Ignoring men like Ahmed Shafi would be unwise
If anyone expected Shah Ahmed Shafi to embrace something of liberalism after his much vaunted meeting with and celebration of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, on whom he and his faithful chose to confer the honour of Qawmi Mother, he was being naive. Bigots, like the proverbial leopard, do not change their spots.
The truth that nothing — not soft handling, not appeasement, not cajoling — can cause beauty to arise in the hearts of fanatics was made obvious the other day when the Hefazat-e-Islam leader renewed his war on women. Unsurprisingly, he informed anyone willing to listen that women in this country had absolutely no right to education and therefore to enlightenment and participation in the affairs of the state.
He was careful to stay away from asking Sheikh Hasina, Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, Dipu Moni and all the other women we have known and know in public life to step into purdah. He knew of the limits he could not cross. But he was vocal in his assessment of how he saw the role of Bangladesh’s women in the times to be. No girl should be educated beyond class four. And women should only be imparted education by other women.
And so we have a good mix of misogyny and medievalism here. The surprising bit in all this outrage caused by Ahmed Shafi is that the individuals who ought to have slapped him down have remained eerily quiet. The law minister of course has informed us that the cleric’s statement will have no bearing on the policy of women’s empowerment pursued by the government.
That is reassurance, up to a point. Beyond the point there ought to have been a swift condemnation of the man and his comments, to remind him and the likes of him that Bangladesh is the wrong place for them to advocate a return to the Dark Ages. It remained for Dr Kamal Hossain, to our relief, to demand that legal action be taken against Shafi over his comments.
Ahmed Shafi is not the first cleric to call for a pushback of women into the dark confinement of the home. The difference between him and all those others, though, is the brazen manner in which he has defied the state, the constitution of which stipulates that all citizens are equal before the law and are therefore privy to all opportunities of social, economic, and political advancement.
Apart from seeking to undermine the law, the Hefazat chief should be held to account on grounds of advocating immorality through likening women to tamarind, an attitude which is as ugly as it is lewd. He has roundly been condemned for that distasteful remark, but no one in political authority has thought it necessary to wield the weapon of the law against him. If that was politics of convenience, it was certainly in bad taste.
It is surprising, indeed bizarre, that women continue to be the object of lewdness also ridicule for men whose pretensions to religious authority have over time been revealed for the hollowness they have consistently been. Such men, with little understanding of Islam and its underlying principles, have regularly narrowed down the preaching of religion to sermons on the ways women should be carrying themselves in society.
Women’s hair, the manner in which they clothe themselves, the way they add beauty to their being, the need for them to stay as much indoors as possible lest they corrupt men have been disturbing themes of conversation and pronouncements on the part of these self-styled defenders of the faith. There is all the history before us; and it speaks of the grave damage these men and their friends have done to nations through their women-prioritized interpretations of faith.
In the course of Bangladesh’s War of Liberation, Pakistan’s fanatical Muslim soldiers went around raping Bengali women and would not rest until they had ravished 200,000-plus of their innocent victims. Their followers in the Jamaat-e-Islami, which really suffered from the delusion that it was an Islamic party, not only emulated them, but also acted as procurers of women for the army.
General AAK Niazi did not merely know of the doings of his men, but was happy that they were engaged in a gun-toting orgy of sexually shaming Bangladesh’s women. Here was a general defending Pakistan in the name of Islam, and presiding over the job by indulging the animal passions of men under his command. “Hum un ke nasl badal denge — we will bring about a change in their generations” — said he in the sinister expectation that the mass rape of Bengali women would produce a new race loyal to his dwindling country.
Back in the early 1970s, IH Qureshi, vice chancellor of Karachi University, served the edict that men and women students at the university could not converse with each other unless they kept a distance of three feet between them. In Saudi Arabia, women are yet to be regarded as people given life by the same God who shaped Adam and Eve.
In the name of faith, the terrorists of IS felt absolutely no shame in kidnapping Yazidi women and raping them day after day. Islamists in Pakistan’s Swat valley would have no sleep as long as they could not shoot those bullets into the head of the little girl Malala Yousafzai.
Her fault was her determination to keep going to school. Those Taliban goons were equally determined that all girls and all women should stay within the four walls of their homes.
It is such creeping medievalism which needs rolling back in Bangladesh. Ignoring men like Ahmed Shafi will be unwise. Believing that their primitivism will have little effect on society will be folly. Bigotry must be swatted down early and swiftly. Else it will contaminate an entire national landscape.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist.