When mothers defy the mullahs

Aid to Islamic countries may bring Western values at odds with tradition. Paul Vallely on culture clash in Bangladesh
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Men have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because Allah has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Allah is high, Supreme.

The Koran, 4:34

It was only love, said Raihan Ali the next morning, when asked about the woman's screams that had pierced the air of the village the previous night. As the sun began to break softly through the mists that covered the cotton fields and the wind gently lifted the huge banana leaves, the village of Thanapara appeared once more a haven of rural tranquillity. "The man was beating his wife only because he wanted to divorce her, and so he could then marry another woman," claimed Raihan. "It was nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism."

On the face of it, the little clothing factory at the centre of this village in the province of Rajshahi, deep in the Bangladeshi countryside, is a model development project. Started by Swedish aid workers in 1972, it is now entirely under the control of local people, providing employment for a large proportion of the area's women with its spinning, weaving, tailoring and embroidery sections.

Raihan Ali is the project's manager."Everything is going well. For the past six months we have had continuous work." Their goods are bought by Traidcraft, a British company dedicated to importing goods from the Third World and paying a fair wage to those who produce them. Its charitable arm, Traidcraft Exchange, which runs a business advisory service, has provided a consultant to improve Thanapara's marketing and communications.

Yet for all its tranquillity, Thanapara, like hundreds of similar villages throughout rural Bangladesh, is the scene of an epic battle between two diverging world views - in which the values of Western secularism at their most uncompromising have locked horns with the entrenched ideology of religious fundamentalism.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world (the average income is about £2.80 a week); as such it receives a high degree of foreign aid. And with that aid comes the values of those who donate the cash. Moves to improve the standing of women may go unquestioned in the West, but in a deeply traditional society like Bangladesh there are many still who object even to the idea of a woman leaving the four walls of her home. Its population is 85 per cent Muslim. As a result, moves to empower women are seen in some quarters as insidious attempts to subvert not just the local culture but also its religion.

To Western eyes, the impact of the project in Thanapara has been wholly beneficial. It provides work for 150 women. It has also spawned a number of social programmes, including a primary school and schemes for drinking water, sanitation and tree-planting (at 2p a seedling). Its savings scheme enables villagers to take loans to buy poultry or get a tin roof for their wattle-and-daub houses with an interest rate of only 10 per cent - and save them from the usurious local moneylenders who charge at least 50 per cent. It has also brought a new self-confidence to the local women.

Throughout the country thousands of similar projects have done the same, though they are not the work of Westerners. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), one of the world's biggest non-governmental development organisations, which is run entirely by local people, places special emphasis on women. To date, some 480,000 women have received BRAC loans to rear chickens, and 400,000 more have had money for cattle, tea planting, silk farming, irrigation and weaving. And it has taught 13 million women how to treat diarrhoea in their children.

Not everyone is impressed, however. "There's always a pressure against the empowerment of women because people really don't want their values questioned," said Lala Silim, assistant export manager of BRAC, "and that's what we're trying to do." Reaction from some fundamentalists has been violent. BRAC schools have been burned down. Officials estimate that some 5 per cent of the 700,000 children at BRAC schools have been kept away by parents influenced by Muslim clerics. Some mullahs have even pronounced that a husband has grounds for divorce if his wife joins a BRAC credit co-operative.

Until now, such responses have been those of a small minority. But there is a fear that fundamentalists are increasing their hold over the poorest part of the population. "Within 10 years the whole country could become fundamentalist," said one Western diplomat in Dhaka. Others are less alarmist but admit there are worrying signs. "There is a growing amount of non-co-operation with aid agencies. People are not coming to health clinics, as a result of pressure from husbands and from mullahs," claimed a diplomat responsible for administering a large Western aid programme.

It is in rural areas that the growth of fundamentalism is evident. Far from the centres of provincial administration, the writ of fundamentalist law is being asserted in numerous small villages. There the laws of the land are overridden by ad hoc interpretations of the Islamic sharia (law). Local mullahs haul individuals before them in salish (religious) courts. "There is increasing activity in these kangaroo courts," said another diplomat. "And what goes on is often not much more than a kind of lynch law. At least four times in the past six months, girls aged just 12 or 13 have been given such sentences as 99 lashes for adultery or indecency."

