour force from agricultural to non-agricultural occupations such as manufacturing, as well as some improvement in the working and living standards of women. With the changing pattern of female labour increasing attention has been paid to the terms and conditions of work such as wages, working hours and child care facilities in the workplace as well as access to public resources like health care, education and training. However, it has also given rise to male hostility. Waz mahfils have condemned women for the destruction of the soil and causing crop failure because they go out to work.9 A more earthly reason for such censure is economic competition.

The subordination of women

 The subordination of the majority of women is illustrated by the attidues of men derived from socially and culturally determined concepts of gender roles which prevent women from becoming self reliant: for example, belief in purdah reduces female mobility and the scope for full participation in national life, such as in education and employment; hence, it enhances dependence. Women are considered inferior by most men, even in professions like journalism.10 Women's work is undervalued both in terms of pay and status. Women are primarily expected to be wives and mothers engaged in undervalued work like reproducing and rearing children, cooking, cleaning and looking after the household. Otherwise, they are expected to work in areas considered suitable for women: in the agricultural sector, this includes sowing, husking, reaping etc. and in the non-agricultural sector, teaching, sewing, knitting, crafts and embroidary etc. But, as Bhattacharya points out, it is in the non-traditional sector of manufacturing that women may expect changes in the sexual division of labour, higher incomes and a concomitant change in social attitudes.11

 State inability to contain poverty, illiteracy and corruption have ensured the vulnerability of women. Their search for a better life frequently leads them to fall prey to unscrupulous men who traffic in women in the international scene.12 Often, their lack of knowledge about their rights prevents them from exercising these. They are not sufficiently protected from domestic violence, including dowry deaths because these are not treated as criminal offences, but as family quarrels to be resolved by family courts. However, family laws treat women unequally: marraige, divorce, custody of children, inheritance, etc are resolved by family courts through the application of shariah laws which favour men.

Women's subordination is also ensured by the policies of the patriarchal, post-colonial state of Bangladesh which is not fully committed to female equality. On the contrary, it has endorsed violence and injustices against women, both in the private and public spheres, through its failure to enact and implement appropriate measures of deterence. The existing legal system was bypassed by the fatwa courts which pronounced verdicts of death on the writer, Taslima Nasrin and others, whereas, in fact these institutions have no legal authority to do so under the constitution. Even so, the state took no action against them.

Resistance to subordination

 The history of resistance to subordination has focussed largely on how religion has been manipulated to ensure male domination followed by the advocacy of economic emancipation for women and revision of family laws. The women's movement in Bangladesh, has been weak because it has largely been an urban, middle-class phenomenon. With increasing participation of rural women in the economy, the movement has acquired a wider support base. Between the fifties and nineties, women's concerns have widened from personal laws, to issues of economic empowerment, domestic violence and their public roles.

 The women's movement achieved some success in influencing state policy. In the fifties, the All Pakistan Women's Association successfully lobbied Ayub Khan to eventually enact the 1961 Family Laws Ordinance. This restricted polygamy in the face of orthodox opposition. The military could afford to dispense with the religious right because it was not the source of its legitimacy.

 In the eighties, the women's movement was only partially successful in obtaining a commitment from the state to eliminate inequality in accordance to the UN Resolution number 180 of 1976.13 Articles 2, 13(a) and 16(d) were left out on the grounds that these were not in accordance to the shariah.14 Article 2 stipulated that existing institutional structures such as the legal and judicial system as well as social norms and practices, should be modified in conformity with the provisions of the document. Article 13(a) laid down the principle whereby women would have equal opportunities to take out loans and mortgages. negotiate contracts and participate in sports and cultural activities. Article 16 provided for equal rights and responsibilities for women in relation to the family. In striking contrast to Ayub Khan, the military regimes of Zia and Ershad, relied on religious sanction for their legitimacy; therefore, they were unable to fully endorse the document.

 It was thus no surprise that the protests against the State Religion Bill by the Oikya Badhya Nari Samaj fell on deaf ears. Subsequently, Naripkkkho filed a writ against the state claiming that the Bill was contrary to the fundamental rights of women. Neverthless, Islam was given the status of state religion through a constitutional amendment in 1988. The state position is that women may achieve equality within the scope of the law currently in practice, or by bypassing the impact of some of these. For example, under personal laws, sisters inherit half the share of their brother's inheritance. The impact of this could be offset by parents through the institution of heba or gift. Women do not automatically have the right of divorce or the promise of monogamy of husbands, but these could be ensured in the marraige contract.

