“Scandalizing” as a Political Weapon: A Reading in the Legal and Social Context of Bangladesh

1

On April 3, 2021, on social media, news spread out that former joint secretary of Hefazat-Islami Mamunul Haque was ‘caught’ along with a woman in a hotel at Sonargaon. A video had been circulated that shows that young men were attacking and questioning Mr Mamunul about the woman who was with him at the time. He introduced the woman as his ‘second wife’. Soon after, a telephone conversation with his legally married wife was leaked and televised by a television channel. The channel’s ethical position is in question. However, in the conversation, it seems Mamunul was trying to minimize the damage of his marriage. Indeed, he claimed that the woman with him was his second wife. It remained the talk of the town for a while; it was even discussed in the parliament[1]. On April 24, 2021, a national private TV channel Ekattor TV in their programme Shangbaad Bistar[2] organized a discussion based on the evaluation of Hakkani Alem Shamaj’s press conference in which they said, according to the Islami Sharia law, what Mr Mamunul did is Zina. Zina means both sexual intercourse outside marriage and look, talk, touch, or desire that may lead to illicit sexual relations, which, according to Islami law, are punishable acts. In that programme, Ekattor TV invited an Islami philosopher who declared that Mamunul participated in Zina and the punishment of Zina is being whipped 100 times or being stoned. I wondered why Ekattor TV was explaining this while Islami Sharia law has not been followed in the country; rather Bangladesh upholds the Muslim Family Ordinance 1961[3], in which Zina is not included. Furthermore, not only Bangladesh, many Muslim countries do not apply this law (the Sharia law). Application of the concept of Zina could be contentious, because there are instances that the search for Zina often  disregard the voices of the victims of rape but punished them instead.[4]

After the first instance, on April 17, Mr Mamunul was arrested but not for the reason mentioned above. Instead he was arrested for allegation of inciting violence in 2020 at Mohammadpur and for the violence in Baitul Makarram Masjid while India’s prime minister Narandra Modi was visiting Bangladesh on March 26 (Dhaka Tribune, 18.04.2021). If there was a case against him in 2020, and also for the recent violence in Baitul Mukarram, why was he not arrested before? Why was he humiliated for spending time with a woman and taken to the custody of police which was televised? Though later he was rescued by his supporters from the police custody. Why does this matter of his sexual practice become a matter of national issue? Why had this issue been discussed in many TV talk shows and in the parliament for two weeks? While according to the law of the country, condemning one for Zina does not have a legal ground, Mamunul Haque was portrayed as morally deviant publicly before his arrest. As a public figure, Mamunul might have acceptability among the people. It seems, portraying him morally degraded was a strategy of state machinery to tackle the assumed unrest of his supporters for his arrest.  I need to mention, the Hefazat- e- Islam, which he is the leader of, came to the forefront for the first time in 2011 when it took a stand against the government women’s policy. In 2013, a thirteen-point demand was made by them, which I find misogynistic.[5] Hefazat-e-Islam claims that they are not a political group, but their demands are political. Therefore, I think they should be challenged politically. Nevertheless, I argue, the way the media and the state machinery assumed the role of ‘moral police’ against one of Hefazat-e-Islami prime leaders has been aiding the existing patriarchal norm to continue the unequal male-female relationship.

Finally, on April 30, there was a rape case filed against Mamunul by his so-called second wife under the penal code 1860, section 375, on the ground that for two years, he has been pursuing her to have a sexual relationship by tempting her with the promise of getting married. By definition, rape could be considered if someone penetrates a woman without her consent. However, the mentioned law describe rape as, “A man is said to commit “rape” who except in the case hereafter excepted, has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under and of the five following descriptions…Fourthly. With her consent, when the man knows that he is not her husband, and that her consent is given because she believes that he is another man to whom she is or believes herself to be lawfully married.” [6]  Popularly this section of law is described as tempting women to have sexual relations by making false promises of marriage, this provision in the law is debated because many find, this is an issue of deception. I know at least three cases in which middle-aged married males pursued girls younger than them to marry them in private without the knowledge of the first wife. After consummating the marriage, they divorced the second wife.  The weddings were not socially declared, and the girls never experienced the married life they desired. Two of them got pregnant, but socially the fathers were unknown. In fear of social stigma, one of them aborted the fetus. Another girl gave birth to a child, and she was stigmatized for being an unwed mother. In this context, a separate law on deception in the name of marriage is needed now. However, regarding these incidences, the state did not take a stand with the victims.  Whereas Mamunul’s alleged deception becomes a national issue, is it because he has been considered a political rival? If so, as a citizen, this is not good news for us.

