Policing the ‘moral police’
Aug 22 2016 (The Daily Star, Bangladesh) – No punishment including physical violence and/or mental torture in any form, can be imposed or inflicted on anybody in pursuance of fatwa,” reads the Supreme Court verdict regarding fatwas. The landmark verdict also made it clear that no one can be forced to abide by a fatwa, and that such verdicts cannot in any way violate the rights or reputation of any person.
There is not much room for misreading or misinterpreting the verdict — that punishment cannot be handed out through such edicts is categorical. Speaking to the BBC in 2011, Attorney General Mahbubey Alam said: “No fatwa can be issued against the existing laws of the country. That means that no-one can dole out punishments in the name of a fatwa, especially when it may be mental or physical punishment.”
Yet, this week a woman in Rangpur was caned 101 times for an alleged extramarital affair due to such a ruling, that too, by a member of the Union Parishad.
The reported story is incomplete. From what we know now, it stands as such: one Saidul Islam had entered the house of the woman when her husband was not at home. Villagers heard of it from another neighbour. The ‘morality police’ that they are, they took it upon themselves to tie up Saidul. Of course, it is not surprising that the woman’s version of what happened is missing.
What happened next is sadly too familiar. The UP member, Aktar Hossain, was brought in and asked to conduct an arbitration. Villagers had said that even during the arbitration, the woman was not heard out by Aktar. He ordered the woman to be caned 101 times by her husband, while he caned the man 20 times. The number of issues that are horrifying, not to say illegal, here are astounding.
Firstly, in ordering the punishment, the UP member has clearly violated the law. In meting out his ‘arbitration’ by ordering physical punishment, he violated multiple points of the Supreme Court verdict. The verdict stated that only ‘properly educated’ personnel can edict fatwas, and even in that case they would not be binding. Instead, not only did he not refuse to accept mob justice, he took the law into his own hands. His arbitration verdict, which he was not qualified to give in the first place, was violent in nature, and on top of that he made sure it was duly enforced.
This begs the question: are the laws and verdicts of the highest judicial authority just mere words that a member of the administration can so casually disregard them? What actually happened is still murky, but even if the allegations against the woman and the man are true, what right does a UP member have to play the part of judiciary? Or is it that he was not aware of the verdict at all, in which case, it is all the more disturbing. Why are there not steps to implement in practice what is stated on paper?
Sadly, this incident is about much more than a failure to enforce the law; it is another manifestation of our collective mentality towards women. The disparity in the punishment for the man and the woman is striking — if both are party to the same crime, what justifies the five times harsher punishment for the woman? Even when the woman fell ill after the barbaric torture, she was sent home, instead of a hospital. To say here that our society remains deeply patriarchal and misogynistic is an understatement. Our misogyny, sugar coated by polemics about women’s honour, social codes, moralities, and religion has taken on a hideous form, and this incident is just one of the symptoms.
According to Ain o Salish Kendra, there were 12 documented cases of violence against women due to shalish and fatwas in 2015. This year, from January to June, ASK reports two more incidents. That one of this was a fatwa ‘punishing’ a woman by lashing because there was an attempt to rape her is outrageous.
Despite many achievements in curbing violence against women, we are in no position to be complacent. We have entertained demeaning and sexist attitudes towards women here for so long that when in the name of social codes and culture their rights are violated and they are physically or mentally harmed, we find justification for it. Take the incident of sexual harassment on the University of Dhaka campus during Pahela Baishakh celebrations last year. It was horrifying to see people on social media actually blaming the women for the attacks on them.
No wonder, many jumping on the morality bandwagon will think that the woman was at fault and deserved what was done to her. And that is precisely the problem. As long as we justify wrongs done to women with whatever excuse, our sexist attitudes will continue to thrive. What happened in Rangpur may not be representative of all cases, but the underlying thinking is endemic. Every time someone at the road thinks it their moral duty to chastise a woman for what she is wearing or doing, it reveals our sexist nature. Judgemental remarks about their behaviour and morals are something almost every girl in this country is familiar with. We continue to place women on pedestals while in our minds they remain little more than sexual objects.
There is of course a failure in our judicial and administrative system when a member of the Union Parishad so blatantly disregards and breaks the law. That must be punished, and laws need to go beyond paper. But, to truly get rid of violence against women, we also require a change in the way we think of women.
The BBC article on the Supreme Court verdict on fatwas cited the incident of a 14-year old girl who was killed after public lashing for allegedly having an extra-marital affair. Where do we stand, when administration officials can take it upon themselves to continue the very thing that the law sought to redress?
The writer is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.
This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh