A year after they tried to scuttle the Government's efforts to overhaul the education system in Bangladesh, albeit with little success, the Islamists in that country are at it again — this time, it is the National Women's Development Policy 2011. Approved a day before International Women's Day, on March 7, the policy is an important initiative by the Awami League Government that aims to bestow equal rights on women and includes a landmark proposition that allows women equal inheritance rights. Current laws which are governed by shari'ah allow daughters to claim only a quarter of the inheritance that is available to their male siblings. Additionally, the NWDP also ensures that women have all the rights to assets they earn themselves and are allowed equal opportunity in business and employment. The recent reforms, which have been in the works since 2008 and essentially builds upon the older Women's Development Policy from 1997, have been welcomed in most quarters in Bangladesh, a moderate Muslim-majority nation that is governed by a secular Constitution. Predictably, however, the policy has faced significant resistance from Islamist groups, chief among them the Islami Oikya Jote, a coalition of fanatical Islamic groups. Led by former Member of Parliament, Mufti Fazlul Haque Amini, who chairs one of the IOJ factions, the group organised a nationwide strike on Monday. As expected, the demonstrations quickly turned violent despite the strong presence of security forces. At least 50 people were injured and another 200 Islamists detained all over the country as activists clashed with the police. Similar clashes on Sunday had claimed the life of a young student in Jessore. It is unlikely though that any of this would deter the hardline Islamists who believe that the policy is in violation of traditional Muslim laws. In fact, the mufti has unequivocally stated that the very basis of the policy — equal rights and opportunities for women — contradicts the Quran. Apparently encouraged by the violent 'success' of his protest rally, the mufti announced a two-month-long countrywide agitation that would culminate in a major rally in Dhaka on May 27 — a worrying development, to say the least.
Nonetheless, the Government's response in this situation is praiseworthy. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed deserves applause for pushing through the new policy and showing rare political will. She has refused to give in to Islamist bullying; instead she has refuted allegations of an un-Islamic policy by pointing out that Islam favours gender equality and, indeed, it is discrimination against women that goes against the tenets of Islam. The clever politician that she is, Sheikh Hasina has well used the Islamic card against the zealots by stating that not only has her Government not enacted any law against the Quran, it was prepared to take action against the mufti for misinterpreting the book. Indeed, such action is much needed in a country where recently a 14-year-old rape victim was flogged to death after being falsely charged with having an adulterous relationship with her rapist — her much married older cousin. The punishment was meted out by the local imam who issued the fatwa despite the fact that such religious rulings were banned 10 years ago..