03/25/2011, 00.00
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Government tries to push women’s equality for a third time, but Islamists object

by Nozrul Islam
The 2011 National Women Development Policy would guarantee women greater rights in matters of employment, property and inheritance. Opponents claim it violates Muslim family law.

Dhaka (AsiaNews) – The government of Bangladesh has adopted a National Women Development Policy (NWDP) to promote women’s equality without regards for their religion. In a move full of symbolism, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina launched the policy on 7 March, a day before International Women’s Day. Under the NWDP, women will have greater rights in employment, inheritance and education. However, the country’s political opposition did not waste time to voice its doubts over the proposed legislation, objecting to some provisions that would violate Muslim family law. Now, everyone in the country is waiting to see if the NWDP will be actually implemented or if conservatives will be able o block it.

Inheritance is the new legislation’s sticky point. According to the Qur‘an, not all children are entitled to the same share of inheritance; women can only claim a quarter of what men get. Under the new rules, every child would inherit get the same share. For NWFP’s opponents, this would violated the holy text of Islam and be unfair to men, because if women inherit less than men do, that is because the latter are required to provide for her. That is why women do not need to have a larger dowry.

The government of Bangladesh had tried to adopt a similar policy in the past. The first time was in 1997 with what was then called the Women Development Policy. It never got off to a start. The second attempt came in 2007, under a caretaker government, but it too generated a strong protest movement. This time, Prime Minister Hasina and members of her government have repeatedly said that the new legislation does not violate the Qur‘an or the Sunna, and that they are committed to promoting Islam.

The fight is thus all within the Islamic camp over interpretation and nuances. Now the most conservative forces in the country along with the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), are waiting to take advantage of any faux pas by the government.

In order to further the policy, the government has called on the Islamic Foundation, an independent organisation under the Ministry of Religious Affairs working to protect the cultural and social values of Islam in Bangladesh, to set up a committee of wise men to vet the NWDP to see if its provisions violate Muslim family law. The opposition however attacked the Islamic Foundation, calling its president, Shamim Mohammad Afzal, a puppet in the hands of secularists.

Bangladesh does not enforce Sharia. However, it is hard to say what is in store now. The government is currently in a strong position and has an absolute majority in parliament. But discordant voices can be heard within the coalition, like that of former dictator General Ershad of the Jatiya Party. These, together with outside criticism, have made the prime minister more cautious.

Each word is thus carefully examined because if the National Women Development Policy is adopted, it could radically change the principles on which laws are based. Family law in Bangladesh is based on Islamic law even though the constitution is not.

The current constitution was adopted in 1972 and was originally more secular and socialist oriented. It was substantially changed under a military regime, which gave it a more Islamic hue. However, the High Court issued a ruling in 2007 that declared the changes made by the military illegal and unconstitutional.

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