One pregnant teenager was lashed 30 times for her failure to produce a witness to her rape. In another case, a 15-year-old girl received 74 lashes for allegedly having an abortion; the imam of the mosque was arrested after it was revealed that the charges against her had been trumped up after a dispute between her father and some mullahs over ownership of a pond. "The government claims it can't do anything when there are just two policemen in the area and the holy man can call on a couple of hundred fanatical young thugs," continued the diplomat.

In the face of this incipient fundamentalist backlash, those who run development projects involving women have adopted a new caution. At Thanapara, Raihan is careful to ensure the female workers do not have to mix with men. Friday and not Sunday has been fixed as the weekly holiday. Workers are allowed to take time off to pray - as Muslims must pray five times a day. And working hours are altered during the weeks of the Ramadan fast. There are also no resident foreigners now the Swedish founders have left.

"At the beginning, there was a problem," remembered Raihan. "People claimed the Swedes were trying to destroy Islamic culture. The first women given work were shunned in the village mosques. Now everyone accepts the project is just there to provide some income for the women."

But even just providing income for women can be disruptive of local tradition in its impact on the dynamics of family life. "Sometimes there is fighting between a husband and wife; the man can get angry very quickly when the woman begins to assert views about how her wages should be spent," said Raihan. And things have changed, too, in conventional marital disputes. "Even that woman who was beaten last night knows that if her husband does throw her out she still has her job with the project. She won't die of hunger."

It is with their own women, rather than with Western agencies, that the fundamentalists now have their real fight. The Ayesha Abed Foundation in Manikganj, two hours' drive north from Dhaka, is the largest BRAC project. It employs 400 women in its factory making silk blouses and waistcoats, which are sold in the UK by Traidcraft. Some 3,000 find work embroidering the garments in their own homes. The Foundation also has a primary education scheme for the children of its workers and adult education classes for the women.

In the dyeing room Sarwar Khan, an aristocratic woman educated in the bygone days of the Raj, tutors the women in the use of natural dyes, which produce the soft subtle shades that sell best in the West. "Every day a tutor comes and they form small groups to learn to sign their names and do some elementary calculations," said Mrs Khan. "Now that they are earning money, they need to know how to handle it and how to go to the bank".

Eventually, they learn to read and write. In a country with 78 per cent illiteracy among females, this is a revolutionary act in itself. "We're helping them to be more aware of their abilities," continued Mrs Khan. "The men still want to dominate them, but they're no longer able to do so. Now they have their own income, wives have a stronger voice in the family.

"Of course husbands feel threatened as the women grow more confident. Some men try to stop their women coming to work. They harass them on the road to work. Some have burned down or smashed up a lot of BRAC schools and cut down the mulberry trees at the women's silk-making project centres. But the women became very angry, organised the rebuilding of the schools and replanted the trees."

The key question for the future is whether the women's resolve will outstrip that of the fundamentalists. Mrs Silim is cautiously optimistic. "The fundamentalists' influence is growing because they're fanatics and their activities are violent; so anything they do creates waves. The other issue is that the main political parties are courting the fundamentalists, which wasn't the case a few years back. Since they have a voice, all the parties want them on their side."

Many in Dhaka are convinced the Bangladeshi government is wooing the fundamentalists in the hope of splitting the united opposition, which regularly takes to the streets in an attempt to bring down the administration. Seasoned observers believe it is significant that reports branding the Bangladeshi feminist writer Taslima Nasrin as an apostate appeared in a state-controlled newspaper and that "spontaneous" demonstrators demanding she be hanged took to the streets the very next day. They point, too, to the decision to allow Professor Golam Azam, leader of the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami party, to return from exile in Pakistan after a seven- year battle to regain his citizenship. By unlikely coincidence, it came at the same time as the Taslima Nasrin affair.

"A fundamentalist takeover would never happen here," said Mrs Silim. She is probably right. But it is not that long since the educated women of Sudan or of Iran under the Shah might have asserted the same thing.

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