Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Women Feel Sting of Sharia Bangladeshi `Courts' Targeting Feminists

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Women Feel Sting of Sharia Bangladeshi `Courts' Targeting Feminists

Article excerpt

When Muslim clerics set up a village "court" last October, Saher Banu thought she would see punishment of a man accused of raping her daughter. She got a surprise.

Instead of convicting the man, the 13 mullahs sentenced the daughter to 80 lashes with a bamboo cane for having unlawful sex. The daughter, Hazera Begum, 20, fainted after receiving 35 blows. The trial and punishment were witnessed by about 200 people, including children.

The self-appointed court found her guilty because she could not produce three male witnesses to support her allegation that she was raped one day when she went to the fields to pick vegetables. Such courts have no legal standing, but their punishments are carried out.

Banu recalls the horror of the so-called trial. "I begged each of them to save my daughter. I could bear no more and collapsed when they pronounced the verdict," she said.

Extremists are growing increasingly assertive in Bangladesh, where 90 percent of the people are Muslims. Bangladesh's civil code is based on laws inherited from the British, who ruled the region, then known as Bengal, until 1947. But local mullahs - acting on their own when they hear of misconduct - are applying their interpretations of the Sharia, the Islamic religious code.

In remote villages, where most people are illiterate, the mullahs have far more influence than the police or judiciary.

Women's rights groups say at least 48 women have died in recent years after being convicted of violating the Sharia. Most killed themselves because they could not bear the humiliation.

"It is difficult to get a clear picture because many incidents occur in remote villages and the victims do not report to police for fear of reprisals," said Ayesha Khanam, a women's rights activist.

Women accused of adultery are not the only victims. Clerics also have targeted agencies that promote literacy, health care and family planning - causes that extremists say undermine the traditional role of women. …

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