 The post-colonial state of Bangladesh has thus played a role in re-enforcing gender inequality, the reasons are both structural and normative. The Bangladesh state is a weak state. Decisions are not based on dialogue and compromise. The lack of consensus generally means that it is unable to enforce decisions, ensure accountability, contain violence or implement the rule of law. As a weak, aid dependent state it is unable to stand up to donors and foreign governments. Hence, family planning receives a higher allocation than social welfare or women's affairs; and health and family planning come under different ministries.15

Jama'at-i- Islami and feminism

 The increasingly important political role played by the Jama'at today as a third force exercising the balance of power ensures continued tension between the world views of the religious right and feminists. Effectively, the foundations were laid during the Zia period for the rise of the Islamic right. Undoubtedly, the entry of the military in politics provoked a legitimacy crisis. In its search for new support bases, the leadership adopted measures of inclusion and exclusion whereby Islamists were ushered in while secularists were being rendered ineffective.

 The Eighth Amendment was a major gain for the Islamists, who were also making gains elsewhere. To illustrate, their influence in the sphere of education was manifest in the number of madrasahs and recruitment of teachers and students (see Table 1 below). During the period of Ershad's rule there was more than a hundred fold increase in the number of government and affiliated madrasahs and nearly 300 percent increase in the number of staff and enrolment of students.


Table 1

Number of Madrasahs with Teachers and Students

(1977/78 to 1991/92)


                        1977/78         1981/82           1990/91         1991/92


Madrasahs*                1,976           2,864             5,959           6,025

Students                375,000         388,000         1.028,000       1.735,000

Teachers                 21,579          29,608            83,761          94,961

*from secondary level and above - government and affiliated
Source: Bureau of Statistics, Statistical Pocketbook of Bangladesh, various issues, based on information obtained from the Madrasah Board.

 Another significant gain made by the Jama'at and its supporters occurred in 1991. During the elections none of the major parties achieved an absolute majority. The BNP achieved a majority in parliament with the support of the Jama'at. Thus, for the first time in the history of the new nation the Jama'at gained a formal role in government.

While its position in government was a recognition of its rehabilitation at the state level, the matter was far from resolved in the streets. The selection of Golam Azam as the amir of the Jama'at provoked a massive protest because he was accused of war crimes. The celebrated case of the feminist writer Taslima Nasreen offered them a pretext to attention away from Golam Azam and increase the momentum of their campaign for the establishment of an Islamic state based on shariah laws.

 As a lone woman perceived to have stepped out of acceptable social bounds she became an easy target of misrepresentation. Taslima was accused of subverting the cultural and religious values of the state and hence was depicted as a traitor to the state and religion, rashtradrohi and dharmadrohi. A process of 'psychological manipulation' of the popular psyche was carefully orchestrated. Extracts from her works were presented out of context to portray her as one who insults Islam, hates men and is a woman of loose moral standards. In a leaflet, she is charged with accusing God to be a liar, of making fun of the Day of Judgement, of going against the dictates of religion by insinuating that the birth of a son or daughter has nothing to do with God's will but is determined by chromosomes.16 By challenging existing codes and superstitions, she earned the censure of their upholders.

 Taslima rightly advocates the freedom of women to determine the size of their families. But, she provocatively describes it as the 'freedom of the womb', jarayur swadhinata. Therefore, in the campaign of calumny against her she is accused of campaigning for free sex, a charge she vehemently refutes.17 Quotations from her book Lajja have been bandied about to prove that she deems Muslims to be unworthy of trust and the state to be communal and discriminatory to religious minorities.18 This is a misreading of her essential message: Taslima, the social critic is shaming a nation for betraying itself,- for she believes Hindus and Muslims to be one nation,- and challenges it to confront some unpalatable truth about itself.

 Her harshest critiques were levelled against pirs, mullahs and razakaars. In her columns she wrote about their misdeeds and scathingly noted, 'The image of a pir is no longer that of a good and pure Muslim - pir means evil, worthless and tremendously lustful men'.19 It is thus no wonder that these men of religion wanted her head.

 The Jama'at and its various front organizations took full advantage of the fact that Taslima's provocative message, language and style had alienated large segments of Bengali society. Women accused her of 'derailing the feminist movement'. Politicians held her responsible for the bad press Bangladesh was receiving abroad. Religious bigots insinuated she was pandering to the West, India and the extremist rightwing party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Intellectuals implied that she was after cheap publicity. Literary competitors considered her work shallow. Others envied her success, while most men were annoyed at her audacity: in one of her poems she warns women to flee from men for they carried syphilis in the same way that one ran away from dogs which had rabies. In daring to confront society at many fronts, Taslima became isolated; she says in one of her columns: 'Like a dot I am alone in this universe'.