While I was preparing to write this essay, another incident occurred where a second-year female college student was found hanging in an apartment in Gulshan. Again, a mobile call recording of her was leaked out to another electronic media. Her sister filed a case against the 42-year-old managing director of the Basundhara group, Sayem Sobhan Anvir, for the abetment of the suicide[7]. Immediately after the incident, the news media published the details and pictures of the deceased, and one of the media termed the girl as the “rakhhita” (concubine) of the alleged perpetrator. In the beginning, the majority of media did not disclose the name of the managing director. This indicates that they were to offer “juicy contents” or sexually explicit content to the audience to divert the attention from the crime. In this case, this role of media was harshly scrutinized by the citizen, and the media was obliged to change their position. Still, many comments continue to circulate on social media regarding the girl’s “character”, like why she accepted the “sugar daddy” who got a rented house for her for 1 lac taka per month. Hence, she is depicted as a gold digger, and a video of her dancing is uploaded with narration explaining she had many lovers. In this discourse, it the role of the older married rich man is not questioned: he will always try to trap young girls, and with his money and power, he will get away with it while the victims and their families are blamed for their sufferings. Furthermore, in at least two laws women’s ‘character’ and lifestyle that converge the normative standard, is important for the positive verdict for women. in the evidence law, 1872, section 155 (4), is written, ‘when a man is prosecuted for rape or an attempt to ravish, it may be shown that the prosecutrix (the rape victim) was of generally immoral character.’ In child custody law, it is said, in certain situations the mother may lose her right to have custody, likewise, “if the mother leads an immoral life or is a person bad character or is otherwise found guilty of such conduct which is contrary the welfare of the child.”  Therefore, it could be assumed that putting stains on women’s character would benefit the alleged accused.

 

2

These days, in every case of crime that goes viral on social media, we find many elements to talk about. Whether it is the murder of Sinha or the rape of Begumganj. Ideally, mass media would publish a report of an incident, and police would investigate, then the rest would be decided in court. Nevertheless, in many cases, things do not proceed as they should.  Media reports as well as sometimes law enforcing agencies’ press briefings on such incidences, contain some sexually explicit information. Also, phone call recordings, pictures, and videos regarding criminal offences are leaked by the media, which are supposed to be only relevant for the investigators. Media’s public circulation of evidence could incite people to speculate, fantasize, and take part in the moral judgment of the persons, especially the women involved. Both members from Islamic groups and the general public are very interested to discuss the ideal role of women/men, from which the victims or the perpetrators deviated. This discussion discursively reinforces and constitutes the ‘ideal’ men and women within the patriarchal norms. In most cases, premarital and extramarital sexual relationships are the issues to talk about. An idea prevails in society that sex should be practiced within marriage only. The way people participate in the discussion seems that most people practice according to societal norms.

Research regarding pre- and extramarital sexual practices of the country show quite a different picture. I have come across two recent pieces of research, one is on urban slum males’ sexual practices, and another is on sexual practices among university students. Quddus (2015) shows that among the interviewed 408 slum’s males, 81% involved in premarital intercourse, and 89% engaged in premarital sexual activities. Furthermore, 66.7% had extramarital sex experiences, 55.7% had extramarital intercourses. Nevertheless, in their research on public university students, Hossain and Quddus (2020) find that among the 610 interviewed students, 36% of male students and 21% of female students had premarital experiences of intercourse. Also, earlier to the above studies, Lazeena Muna’s research reported on an online daily (BDNews24.com, 26.09.2005)[8] shows that irrespective of the taboo on premarital sex, young boys and girls were involved in such relationships. Sometimes people tend to say that this is a recent phenomenon as society has been exposed to technology and media, hence to pornography and foreign cultures. However, Aziz and Maloney’s (1985) in-depth field research in 1978 in Matlab, Chandpur, shows these practices were common long before mobile phones were available there.

