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When being a woman is a crime

Irfan Husain

WHEN news emerged about a 14-year-old girl being flogged to death in Bangladesh earlier this month, the world reacted with shock and horror. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that the truth was even worse than the story reported in the media.

According to Dhaka’s The Daily Star – the newspaper that first broke the story – young Hena Akhtar was raped by her cousin, Mehbub. When his wife Shilpi saw them together, she, her sister and her aunt inflicted unspeakable horrors on Hena for hours until she was incapable of standing up. Shilpi then went to the village council and asked them to ‘arbitrate’ between her and her husband and to punish Hena for adultery.

The council, led by the local madressah teacher Maulana Saiful, then pronounced their verdict in the form of a fatwa: Hena was to be flogged 101 times by a relative of Shipli’s, while Mehbub was to receive 200 blows from his father. To add insult to grave injury, Hena’s father was ordered to pay a fine of 50,000 takas. In the event, Mehbub received 10 strokes, while Hena collapsed after being lashed 80 times. The scourge used on her was a wet gamchi, a towel twisted to form a rope with a knot at the end. She was carried to a hospital where she was soon pronounced dead.

The Dhaka High Court, taking suo moto notice of The Daily Star story, ordered an enquiry. Thus far, the cleric, Shipli and sundry others have been arrested, while Mehbub is on the run. Fortunately, the new government in Bangladesh has rejected Islamic punishments and fatwas, so there’s a real chance that the criminals involved in the case might actually be punished, unlike in Pakistan where they invariably get off scot-free after torturing and killing with religious or tribal licence.

Oddly, most of the victims of these crimes are women who are made the repositories of male ‘honour’. According to the United Nations Population Fund, around 5,000 Muslim women around the world are victims of honour killings; most of them are murdered by family members. Women’s groups in the Arab world put the figure at four times this number.

While many of these crimes go unreported, the international media often carries terrifying accounts of young girls being murdered by their fathers and brothers with the connivance of their mothers. Their crime? Refusal to marry somebody their families have chosen for them, selecting their own husbands, or, horror of horrors, having a boyfriend or lover.

One Baloch member of Pakistan’s parliament asserted the right of his tribesmen to continue this tradition in the name of ancient tribal law. Others have justified the mistreatment of women in the name of their interpretation of Islam. Thus, both the Taliban and the Saudi religious police punish women if even an inch of skin is visible from under their all-enveloping burkas. When a women’s hostel was ablaze in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, girls rushing to escape the flames in their nighties were forced back into the building by the police as they were not deemed to be fully dressed. Many of them burned to death.While this is an extreme example, the sad fact is that such horror stories are endemic in the Muslim world. This is not to suggest that women do not suffer indignities and exploitation elsewhere. But in many Muslim countries, religion is successfully invoked in defence of outrageous male chauvinism. Indeed, women are all too often denied any legal redress or community support despite being brutally mistreated.

All too often, even when they have been the victims of rape, they are accused of fornication or adultery, letting their male attackers off the hook. In Iran, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 42-year old widow and mother of two, was sentenced to death by stoning for allegedly having an illicit relationship.

After being incarcerated for five years and enduring 99 lashes for this ‘crime’, she was sentenced to death by stoning by a judge who cited his ‘personal knowledge’ in passing sentence, rather than relying on four witnesses as required under Islamic law. Fortunately, the Iranian government has responded to the international outcry by declaring that Ms Ashtiani will not be stoned to death after all. However, she’s still in jail, and might well be hanged.

Men in socially backward societies – a condition that characterises most Muslim countries – find that they are powerless to control external factors. But they can exert control over their sisters, daughters and wives. In the animal and the human kingdoms, there is a need to kick those below you in the pecking order. All too often, men frustrated with their lot take it out on their women.

This macho bullying has been institutionalised in tribal and religious law in many societies. But while other communities have evolved, and women have achieved equal rights, this still remains a distant dream in most Muslim countries.

Many Muslims are fond of stating the obvious: Islam accorded many rights to women in a benighted era when they had no rights at all. While this is certainly true, the reality is that the world has moved on, while the position of women in large parts of the Islamic world remains frozen in time.

In this day and age, to suggest that a woman’s testimony is equal to half a man’s is surely an anachronism. Or that she can inherit only a portion of what her brother does. While these concessions might have been revolutionary centuries ago, they are now viewed as discriminatory.

Then there is the whole question of forcing millions of women into stifling garments that cover them from head to toe, and restrict vision and movement. While the Quran does not require any such clothing – calling only for modest attire – many Muslim men feel their easily offended honour is best protected by placing their women in these uncomfortable and impractical outfits.

The Urdu word for ‘woman’ is ‘aurat’. This is derived from the Arabic word ‘awrah’ that can mean ‘genitalia, weakness, deficiency, imperfection’. No wonder a woman is required to be covered at all times.

Source: Dawn