Bangladesh, a small country of 160 million people in South Asia, usually only touches headlines in times of disaster and overblown but isolated cases of so-called Islamic fundamentalism, tidbits of the mosaic that the Western media so love to portray. Not only does such selective portrayal serve to placate Western interests, it also brings into the fray the dangerous precedent of overlooking genuine issues affecting the masses that have to face them, namely repression and subjugation by Western backed regimes. With this prelude, I would like to shift the attention of the reader to discuss such an issue, namely the recent mass arrest of dozens of women from Iftar gatherings last week throughout the length and breadth of Bangladesh, in what the government has labeled a drive to combat the threat “Islamic fundamentalism”. However, as we shall further explore, the truth behind these perceived instances of victory over the terrorist Islamist boogeyman could not have been more anticlimactic.
Unwarranted arrest of dozens of women from Iftar gatherings:
Though not comprehensively documented, the suppression of the opposition in Bangladesh by the government of Sheikh Hasina has been ongoing unabated for the past 7 years, through a myriad of methods, namely mass arrests, filing of false cases, brutal crackdown on protests and protesters, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and elimination of notable opposition figures by crossfire among others. The number of arrests never went down, and the new trend of arresting women activists from Ramadan programs has added a new dimension to this ongoing oppression. In last few days, more than fifty women were arrested from several regions of Bangladesh. All of them were peaceful housewives and women of respected social status attending Iftar gatherings to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, yet they were arrested on outlandish charges of conspiracy and sabotage, something which even security authorities found difficult to justify.
On the 27th of June, 09 women were arrested from a house at Beparipara, Jhenaidah. Although locals confirmed that they had gathered at a religious function to discuss the religious teachings of Ramadan, officer-in-Charge of Police of Jhenaidah police station Biplob Kumar Nath claimed that they had beenconspiring for sabotage when the police arrested them at around 2:00 pm. On the same day, 5 more women were arrested by the Detective branch (DB) at Bogra from a gathering for discussing the spiritual aspect of Ramadan arranged by the women activists of Jamaat-e-Islami at Erulia village of Bogra Sadar. The official press note sent by Senior ASP Gaziur Rahman confirmed that twenty “Islamic” books were seized during the raid.
Figure 1: Arrested women from Khulna (28th June, 2015)
On 28th June, Police arrested twenty four women from a religious program arranged by Jamaat-e-Islami, at Gobra village of Koira thana, Khulna. Koira police station officer-in-charge (OC) Harendra Nath Sarkar stated that police raided the meeting of around 150 women activists of Jamaat, and managed to arrest 24 while the others fled. In what appeared to be the most baffling of allegations, police alleged that the women were arrested along with three bombs and bomb making materials. While the Jamaat-e-Islami women wing has vehemently denied the accusations and stated that the women had gathered to attend an annual Iftar program, local residents have been left bewildered with the police claims and have questioned as to why the women would bring ‘bombs’ to Iftar. It is wise to note that claims of ‘bomb making materials’ by police in the past have included kerosene containers used for household cooking purposes.
On 2nd July, 16 women from Puratan Satkhira area of Satkhira town were arrested by police when they congregated for a religious discussion on Ramadan. According to media reports, police suddenly stormed the gathering at the house of local businessman Mr. Fazlul Haque, and assaulted the participants, most of whom were women with children. Sixteen women along with Asma Khatun, a member of Jamaat-e-Islami women wing and landlady of the house were picked up on charges of conspiring for sabotage. Police, in yet another obnoxious statement, claimed to collect four cocktails from the spot along with papers and documents of Jamaat-e-Islami. However, Jamaat stated that the event was a family gathering and that the house actually belonged to a person who was the leader of local Olama League, the religious organization of the ruling party Awami League.
Figure 2: Women arrested from Satkhira (2nd July, 2015)
In total, local media reported the arrests of 58 women from Iftar gatherings in the span of 7 days from various parts of the country including Jhenaidah, Bogra, Khulna, Satkhira and Madaripur.
Making sense from the nonsensical:
This disturbing pattern of arresting women from religious gatherings brings in a whole new dimension to the claims of combating religious fundamentalism by the secular Bangladeshi state. Difficult to give an explanation over, the state has tried to gloss over such arrests by blanketing media coverage or resorting to the tried and tested method of justifying such arrests in the name of curbing terrorism, as evidenced by some rather eccentric claims against the women on part of the police.
The arrests may be understood in light of implications spanning religious, political and human rights aspects. Firstly, implicating religious rituals with “terrorist” activities has been an age old tactic employed by the secular state. This blatant ploy of setting up a connection between religion and terrorism needs to be understood for what it is; another subliminal campaign to brand up religiosity with the terrorist. Secondly, heeding the fact that most, if not all of those women arrested are some way or the other related to the opposition either as activists or supporters make it clear that this is one of the more dastardly and vicious attempts to slice out opposition members from the fabric of the society, even if they may be just over simple Iftar programs. Thirdly, and most importantly, the reprehensible incidents are blatant violations of human rights, more so taking into account the fact that those arrested are helpless women and children.
As columnist Mahin Khan aptly notes in an article discussing similar incidents of attacks on families of opposition activists and even murder of several women in recent months, the above trend is recent, and “it is particularly troubling given the sacred place women traditionally have held in Bangladeshi society that rendered them off-limits, despite the country’s murky politics. This has seen a sharp and disturbing change under the Awami League, which returned to power in 2008.”
Although Bangladesh is hailed for being a model of women empowerment by many in the secular West, especially considering the employment of large number of women in the garments sector, with the icing on the cake being that both the premier and the head opposition are women, that fact that women and girls are being party to such violence is shameful testimony. A testimony to the hypocrisy of the West, which claims to stand for women’s rights, yet secretly condones such measures through loud silence. As the violations add up and the noose on citizen rights tighten up, the stark realities negating the lullaby talk of democracy and human rights in Bangladesh cannot be ignored.