One important issue I need to mention is that in the legal frame of Bangladesh, it is not mentioned that heterosexual premarital and extramarital sexual activities are prohibited. This is a pertinent social issue. Sometimes common people mixed it up with the prohibition of adultery that was addressed in penal code 1860, section 497, in which it is said that “Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offence of rape, is guilty of the offence of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case, the wife shall not be punished as an abettor.”[9] We have to remember that this law originated with the British colonial ruler, and the cultural practices of the British people at that time. Within this law, if a man engages in sexual activity with a married woman without the husband’s consent, the male will be punished. However, the female will not face any punishment. This is because of the assumption that a woman’s caretaker is her husband and that she cannot consent to any activity on her own volition, which I will elaborate on in a moment. These ideas about men, women, and marriage have changed in the United Kingdom, but in Bangladesh these ideas continue to carry the legacies of the colonial British law.

According to the child marriage restrain act 2017, child marriage is prohibited in Bangladesh, and if an adult is involved in sexual activities with a minor girl, this will be considered rape. In 2018 a change in child marriage law permits marrying off a girl at 16 in an extraordinary situation. Furthermore, in 2019, the high court ruled that women need no longer declare if they are virgins on the marriage form provided under the 1974 Bangladesh Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act.[10]Therefore, legally the idea of unwed women’s virginity is not required in marriage now.

 

3

Generally, it is believed that the purpose of marriage is to regulate sexual relationships in society. Academically, anthropologists have also attempted to establish a universal definition of marriage (Ahmed and Chowdhury, 2003). Goodenough (1970, discussed in Ahmed and Chowdhury, (2003) explains marriage as a contract through which female sexuality is controlled.  Gough (1959, ibid) said marriage is a universal social institution that establishes the legitimacy of the offspring. However, the empirical evidence of societies challenged the universal idea of marriage. Sudanese ghost-marriage and woman-woman marriage are some examples that do not fit with this universal definition.

Furthermore, Grossi (2014) contends that the meaning of marriage is different at different times. She discusses how the legal frame of marriage has been changing in England and Australia throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century. In the eighteenth century, old common law was pervasive in England and Australia. According to this law, marriage was a spiritual union of two persons. So a married woman’s individual existence became legally suspended through marriage. Divorce was only possible when marriage becomes ‘improper and impossible’, likely if there was alleged adultery. Children and the property of women belonged to the husbands. In the nineteenth century, after several changes of law, women achieved property rights. A significant reform took place regarding custody of children and domestic violence, for which a minimum protection of women was ensured. Though separation was possible, women could not leave their husbands. In the twentieth century, the court granted the right to divorce on 14 grounds. At that time, child custody started being decided based on the child’s best interest, marriage was practiced in a more individualistic view, and rape in marriage was recognized. In the last 300 years, the idea of marriage changed significantly in England and Australia. Marriage is no longer seen as a religious, lifelong patriarchal institution, and it became more secular and contractual. Plurality is common, so same-sex marriage is recognized in these countries now. Love and equality are associated with marriage directly. However, some feminists state that equality is not possible in marriage because, they argue, love is an aspect of patriarchy’s ideology.

In our Bangladesh region, the idea of marriage has also come a long way. In the past, practices of polygyny were common among Bengali males. However, Chowdhury and Ahmed (1997) showed, multiple types of marriages were transformed into monogamous marriages in the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, generally polygamous marriage was practiced among all classes of people. Within two generations, monogamous marriage became the ideal for the middle class, and they started to see the practices of poor people as immoral and degenerated. Monogamous marriage is considered excellent, moral, and ideal. In Bangladesh, for the last three decades, love marriage has become more common. I contend this change will be continuing, and the future frame of the marriage and sexual practices are unknown to us at this point.

 

4

Recently, many incidences of violence against women and even killings happened in the country. Citizens have the right to know that information. However, as I have shown earlier, details of the crime should be kept strictly confidential so the investigations can be carried out flawlessly. Likewise, the death of a female student at an English medium school was portrayed as due to an “unnatural sexual act”. This also became a hot topic a few days ago. In all these cases, media portrayals and discussions mainly are around men and women’s moral standard and their deviation. However, the crime should be at the centre of the attention; unfortunately, within these discussions, the criminal act got blurred. When rich or powerful males commit crimes, speculation, confusion, and moral judgments circulate widely.  As a result, scandalizing the victim, whether they are alive or dead, has become a weapon to benefit the accused. Heterosexual monogamous marriage is portrayed as ‘normal’ ‘fixed,’ and ‘sacred’. Though the studies of different societies and the history of the marriage of specific societies make it clear that marriage is diverse and ever-changing, the future of marriage is not known to us.

