A moving account of the horror Muslim women suffer in countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan...

Rise in Bangladesh female canings alarms rights groups

Zarghona-Peshawar-Pakistan-burned-by-father-in-law.jpgThe cuts on Rahima Begum's legs are healing but the unmarried mother will carry, for her whole life, the psychological scars from a public whipping for revealing who was the father of her child. In conservative Muslim Bangladesh, having a child out of wedlock is a great taboo, and the elders (Jirgas) in Rahima's village in Eastern Bangladesh decided she should be taught a lesson after pointing the finger at a neighbour, who denied the charge.

“They called me before a makeshift court and ruled that I was a liar”, the 22-year-old told AFP from her hospital bed. Rahima's punishment was to be caned 39 times in front of the village elders and its Islamic clerics. The case shocked many in Bangladesh, with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordering Rahima to be moved from a small village hospital in Comilla to one of the best in the capital Dhaka. There, she is receiving treatment, including further counseling, a month after the beating.

“Every time I close my eyes, I just play the scene over and over in my head”, said she.

Human rights groups say that Rahima's plight is becoming increasingly common in Bangladesh, with Hardline Islamic clerics are taking the law into their own hands and handing down harsh punishments, mostly to women, found guilty by unlawful village courts (Jirgas). The so-called crimes heard by these illegal courts, most common in rural areas, range from adultery to being raped; in one case, a Muslim woman was whipped even for talking to a Hindu man?

Women's groups and human rights activists have protested the unexplained rise in caning cases in the past two months, and note that many such incidents of violence probably go unreported.

“We've recorded 15 such incidents in May and June’2009 alone. We've never seen such a sharp rise in such cases. It's very worrying” said Ayesha Khanam, president of the women's group in Bangladesh Mahila Parishad. “There are undoubtedly many more than have gone unreported”.

In Rahima's case, police have arrested those men, who whipped her; but campaigners say that most of them actually get away with these illegal punishments, because these kangaroo courts have, until recently, been largely ignored by the authorities.

Salma Ali, head of the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association, said that while urban parts of the country were becoming more progressive in dealing with women's rights, some rural areas were going the other way:

“Conservative Muslim clerics are losing power in an Islamic country where Muslim women are increasingly holding more prominent positions. But some parts of the country are becoming more conservative day by day. Perhaps they are inspired by the kinds of courts used by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, said she.

Rahima said the physical and mental sufferings of being publicly whipped means that, her hospital bed in Dhaka, 80 km away from her village home, is the safest place for her right now.

“My legs are almost healed but I'm not ready to go back to my village yet… I don't know whether I can ever go back again", said she.

afghanistan-gulbar-burned-by-husbandOver in Afghanistan, when battered wives opt for divorce instead of suicide, they are considered to be adulteresses and are ignored by their immediate families and also by society, just left to die…

In this article we will look deeply into such cases where the western world reaches out to these helpless Muslim women in their plights through NGOs.

After regular beatings, torture and attempted murder by her husband, the 35-year-old Zahra tried to burn herself to death to escape her marriage. Then she learned of a safer option: a divorce.

Zahra is among the growing number of Afghan women living in Afghanistan’s western Herat province, who with the help of a women’s charitable organization, have taken on such patriarchal laws by seeking divorce from their beastly husbands—a taboo in the devoutly Muslim, formerly Taliban-led state.

“I did not spend a single happy day with my husband... he was not like a human being. He used to beat me every day”, she said, revealing deep scars on her right leg and feet, caused by electric shocks given by her husband.

After marrying at 14, Zahra, who declined to give her full name for her own safety, said she suffered years of abuse. Then a property dispute with her in-laws turned her “sour marriage” into full-blown living nightmares, as she explained:

“They wanted to kill me three or four times in the past. Once they even gave me rat poison... I cannot go out of my house because of the divorce and my four brothers are looking for me; they are after me to kill me, so I am living in hiding”.

The divorce led to her father disowning her and cost her the custody of her nine children. Initially her ex-husband let her keep the two daughters on the condition that she wouldn’t remarry. But her financial circumstances turned so dire in a country, where women rarely work, that she eventually remarried to keep herself and her children alive. And when her ex-husband found out, he took the daughters away from her. Zahra was divorced from her second marriage also. She now fears for her life and now lives in one of the secret shelters provided by this NGO. She is just one story amongst countless Muslim women in Afghanistan, who just want to live a normal happy life.

A Muslim Man’s Laws

Suraya Pakzad runs a safe-house for women in Herat and has helped several women, including women like Zahra, get divorced from their brutal husbands. Suraya says her outreach programme, which informs women about divorce, discourages them from burning themselves, and helps them tackle such divorce laws. The number of divorces has doubled in Herat over the past two to three years, according to Pakzad: “while such reported cases of self-immolation (suicides) have declined in 2006, we had 98 cases of such women killing themselves with fire... in 2008, there were about 73 odd cases, so there has been a definite decrease Heart now… When we brought the number of self-immolation cases down, automatically the number of divorces went up because the Afghan women realized that they could not solve their problems by burning themselves”.