 The Awami League, historically a proponent of secular ideals, gave her no backing, not even when fatwas were thrice declared by mullahs for her death on the ground that she had insulted Islam.20 It was loath to jeopardize its 'undeclared alliance'21 with the Jama'at in its struggle to force the BNP government to amend the constitution so that future elections could be held under a caretaker government.

 The government too was hostile. It withdrew the protection she had obtained through a court injunction. Instead, on the 4th of June, the Home Ministry obtained a warrant for her arrest; it took no action against those who violated the law through incitement to murder.

 This provoked an outcry from foreign governments, which eventually led to her exile to Sweden. Nationally, however, the state had played into the hands of mullahs. Interpreting government and opposition roles as tacit support for their stand, they believed that victory was within reach and intensified their campaign for Islamic rule at various fronts. There were demands for the introduction of blasphemy laws as in Pakistan, for the execution of all atheists and apostates (nastik and murtad), for the ban on all publications by such people, for Ahmadiyas to be decreed non-Muslims etc. These were accompanied by massive demonstrations, meetings and the setting up of organizations such as the Sanmilita Sangram Parishad and branch committees with provocative names such as Student Soldiers of Islam or Islami Chhatra Sena to spread the message into villages.22

 The controversy surrounding Taslima Nasreen makes sense only if it is seen in the context of a struggle between the forces of religious extremism and secular liberalism, which are both vying for the hearts and minds of the people in Bangladesh. These forces are engaged in symbol manipulation to secure the social and political order they desire. The status and visibility of women form an important element in this struggle as the orthodoxy had always viewed gender issues to lie within their jurisdiction. Feminists pose a threat to such territorial assertions.

 But Taslima is only one of the many victims of the vengeance of fanatical forces. She survived because of the publicity, the foreign interest and the support of a few who rose to defend the rule of law.23 Others were less fortunate: one woman was stoned to death for alleged adultery whereas, in fact, the lustful gaze of a mullah had fallen on her. Several intellectuals and writers like the poet Shamsur Rahman and the scholar Ahmad Sharif also face death threats because they subscribe to secular, rationalist, non-communal and democratic values. Religious extremists have described them as deshdrohi, rashtradrohi and dharmadrohi, traitors to the nation, state and religion.

 A series of such provocative actions have virtually led to the establishment of a parallel structure of authority in remote areas far from the reaches of officialdom. Various front organizatons of the Jama'at supported by their own armed cadre have begun to impart Islamic justice. They derive their authority from the fatwas given by local mullahs and not from any court. Not only have thieves lost their limbs and 'adulterers' been stoned, but opposition newspapers have lost access to various distributors and their clients. Many rural women have been divorced by fatwa for practicing birth control. Such a situation is novel in the history of the region. Women are also losing their marital status for taking bank loans for their small businesses. It is being argued that economic independence for women is undesirable because it can give them a status superior to men, which was not God's design.24 Non government organizations like BRAC and their workers have been attacked by madrasah students for allegedly spreading Christianity. BRAC schools for girls have been burnt in protest against 'westernized' female education. Here coercion is a method of neutralising the sources of alternative ideologies. Various women's groups and legal bodies have gathered evidence and successfully convicted some of the fatwabaj mullahs.25 But the trend persists unabated while the police find themselves inadequately armed to face the challenge.26


 The paper has attempted to examine the interplay of religion and politics in relation to its impact on the position and status of women. It demonstrates that the forces of religious 'fundamentalism' do not endorse the concept of female equality and that an alliance between these forces and a weak state is particularly problematic for female emancipation. The state is unable to play an effective role as a mediator between these forces and the women who are often their victims, because it effectively becomes a party to the perpetration of injustices against them.


1. An author notes, 'In all postcolonial nations the state, envisaged as the guarantor of rights to its citizens, have invariably emerged instead as a major perpetrator of injustices - whether as a function of military power, or, as in India as an aspect of political parties' electoral calculations'. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, Real and Imagined Women: gender, culture and postcolonialism, (London and New York: Routeledge, 1994), p.6.

2. Kabeer notes that rehabilitation, whether of prostitutes, jail inmates or other fallen women were determined by notions of 'purity'. Marraige ensured the return of women to a relatively pure state. Other initiatives focussed on gender specific training such as sewing, knitting etc. as acceptable women's work. Naila Kabeer, The Quest for National Identity: women, Islam and the state, (Institute of Development Studies Discussion Paper No. 268, Sussex, October 1989), pp. 19-21.