On the other hand, having heterosexual relations outside marriage is often practiced.  The state needs to recognize this; furthermore, the state should ensure the safeguarding of all its citizens and stand beside scandalized victims rather than remain only with the rich, the powerful, or a religious group. Therefore, through its government, the state needs to transcend the communities’ and groups’ interests and take a stand for justice.

 

Endnotes:

[1] www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmLd0scxbQw accessed on 28.04.2021

[2] www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZY9gq39b9I accessed on 21.04.2021

[3] bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-305/section-13538.html accessed on 29.04.2021

[4] For example, according to Ahsan (2017), it is learned from the raped women during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, who are staying in khana-yi-Aman (shelter) that ignoring their testimony, they were imprisoned as they had experienced sexual activity outside wedlock. likely, it is found, in prison in the West-African country of Mauritania, women inmates’ only offense was, being raped. Some of them were children. Often, they were pregnant and unable to prove coercion, they were branded criminals for having sex outside marriage. This is because of the cultures, which regularly dismiss women’s testimony employing the idea of Zina of Islamic laws.www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2018/12/07/what-are-zina-laws accessed on 03.08.2021

[5] www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-22424708 accessed 03.08.2021

[6] bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3231.html accessed 03.08.2021

[7] On July 19, police submitted the final report and cleared Sayem Sobhan Anvir of the charges of abetting the death of a college student by suicide. Though newspaper reports on the deceased’s diary and other evidence indicates otherwise, the accused was never been arrested or questioned before finalising the report. www.thedailystar.net/news/bangladesh/crime-justice/news/college-girls-death-bashundhara-md-cleared-charges-police-probe-2135566. Accessed 03.08.2021.

[8] bdnews24.com/bangladesh/2005/09/26/sex-before-marriage-taboo-half-gone-young-people-evade-parental-and-social-restrictionsaccessed on 26.04.2021

[9] bdlaws.minlaw.gov.bd/act-11/section-3534.html#:~:text=Whoever%20has%20sexual%20intercourse%20with,be%20punished%20with%20imprisonment%20of accessed on 26.04.2021

[10] www.reuters.com/article/bangladesh-women-marriage-idINKCN1VH0GQ accessed on 03.05.2021

 

References:

Ahsan, S. (2017) “When muslims become feminists: Khana-yi Aman, Islam, and Pashtunwali” in Green, N. (ed.) Afghanistan’s Islam: from conversion to the Taliban, University of California Press, pp. 225-241.

Aziz, K.M & Maloney, C. (1985) Life Stages, Gender and Fertility in Bangladesh, Dhaka: International Centre form Diarrheal Disease Research Bangladesh.

Choudhury, M. Ahmed, R. (1997) Gender, class and the power of translation: family and marriage of the Bengali muslim middle-Class, Shamaj Nikhhon 63, pp. 1-33 (লিঙ্গ, শ্রেণী এবং অনুবাদের ক্ষমতা: বাঙালী মুসলমান মধ্যবিত্ত পরিবার ও বিয়ে, সমাজ নিরিক্ষণ, ৬৩, পৃ ১-৩৩)

Chowdhuri, M. Ahmed, R. (2003) নৃ বিজ্ঞানের প্রথম পাঠ: সমাজ ও সংস্কৃতি, ঢাকা, একুশে পাবলিকেশন্স 

Grossi, R.  (2014) “Love and Marriage” in Looking for Love in the Legal Discourse of Marriage, ANU Press.

Hossain, A. & Quddus A. H.G. (2020) “Prevalence and Determinants of Premarital Sex Among

University Students of Bangladesh” Sexuality & Culture (2021) Vol.25 pp. 255–274.

Quddus, A.H. G. (2015) “Behind the Myth of Puritan Bangladesh: Pre- and Extra Marital Sexual Reality Among Lower-Class Urban Men” Journal of Comparative Family Studies, AUTUMN 2015, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp 451-466.

 

 

Image credit: Vassily Kandinsky, Study for Painting with White Form

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