Under Afghanistan’s Islamic Sharia’h laws, a Muslim man can divorce his wife without him needing his wife’s agreement. But if a wife seeks divorce from her husband, then she must have the approval of her husband, and needs witnesses, who would testify in the Islamic Sharia’h (JIRGAS) courts that the divorce appeal is justified.  “A man can, with great ease, tell the court that his wife’s behaviour is inappropriate, and that she does not behave in the home, and he wants to divorce her. A man has the right to decide a woman’s future with one piece of paper, or by just uttering three times Talaaq (the Islamic creed of divorce)”, said Maria Bashir, chief prosecutor in Herat. 

“A woman can only appeal for a divorce on these grounds that her husband is absent for a long time from her, he cannot adequately provide for the family, either financially or because he is physically incapable, or if he is impotent or abuses her to the point where her life may be at risk”, Bashir said. “To get their husbands’ agreement for the divorce, women were usually forced to let their husband and his families keep the children”, a prospect that dissuaded many battered Muslim women from seeking divorce.

“So the Afghan women prefer death, then going thru to these pains of being separated forever from their children... This is why many Afghan women, before consulting these laws, will resort to self-immolation, or even suicide or running away from their homes and families”.

Pakzad moved her office from Kabul to Herat, which is a much more conservative town compared with the Afghan capital, even though it is perhaps Afghanistan’s most prosperous city due to greater security and flourishing trades with bordering countries like Pakistan and Iran.

“In Kabul, women’s access to finance or the economy is much more limited compared with Herat, but they have much better access to freedom. The atmosphere is easier for women and more relaxed”, Pakzad said.

“Afghan families think that a woman should not be divorced, whatever she goes through, she should be patient and put up with her husband’s antics. She should die before ever asking for a divorce”, Pakzad said.

Pakzad links the women with one of the five or six law firms in Heart, which take on divorce cases. They are mostly defence lawyers and attend court with those women, who are also able to appeal their cases if the ruling is unsatisfactory. But the high expense, difficulties of access to legal professionals, and immense stigma brought by the process ensure that most women will never ever take their case to courts, which is not helped by the fact that the burden of proof rests on their own shoulder.

“Afghan women know this and that’s why they tend to put up with their problems. We don’t want to work against these laws. We have an enemy in the Taliban and we don’t want to create another enemy out of the Afghan government but these laws need to change and we need a (parliamentary) session on this to change it”, Pakzad said.

‘My only way out’

A few miles away, in Afghanistan’s only hospital ward dedicated to “khod soozi”, or “self-burning” patients, Dr Mohammad Aref Jalali stands over one his patients and asks how she feels. The twenty-year-old Zarbakht’s entire body is cocooned in white plaster. She lies in bed on her back all day like a mummy. She can barely move her lips to speak and her eyebrows, partly burned off, are knitted in severe pains. She says her family never visits her now. “I had to marry at 14. I was compelled to marry because my family is so poor... I had no other way or options. After five years I couldn’t take it anymore, what else was I supposed to do?” said Zarbakht in a strained whisper, her jaws almost clamped shut by heavy bandages.

For Dr Jalali, who confirmed there were slightly fewer self-immolation cases in Heart so far this year compared with 2008, it comes as no surprises to him that divorce is not something his patients are ever likely to contemplate! “The problem is that, 80 per cent of Afghan women are not literate, and they don’t have these means to solve their problems; so they resort to extreme and desperate measures like suicide”, said he.

Last year, of the 85 patients admitted to his ward, 63 died of their self-inflicted burns.

This is not the end of the story. Many often, husbands and their family set the women on fire to punish them of various purported crimes, including disobedience or failure to do household chores properly.

Back in Pakzad’s office, a 21-year-old woman from the northern province of Kunduz smiles shyly as she sits dressed in a white chador decorated with swirly white flowers. She ran away from her husband, who beat her for not being able to have a baby and refused to accept that he was infertile, despite diagnoses from three different doctors. She was 12 years old when they were married and, he was 32. The woman, who declined to give her name due to fear of her husband, did not have anywhere to turn to in Kunduz, 750 km from Herat. She made her way to Herat alone after hearing about Pakzad’s organization. Her husband has agreed to divorce her, but he demands that she has to pay him 60,000 Afghanis ($1,200) to refund him for the cost of marrying her or find him an alternative wife.

This woman, who is literate, is working in several jobs including teaching to pay for her husband’s demanded money.

“I hope that one day we can be in a position to help other afghan women in our part of the world, so that we will no longer be seen as the women the rest of the world sees as helpless... We are not helpless; history has forced helplessness onto us”, Pakzad said.

To me, this is the Niqaab of self-esteem of Muslim women—their freedom from slavery, their freedom to live a normal life, married or otherwise, their freedom to enjoy full human rights as to how they choose to live their lives—should be removed.

It pains me every time I read or hear of such brutalities being committed by Muslim husbands on their wives. Is staying mum about it, just ignoring them, the right thing to do? So, we the torch-bearers of freedom have to strive toward ensuring for these helpless Muslim women a happy and peaceful life; we should unite in a campaign to expose the false and cruel foundation of this idiotic and brutal creed.

I want to end on this note:

The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears,

the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair...

The beauty of a woman must be seen from her eyes,

because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides...

The beauty of a woman is not a facial mole,

but true beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul…

It is the caring she lovingly gives, the Passion that she shows…

The beauty of a woman, with passing years…

Which only grows and grows into 'New Colours'.....!

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