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memri
September 16, 2010 No.
3238

Article Examines the Veil Controversy in Bangladesh, Notes: 'In the Struggle for Women's Emancipation, the Headscarf has Come to Be Seen By Many as Oppressive for Women, And, If Forced Upon Them, It is'

In Bangladesh, a social trend in favor of the Islamic veil has been underway in recent years. In March this year, Golam Minhaz, an inspector with the Detective Branch of the Bangladesh Police in the country’s northern town of Rangpur, detained 19 women for “not wearing veils.”[1] Although Bangladeshi law does not require women to wear the Islamic veil or any other form of scarf, in this case, the police officer showed voluntary personal vigilance in enforcing the wearing of the veil.

Later, a court ordered the Bangladesh government and members of law-enforcement agencies not to arrest any woman or girl for not wearing a veil. In another incident, the headmistress of a primary school in the Kurigram village was verbally abused with sexually colored remarks by an education department officer for not wearing a veil or covering her head in his presence. Later in a case filed against the officer, the Dhaka High Court ruled that Muslim women in Bangladesh cannot be forced to wear the veil while at work or in public.[2] The education ministry of Bangladesh was ordered to ensure the execution of its order that no one could force women, working at public and private educational institutions, to wear the veil or cover their heads against their will.

In Bangladesh, amid the absence of laws regarding sexual harassment at the work place, the court orders are the only guidelines for government departments to follow in such cases in the country. Eve-teasing and sexual harassment of women is common in Bangladeshi society. It takes various forms of behavior by men, as one writer observes: “It starts with a look – an outright leering for some – and maybe followed by a rude comment or song from a distance or, at closer range, a nudge, pinch, or brush against the body.”[3]

In a recent article, titled “Choice, Not Compulsion,” Bangladeshi writer Kajalie Shehreen Islam examined the issue surrounding veil in Bangladesh. Following are some excerpts from the article:[4]

"Unfortunately, Women are Often the Prime Victims of Oppression, Be It Through the Imposition of Religious Values or Social Norms"

"In June 2009, just over a month into the High Court ruling banning sexual harassment at the workplace and educational institutions and issuing guidelines to that effect, an upazila [district] education officer, at a public meeting, called the headmistress of a primary school in Kurigram a 'prostitute' for not covering her head.

"Following the publication of the story in a national daily, a writ petition was filed by a lawyer, who was later joined by a human rights and legal aid organization as co-petitioner, claiming that the actions of the education officer constituted sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. On April 9, 2010, the High Court declared that women working at public or private educational institutions may not be forced to wear the veil, that covering their heads is their personal choice and that forcing them to do so is a violation of fundamental rights as enshrined in the Constitution.

"The Court also directed the Ministry of Education to take immediate steps to implement the [court’s] Guidelines on Sexual Harassment. (The education officer was made to apologize to the headmistress during the hearing and it was also ordered by the Court that he may be transferred from his current area of operations).

"Sexual harassment, according to the Guidelines, is discriminatory and humiliating for victims. It impedes gender equality, may hamper performance at the workplace and create a hostile working environment. The above incident was a blatant example of Rule 4(i)(c) – Sexually colored verbal representation and Rule 4(1)(f) – Sexually colored remark or gesture – under the Guidelines on Sexual Harassment.

"In addition, the petitioners drew the Court's attention to Rule 27A of the Government Servants Discipline and Conduct Rules 1979 on conduct toward female colleagues which states that a government servant may not use language or behave toward their female colleagues in a manner which is 'improper and goes against the official decorum and dignity' of the colleague. They suggested that it be applied together with the Guidelines so that action is taken against government servants implicated in acts of sexual harassment.

"The petitioners also claimed that the imposition of a dress code on women is a violation of fundamental rights to equality, to be treated in accordance with the law, and to personal liberty, freedom of expression and freedom of religion. Not only was the headmistress on the receiving end of comments with sexual overtones, but the comments were made due to her choice of dress and based on the assumption that, as a woman, she should dress in a certain manner.

"The High Court verdict is significant in its emphasis on a person's – in this case, a woman's – ‘personal choice.’ It also notes that in our country, there is no uniform practice of veiling or head covering for women, though in recent years there have been instances of attempts by private persons as well as government officials to force women to cover their heads. This, as demonstrated in the above case, constitutes harassment.

"This is not to say that women should not be allowed to cover their heads, as is the consequence of the controversial French headscarf ban. The ban, in an effort to maintain France's tradition of strict separation of the state from religion, prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public primary and secondary schools. While critics have noted that under this law, the wearing of religious artefacts such as the Christian cross and the Jewish Star of David should also go, the focus seems mainly to be on the wearing of the khimar or headscarf by Muslim schoolgirls.

"In the case of headscarves, the law, while recognizing that some women and girls wear them out of personal choice, assumes that others are forced to wear it against their will, impeding freedom of choice and gender equality.

"The issue is really one of choice. Imposing a dress, action or way of life on someone is as objectionable as banning someone from it – as long as it does not harm anyone else – because it restricts their freedom. In the struggle for women's emancipation, the headscarf has come to be seen by many as oppressive for women, and, if forced upon them, it is. Unfortunately, women are often the prime victims of oppression, be it through the imposition of religious values or social norms.

"However, women who choose to cover their heads of their own will or from their own beliefs should not be treated as victims of male domination or religious oppression. It is about the right to personal liberty and the freedoms of expression as well as religion, regardless of sex, gender, class, etc. This is what the verdict issued by the Bangladesh High Court stresses on – the equal rights guaranteed by our Constitution to every citizen."

Endnotes:

[1] www.weeklyblitz.net, Bangladesh, March 3, 2010.

[2] www.hindustantimes.com, India, April 9, 2010.

[3] The Star (weekend magazine), Bangladesh, Vol. 9 Issue 22, May 28, 2010.

[4] The Star (weekend magazine), Bangladesh, Vol. 9, Issue 17, April 23, 2010.