3. Naila Kabeer, 'Subordination and Struggle: women in Bangladesh', New Left Review, No.168, pp. 114-15.

4. Tazeen M. Murshid, The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses, 1871 - 1977, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 7.

5. Debapriya Bhattacharya, 'Women and industrial employment in Bangladesh: challenges and opportunities in the era of new technologies', a paper prepared for the United Nations University Institute for New Technologies, Dhaka, July 1994, p. 10.

6.Ben Crow, 'The state in Bangladesh: the extension of a week state', in Subrata K. Mitra (ed.), The Post-Colonial State in Asia: dialectics of politics and culture, (New York, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990), p.207.

7. D. Bhattacharya, op. cit., p.10.

8. Women's contribution to the agricultural labour force appears to rise from 0.4 million in 1985/86 to 18.8 million in 1989 as a result of this method of estimation. If the female household agricultural labour is discounted as per the earlier definition, the 1989 figure would be approximately 2 million, also indicating a significant increase in female participation since 1985/86. See World Bank, Bangladesh: from stabilization to growth, March 17 1994, Table 1.8 p. 176.

9. Maleka Begum, Nari andolan: samasya o bhabiswat, (Dhaka: Gyan Prakashani, 1989), p. 72.

10. Nahid Bakr, 'Problems faced by women journalists in Bangladesh', in Firdous Azim and Niaz Zaman (eds.) Infinite Variety, (Dhaka: University Press Ltd, 1994) pp. 319-21.

11. D. Bhattacharya, op. cit., p.13-14.

12. Kazi Sufia Akhter, 'Shishu o nari pachar prasange', Edesh Ekal, No. 2, April 1988, pp. 23-26.

13. The resolution underpinned the plan of action for the UN Decade of Women and was submitted in 1980 to national governments to endorse and implement. The military regimes of Zia and Ershad looked to religious sanction for legitimacy and the religious right for support. The men of political Islam do not approve of female emancipation and do not believe in equality. Hence state policy was opposed to signing the document. Faced with tremendous pressure from women's groups, the document was partially approved and endorsed.

14. Meherunnisa Isam, 'Narir somanadhikar prosanga', Edesh Ekal, No. 4, December 1986 - January 1987, p.37.

15. In the third Five Year Plan, Tk 870 crore was allocated to Family Planning, Tk 550 crore to Health, Tk 75 crore to Social Welfare and Tk 50 crore to Women's Affairs. It is estimated that another Tk 50 crore was allocated for women through other sectors. See Planning Commission, The Third Five Year Plan, 1985-90, Ministry o Planning, Govt. of Bangladesh, Dhaka, December 1985, pp. 371, 391, 396, 401.

16. Leaflet, Dharmadrohi o deshdrohi nastikder rukhe darao, 26 June, 1994 (Dhaka: Oitijhya Sangsad).

17. Taslima Nasreen, Nashta Meyer, Nashta Gadya, (Dhaka, 1992, 1993), pp. 60-61.

18. Leaflet, Dharmadrohi, op.cit., pp. 4-7. Taslima Nasreen, Lajja, (Calcutta: Ananda, 1993), p.31.

19. Taslima Nasreen, Nirbachita Column, (Dhaka: Vidyaprakash, 1991, 1992) pp.27-28. All translations of extracts are by the author.

20. Fatwas were pronounced in Sylhet in October 1993 and twice in June 1994 in Bogra and Khulna, Bangladesh. In Sylhet a price of Tk. 50,000 (approximately US $ 1,500) was put on her head.

21. Barrister Sarah Hossain, interviewed for Newsnight, BBC 2, London, August 4, 1994.

22. Inquilab, Dhaka, 12th of August, 1994.

23. Taslima went into hiding for she could not even present herself at court in safety. She emerged from hiding on the 4th of August, 1994 after assurances and armed protection was secured.

24. Inquilab, 12th and 19th of August 1994.

25. Ain-o-Shalish Kendra, 'Threats of violence and violations of human rights by imams of mosques and the religious right in Bangladesh' (a collection of cases compiled for the period 1992-94, unpublished), Dhaka, 1994.

26. In Chittagong, the police confessed their inability to control the Shibir- Yuva Command because their own weapons were inferior. There was evidence to suggest that arms were coming to specific Shibir members from Pakistan by post. See Dainik Sangbad, Dhaka, Friday, 12 August 1994, p.6.

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