Amid growing political turmoil in Bangladesh, the arrest of 20 female activists at the end of last year went almost unnoticed by the world’s press.
The women’s hijabs were forcibly removed and then they were forced to remain in an open public space, presumably to humiliate them. They were all denied bail, even the pregnant one.
The police admitted that there was no evidence to support charging them, or refusing bail. But the 20 were held for a further two days for “questioning” even though Bangladeshi law limits such custody to 24 hours. Meanwhile 13 other women were arrested for protesting against the treatment of their sisters.
These women were locked up for no crime, and then humiliated, for just one reason: they belong to the opposition party.
I am increasingly concerned that those in power in Bangladesh see mistreatment of women as mere collateral damage in their zealous efforts to defeat their political opponents.
This is not about the rights and wrongs of the two main political positions in Bangladesh. I will not venture into that minefield, the long history and deep emotion of which are tearing the nation apart. Rather, I want to focus on the fact that women are being targeted as a matter of political strategy. This is part of a wider government failure to protect ordinary women.
In January in Dhaka’s Shah Ali area, an 11-year old schoolgirl died after being gang-raped. The rapists left the girl’s corpse hanging from a ceiling fan. A local protest carried the body to a police station, but the authorities did nothing about the crime.
In the Chittagong Hill Tracts in eastern Bangladesh, the Asian Human Rights Commission reports, police did not register a formal complaint in another rape case, as the alleged perpetrator is an influential political leader. Police also denied the victim a credible medical exam.
Rape is a contentious issue in Bangladesh; there are grave allegations of mass rape during the 1971 war of independence. But denials of justice in recent rape cases give official demands for justice over crimes past the empty ring of insincere rhetoric.
There’s no denying that women in Bangladesh face oppression from traditional patriarchy. But cases like these highlight government failure to enforce existing legislation. As Human Rights Watch says diplomatically, “implementation remains poor”.
Extreme conservatives do Muslim women no favours. But just as pernicious are secularists who put political power above the reality of women’s lives. In Turkey women who chose to wear the headscarf were erased from political and civic spaces by secularists. In France women have been denied citizenship because they wear the niqab. And so on.
In Bangladesh it’s not just women being targeted, but minorities too, in a tolerated epidemic of violence against those seen as “other”.
A Hindu man was shot in his home after being accused of supporting the opposition. He begged for his life explaining he was Hindu. His crime? A beard, a symbol of Muslim piety.
Further, the government has been widely criticised for rejection and harassment of Rohingya refugees fleeing for their lives from neighbouring Myanmar, where they are persecuted for the “crime” of being Muslim.
In its fight for political power, Bangladesh’s government has shown that it finds power more desirable than justice. Women, minorities and refugees are simply collateral damage.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk