Women, Islam, and the State:
subordination and resistence
Tazeen Mahnaz Murshid
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
*from secondary level and above - government
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
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
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 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.
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.
Naila Kabeer, 'Subordination and Struggle: women in Bangladesh', New
Left Review, No.168, pp. 114-15.
Tazeen M. Murshid, The Sacred and the Secular: Bengal Muslim Discourses,
1871 - 1977, (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), chapter 7.
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.
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,
D. Bhattacharya, op. cit., p.10.
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.
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.
D. Bhattacharya, op. cit., p.13-14.
Kazi Sufia Akhter, 'Shishu o nari pachar prasange', Edesh Ekal, No.
2, April 1988, pp. 23-26.
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.
Meherunnisa Isam, 'Narir somanadhikar prosanga', Edesh Ekal, No. 4,
December 1986 - January 1987, p.37.
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.
Leaflet, Dharmadrohi o deshdrohi nastikder rukhe darao, 26 June, 1994
(Dhaka: Oitijhya Sangsad).
Taslima Nasreen, Nashta Meyer, Nashta Gadya, (Dhaka, 1992, 1993),
Dharmadrohi, op.cit., pp. 4-7. Taslima Nasreen, Lajja, (Calcutta:
Ananda, 1993), p.31.
Taslima Nasreen, Nirbachita Column, (Dhaka: Vidyaprakash, 1991, 1992)
pp.27-28. All translations of extracts are by the author.
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.
Barrister Sarah Hossain, interviewed for Newsnight, BBC 2, London,
August 4, 1994.
Inquilab, Dhaka, 12th of August, 1994.
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.
Inquilab, 12th and 19th of August 1994.
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),
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