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later regretted his decision, saying he did it in a fit of temper, the religious court's fatwa decreed the marriage was no longer valid.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 administration to arrest Azizul Haque, the cleric who had issued the fatwa. In its verdict, the court ruled that Bangladesh Parliament must enact appropriate laws prescribing severe punishment for those who issue fatwas, that schools and madrasas must include the Muslim Family Law in textbooks to underline the un-Islamic nature of fatwas, and that imams must preach at Friday congregations about the pernicious effects of edict-like fatwas. (Traditionally, fatwas are an alim or a scholar's interpretations of Islamic laws that Muslims sought for removing their confusion.)
Says Ayesha Khanam, general secretary of the Bangladesh Women Council: "The verdict was our best gift on the New Year's day. It's a victory for all helpless women in our country." Argues Dr Kamal Hossain, an eminent jurist who was instrumental in persuading the judges to rule against the clerics: "Fatwas are unconstitutional and against the fundamental rights."
But there are many pessimists too. Many say the verdict is unlikely to end repression against women in a country where they still play a subservient role and where semi-literate religious leaders, especially in rural areas, rule the roost. The response of fundamentalists too has added to their fear.
The verdict, however, has emboldened several victims to demand punishment against fatwa-happy local clerics. In the last one week alone, there have been at least a dozen newspaper reports of religious leaders fleeing their villages to escape the rising tide of public anger against them.
Determined women activists want the verdict to be implemented, saying that it has come after years of struggle. The first public outcry was spurred by the blood-curdling case of Noorjahan Begum, a poor housewife in a remote village in northeastern Sylhet district, who was issued a fatwa in 1993. She was buried alive up to her waist and stoned 101 times for allegedly committing adultery. Noorjahan survived the stoning, but she committed suicide that same night.
The perpetrators of this crime could never be brought to justice in the absence of any law to deal with fatwas.
The recent judgement, many feel, has plugged the lacuna because the judges have asked the administration to take immediate cognisance of fatwa-related incidents anywhere in the country and take appropriate action against the perpetrators.
With religious leaders deciding to appeal against the High Court verdict, the judicial coup against fundamentalism would be complete if the Supreme Court were to uphold the judgement of January 1.
Arshad Mahmud in Dhaka
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