In a decision recently made public, Bangladesh’s High Court has barred women from working as legal registrars for Nikahs (Islamic marriages). The ruling detailed “certain physical conditions” women have “during a certain time of the month” as justification.
Menstruation is a highly taboo subject in Bangladesh. According to Islamic religious law, menstruating women are considered ritually impure and are proscribed from touching the Qur’an or praying in a masjid. However, in Bangladesh, this circumscription extends beyond the realm of religious life. 40% of schoolgirls are absent from school for around three days each month during their period. Many female garment workers – who make up 80% of the sector’s three million employees – report having to miss work when menstruating. A broader societal view of women being impure in general is evident in the prevalence of “Eve-teasing”, a term used to describe the sexual harassment and assault of women by young men. Its name comes from the biblical creation story, a reference to the idea of women being inherently responsible for causing lust and desire. A 2013 study by Muhammad Aminul Hoque reports that ninety percent of 10 to 18 year of Bangladeshi girls experience Eve-teasing, and that it is a major contributing factor to the withdrawal of girls from education and child marriage in the country.
Women have served as legal magistrates and even qazis (Islamic judges) in other countries throughout South Asia and the Middle East, including India, Egypt and Palestine.
Women’s rights organisations say that having women serve as magistrates during weddings ensures that brides are informed of their rights, and that these rights are better able to be observed and enforced. This is especially significant in a country where 29% of brides are under 15 years of age, and 65% are under 18, with the grooms often being much older. Furthermore, the Hanafi madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence), to which most of Bangladesh abides, does not require the presence of a wali (a male guardian or relative of the bride), leaving brides, many of whom have not reached adulthood, vulnerable to exploitation.
While there is no specific outlawing of women magistrates in the Qur’an, Hadith or Sunnah, the discursive nature of the Islamic legal tradition means that scholars are able to provide a religious basis for declaring women qazis unlawful. However, many NGOs and women’s rights groups in Bangladesh, including the Dhaka-based NARIPOKKHO, have denounced the ruling as unconstitutional, pointing out that women are applying to be magistrates registering the legal part of the marriage rather than the religious ceremony, which would still be carried out by a male qazi or imam. This suggests that the ruling is therefore more to do with the exertion of control, and the further degradation of Bangladeshi women’s already scant employment rights.
This delineation between “clean” and “unclean” is further heightened by the Covid-19 pandemic, and has been used by the Bangladeshi government to as a means of isolating not only women, but also other elements of society viewed as inferior. The camps housing the 909,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar were put into a strictly enforced total lockdown on the 9th of April 2020, with both entry and exit being prohibited. Nine days later on the 18th, a crowd numbering around one hundred thousand flooded the streets of the Sarail Upzala to mourn the death of the Islamic scholar Allama Maulana Zubayer Ahmed Ansari, with the police taking no action, despite a ban on mass-gatherings.