“Fatwas are oppressive tools used to control women in Bangladesh” – Dhaka activist Khushi Kabir

By Pragya Narang

“People use different oppressive modes and fatwa is just one of the religious tools they have on their hands to control women who go outside the box or norms that the clerics have decided for womenfolk,” said Khushi Kabir, the honorary coordinator and advisor to Sangat, a feminist network in South Asia, and Bangladesh coordinator for the One Billion Rising Campaign.

When looking deep into the practice, Kabir said she discovered that most fatwas had to do with land, property, and position rather than religion.

“Fatwas are more a rural phenomenon rather than an urban one. These were very common in the 1990s and often led to stoning of women but women’s organisations were quick to take cognizance of it,’ said the feminist activist who has worked with Nijera Kori since 1980 spending most of her activism time in rural areas, especially with rural women. Nijera Kori is a national-level nonprofit working with rural women and men in over a thousand villages.

Khushi Kabir was speaking at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women in a panel titled ‘Doctrine of Oppression: The Gendered Cost of Religious Extremism’. Her copanelists included Mariam Safi, the Afghanistani-Canadian founding executive director of Organization for Policy Research & Development Studies, Kabul; US-based journalist-filmmaker Beena Sarwar, who heads the peacebuilding platform Aman ki Asha and is founder-curator of South Asia Peace Action Network; and Riya Singh, co-founder of the collective Dalit Women Fight, and ICSSR doctoral fellow from India.

The panel discussed the Taliban in Afghanistan, caste-based sexual violence in India, attacks on feminists in Pakistan and Bangladesh, and threw light at how religious extremism targets women first and most of all. It was moderated by the founder of eShe and South Asia Union, Aekta Kapoor.

Panel 11 at South Asia Union Summit Led by Women

Lamenting about how Bangladesh lacks support of state agencies, Kabir revealed governments’ complicity in promoting religious extremism: “In order to stay in power, the first thing political parties do is try and appease religious sentiments. Governments lack the will to question religious organisations even though they claim that they are trying to do everything to reduce gender discrepancies.”

While Bangladesh has done decently well in many areas such as education, employment, women’s health, vaccination, political representation, and has had a woman prime minister since 1991, the country remains a hotbed for religious extremism mainly because the government immediately scurries to pander to the needs of religious organisations as the religious card is essential for politicians to stay in power, Kabir said.

Taking the example of how Qaumi madrassas are funded by the government, she disclosed, “Despite the fact that they are not transparent about their curriculum and don’t allow the government to have a say in what they teach, passouts from these madrassas are treated as equivalent to having a Master’s degree. When bloggers, free-thinkers or rationalists try to raise voices about this, the government supports religious extremists by arresting those raising their voices.”

Secularism is part of the constitution, yet Bangladesh also happens to have Islam as a state religion. “How can we have such a dichotomous Constitution? These issues allow the fermentation of obscurantist religious ethics. Every month we fight against atrocities aimed at indigenous people or against the burning and vandalism against Hindu and Buddhist temples,” she said. 

In such a scenario, even Muslims of secular temperaments are not spared. “Secular people are considered atheists and it is projected that you go to heaven if you kill an atheist or a nonbeliever,” she said.

At the same time, hope has arrived for women in the form of progressive laws, she said. “Courts have now given an order that fatwas are illegal. We are very active in spreading awareness across Bangladesh about the illegality of fatwas. So even though they are still being used in a covert manner to stop women from speaking out, going out, and being independent, public fatwas have reduced greatly as the people are aware of the legal repercussions attached to it and are wary of the fact that they can be taken to court over it,” said Kabir.

South Asia Union Summit Led by Women is a nonprofit initiative by eShe, a digital platform based in New Delhi that amplifies women’s voices from South Asia and globally. The first in a planned series of annual events, it brought together 50 eminent women from 13 countries to discuss solutions for peace, gender equality, social justice and a unified South Asia. 

The event was timed to coincide with the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi and the UN’s International Day of Non-Violence.

In January 2021, eShe had also organised the first-ever Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women.

The entire event schedule and list of speakers at South Asia Union Summit Led by Women can be found here.

The full videos of the event are already up in the video sections of the social media channels of eShe as each panel was broadcast live, and here are the links: 

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