A senior official with Bangladesh’s ruling party on Wednesday joined rights activists and educators in condemning comments made by the chief of an influential but conservative Islamic group, who recently suggested that girls should not be schooled beyond nine or 10 years old.
Shah Ahmed Shafi, a cleric who heads the Hefazat-e-Islam group, called on his followers last week to declare that they would not send their daughters to school past the fourth or fifth grades. The 99-year-old heads an organization that honored Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in early November as she prepared to lead her Awami League party to a landslide victory in the Dec. 30 general election.
Faruk Khan, an Awami League presidium member, denounced Ahmed Shafi’s comments about girls.
“Bangladesh Awami League promotes women’s empowerment. Our leader, Sheikh Hasina, would never compromise with women’s empowerment. He should refrain from making such offensive comments in future,” Khan told BenarNews.
Rashed Khan Menon, president of Awami League’s political ally, the Workers Party of Bangladesh, echoed that sentiment.
“Ahmed Shafi cannot be supported under any circumstances. What he said was against the constitution. Bangladesh has become a middle-income country due to active participation of women at all levels.”
“As an organization, Hefazat is hardline,” he added. “They want to push the country and the society back. They want to see women trapped within four walls.”
Hasina, whose government has held power for the past decade, has been criticized as an autocrat by human rights and free speech advocates but praised in other quarters for leading Bangladesh on a path of economic growth. During that time, the country has also made greater strides in educational opportunities for girls and women.
Hasina is the daughter of Bangladesh’s assassinated founding father, who led an independence movement that brought about the creation of the secular-based nation after a war with Pakistan in 1971.
“[H]is comments are against Bangladesh’s constitution and all rules and norms. Our constitution guarantees education for all,” Rasheda K. Chowdhury, executive director of Campaign for Popular Education, a local NGO, told BenarNews, referring to the Hefazat leader’s remarks.
“He cannot force people not to send girls to schools and colleges. No sensible people can accept his idea.”
Chowdhury said women were engines of the nation’s growth and change.
“Bangladesh is one of leading countries in terms of women’s empowerment in South Asia and the world. Our women are not at the backstage. They cannot be pushed into four walls,” she said.
Bangladesh has had a woman as prime minister for more than half of its 48-year-history.
It has made progress in educating girls in recent years.
“With nearly 6.4 million girls in secondary school in 2015, Bangladesh is among the few countries to achieve gender parity in school enrollment, and have more girls than boys in the secondary schools,” Shilpa Banerji wrote in a blog for The World Bank in 2017.
Women comprise more than 80 percent of garment workers, the industry that forms the backbone of Bangladeshi exports and its current transition out of least-developed-country status.
“Ahmed Shafi is wicked. He wanted to obstruct the advancement of women by giving the wrong interpretation of Islam. Women took our country forward. They have been successful everywhere – education, sports, ready-made garments (RMG) industry, politics and so forth,” Nazma Aktar, chief of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation, told BenarNews.
“Islam never obstructs women’s education,” she added. “We should not give his statement so much importance. Rather we should focus on girls getting more education.”
‘Do not let girls study’
While addressing an annual religious gathering in Chittagong last week, Ahmed Shafi administered an oath to his devotees where they promised to not send their daughters to schools and colleges.
“Do not let girls study at schools and colleges. At best, you can allow them to study up to fourth or fifth grade. If you let them study any more... You have seen in the newspapers that... If you educate your girl up to ninth, tenth, MA, BA levels then that girl will not remain yours.
“If you educate your girls, other men will snatch them away,” he said.
Afterward, as criticism over his remarks began to pour in, Ahmed Shafi sent a clarification to reporters. He claimed he had told parents that they should not compromise in efforts to seclude girls for educational purposes, pointing out that most schools were coeducational.
In Bangladesh, 51 percent of students at primary schools are girls, according to official figures. At the secondary education level, the rate increases to 54 percent and drops to 48 percent at the high secondary level.
Warming up to Hasina
On Nov. 4, 2018, less than two months before the election, Hefazat honored Hasina for recognizing the educational degrees issued by madrassas, or Islamic boarding schools.
The event where Ahmed Shafi’s group presented a plaque to the prime minister, was another instance in which Hasina, despite leading the secular Awami League, was seen as seeking to strengthen ties with Islamic hardliners.
In April 2017, Hasina caused consternation among many Bangladeshis when she made concessions to Hefazat-e-Islami despite fears that growing Islamization was eclipsing secular traditions of Bengali culture.
Meeting then with Hefazat leaders at her residence, Hasina announced that her government would recognize degrees from thousands of unregulated Qwami madrassas, including those run by Hefazat. She also agreed to changes in public school textbooks to make them more Muslim-friendly, as demanded by Hefazat.
“I follow religious guidelines, but I do not mix politics with religion,” Hasina said at the time in response to criticisms of her actions. “Recognition of the Qwami madrassa certificate will bring jobs to lakhs [hundreds of thousands] of students. There is no politics in it.”