Bangladesh Must Take Action to Protect Women Against Fatwa Violence

July 8, 2011

Human Rights Watch has released a statement insisting that the Bangladeshi government take action without delay to enforce the orders from the Supreme Court to stop illegal punishments such as whipping, lashing, or public humiliations of women.

The issue became especially urgent when a local self-appointed groupĀ in Shariatpur district in the Dhaka division ordered 100 lashes in January 2011 for Hena Akhter, an adolescent girl, for an alleged affair, though by most accounts she had reported being sexually abused instead. She collapsed during the lashing and ultimately died. Since Akhter’s death, the local media has reported at least three suicides of girls following similar punishments.

The High Court division of the Supreme Court issued itsĀ judgment in the case on July 8, 2010, criticizing the Bangladesh government for not protecting its citizens, especially women, from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Saying that the punishments contravened constitutional guarantees of the rights to life and liberty, the court directed the government to investigate and prosecute those responsible and to take preventive steps with awareness campaigns in schools, colleges, and madrasas. It instructed the Ministry of Local Government to inform all law enforcement and local government officials that extrajudicial punishments are criminal offenses.

On February 2, 2011, the High Court issued an additional order directing the government to publicize as an urgent matter, through electronic and print media, that extrajudicial punishments are unconstitutional and punishable offenses.

On May 12, the Supreme Court reiterated that “[n]o punishment, including physical violence and/or mental torture in any form can he imposed or inflicted on anybody in pursuance of fatwa.” The court further held that fatwas can be issued only by “properly educated persons” and clarified that even where issued, they are not binding and cannot be enforced.

Commenting on the Supreme Court verdict, Sara Hossain, a lawyer involved in the Supreme Court case, said that women’s rights groups were relieved to see the highest court strongly condemning extrajudicial punishments in the name of fatwas. But women’s rights activists in Bangladesh remain deeply concerned that the highest court had left the door open for the issuance of fatwas and the potential threats to women’s rights to equality, she said.

Local activists, who routinely monitor newspapers and electronic media, have said that the government has issued no public messages against extrajudicial punishments. Ain o Salish Kendra or ASK for short (an amazing human rights organization in Bangladesh that I’ve worked with for years) collated news reports of at least 16 such cases between January and May 2011. While Akhter died because of her injuries, ASK has found news reports that at least three other girls committed suicide because of the public humiliation they faced.

In November 2010, Bangladesh was elected to the board of the international agency UN Women, assuming a new role in the international arena on women’s rights. With this new role, Bangladesh should ramp up its efforts to protect women’s rights in-country.