Bangladeshi court outlaws fatwa punishments

A court in Bangladesh has outlawed punishments handed down by Islamic edicts or fatwas after a series of cases of women being beaten, caned and whipped for “offences” they were judged to have committed by village elders.

In what campaigners said was a landmark decision for human rights in the country, the High Court ruled that not only were such religious rulings to be discounted but that those issuing them should themselves be punished. “Any person who issues or executes such an extra-judicial penalty must be punished for committing a criminal offence,” said a two-member bench of the court, comprising judges Syed Mahmud Hossain and Gobinda Chandra Tagore.

The ruling followed several filings by human rights organisations which highlighted the way in which women in the world’s third largest Muslim-majority nation were often brutally punished after being deemed guilty of adultery or having a child out of marriage. A number of women were punished simply for talking to people of another faith.

In one of the most notorious incidents, a 16-year-old girl was flogged 101 times with a whip when she became pregnant after being raped. The teenager, from the Brahmanbaria district in eastern Bangladesh, received the punishment after village elders decided she had acted immorally. The 20-year-old rapist was pardoned.

Campaigners have long argued that so-called village justice is a widespread and deeply ingrained problem in Bangladesh. Lack of education and knowledge about a person’s rights, the feudal-like power of local leaders and often the willingness to cite Sharia law in order to take advantage of vulnerable individuals or groups, are all factors.

Shahdeen Malik, a human rights campaigner and director of the school of law at Dhaka’s BRAC University, told the Agence France-Presse: “The cases of beatings, whippings and public humiliations of people, especially poor rural women, would be drastically reduced following this verdict. It states clearly that nobody has the power to inflict physical and mental torture to any person in the name of religion.”

The flogging this January of the teenage girl from Brahmanbaria, whom village elders deemed had been a “participant” in her assault, sent shockwaves through Bangladeshi civil society. It emerged that the girl had been repeatedly taunted by her attacker as she made her way to school and when he raped her last summer she tried to keep it quiet from her family.

Her parents subsequently arranged for her to be married to a man from a neighbouring village. But when medical tests carried out after the wedding showed she was pregnant, the man divorced her. The teenager was forced to have an abortion and then return her home where village elders decided her family should be ostracised until she had been punished. When she was flogged in the yard of her family home, with the imams from two mosques and the village head present, the teenager fainted.

Last week’s ruling against religious punishments has been welcomed by organisations that have worked to highlight the way in which fatwas have been abused. In an editorial, the Dhaka-based Daily Star newspaper said: “It will go a long way in applying a brake on the unlawful practice of punishing members of vulnerable segments of society, including women, by powerful d groups in the name of local arbitration. Such groups [have] used their extra-judicial activities in the name of fatwa to punish women engaged in professional work outside home, or those who are conscious and vocal about their rights.”