There was a perceptible sense of optimism and joy on the streets of Dhaka this New Year's day when the Bangladesh High Court, in a path-breaking judgement, declared all fatwas illegal. Human rights activists were jubilant because the judgement, they say, was a decisive blow to the menace of religious fundamentalism in the country. Within hours, the celebrations had spilled on to the streets.
But the response of fundamentalist leaders, expectedly, was equally swift and forceful. The same day, Maulana Fazlul Haque Amini, a self-proclaimed religious guru, declared Justices Golam Rabbani and Najmun Ara Sultana, who had delivered the verdict, murtad or infidels. Describing their judgement as un-Islamic, Amini called upon believers to take immediate action against the judges, interpreted widely as a call to eliminate them.
The judgement was pronounced after Justices Rabbani and Sultana took up the case of Shahida Begum, a poor divorced housewife in a remote village in northern Nawgaon district, who was forced by an impromptu religious court to marry another man in order to revive her first marriage. Her story was first published by Banglabazaar Patrika, a local newspaper.
Shahida had to go through hila nikah, a humiliating process in which a divorced woman can live with her husband again only after marrying another man and getting a divorce after consummating her second marriage. Shahida's first husband, Saiful Islam, had divorced her following an altercation. Though he later regretted his decision, saying he did it in a fit of temper, the religious court's fatwa decreed the marriage was no longer valid. With no legal protection, Shahida had to marry another man, albeit for a short time, in order to come back to Saiful.
Incensed and shocked at the incident, the High Court panel not only took suo motu action but also ordered the local...