Two months after it was proposed, the National Women's Development Policy (NWDP) 2008 is facing fierce opposition while the government is maintaining a veil of silence on the subject.
The NWDP suggests legalising equal rights for women - including property rights – as well as a 40 percent quota for women on the government's high executive, judiciary and legislative branches, parliament and local government bodies.
Chief adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, the country's top official, announced the policy on 8 March. It was highly acclaimed by the people although a vocal section of Islamic clerics opposed it.
But despite initial enthusiasm, the government is now keeping silent about the policy's future.
Although Bangladesh's legal system is secular in character, its law of inheritance is based on Islamic Sharia rules, whereby a daughter gets half of what a son inherits.
Women's organisations, NGOs and members of civil society, including various professional groups, had commended the government for a "pro-people" and "pro-woman" national policy.
Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman, former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, hailed the proposal as a point of departure from past injustices.
Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
|Stick-wielding clerics attacked a police station in Chittagong to show their opposition to the NWDP|
"If implemented properly, it will usher in a new era in freeing our women folk out of the shackles of the past," he said at a round table organised by Bangladesh Mohila Parishad (National Women's Association) in Dhaka.
Mohammad Ruhul Amin, the present Chief Justice, also spoke strongly in favour of the policy.
Challenges from the clergy
However, a section of Islamic hardliners went up against the NWDP 2008, terming it "anti-Koran" and "anti-Islamic". They continue to agitate across the country against the policy and threaten greater violence in future.
On 3 April, Islamic protesters in Chittagong, the second largest city with a population of six million, demanded immediate withdrawal of the policy.
Protest rallies were organised all over the country by an umbrella Islamic group referred to as the Islamic Law Implementation Committee (ILIC). It threatened to paralyse the country if the government did not scrap what it termed "anti-Islamic provisions" in the NWDP.
Led by Maulana Fazlul Haq, chairman of Islami Oikya Jote (United Islamic Alliance), ILIC announced a grand Islamic rally in Dhaka on 18 July to press for its demands.
As a result, the government formed a 20-member Ulema (Islamic experts) committee on 27 March to identify any potential "inconsistencies" in the NWDP. On 17 April the Ulema committee submitted its recommendation.
Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
|Protestors attack police officers following Friday prayers at the Baitul Mukarram National mosque on 11 April 2008|
"The review committee could not pinpoint any verse in the Koran that the women's development policy contradicts. It also failed to show any provision of the policy that contradicted the Koran and Sunnah [Sayings and lifestyle of Prophet Muhammad]," said Hafez Maulana Ziaul Hasan, chairman of Sammilito Islami Jote (United Islamic Alliance), a liberal Islamic organisation.
At a press conference on 14 May, more than 25 women's organisations threatened to seek tougher measures if the government backed out from its announced policy.
They said the NWDP 2008 was the result of a 30-year struggle fought by the country's women and a way to ensure women's constitutional rights.
Jahanara Haque of Dhaka University said the NWDP 2008 was consistent with the constitution, UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and was prepared in the light of Bangladesh's Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to achieve overall national development.
Ayesha Khanam, president of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad said: "The policy is not a religious issue but a development one."