Spartacist Canada No. 170
Barbaric Mutilation of Bangladeshi Woman
Women and Revolution
On June 5, in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, 33-year-old Rumana Monzur was permanently blinded and disfigured by her husband. For 25 long minutes, he tortured Rumana, gouging out her eyes and chewing off her nose and parts of her face. An assistant professor in international relations at Dhaka University, Rumana has been pursuing a master’s degree in political science at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. She returned home to Dhaka in May to visit her family, including her five-year-old daughter, while completing her thesis. This attempt on her life was intended to put a stop to Rumana’s academic career; in her own words, “he hated the idea that I would become educated.”
Reportedly, it was only after the Dhaka University teachers union in Bangladesh threatened to strike that Rumana’s husband Hassan Sayed was arrested on June 15. He has now been charged with attempted murder. His arrest came on the heels of June 14 protests by students and teachers at the university who organized two human chains and a march through the campus. In view of the danger of making her story public, protesters also demanded security for Rumana’s family. Additional calls were made for the government and Dhaka University to pay her medical bills. Because of the publicity surrounding this horrific crime, Rumana was able to receive medical care in India and Canada, but attempts to save her vision were tragically in vain. She has now been granted temporary residence in Canada, along with some of her immediate family.
Her story also sparked outrage in Canada. On June 26, students at St. John’s College, the UBC residence where Rumana had been living, organized a 300-strong rally. The protest drew students, teachers, trade unionists and women’s organizations, as well as supporters of the Trotskyist League. Placards carried included “Justice for Rumana” and “Respect Women’s Right to Education.”
At the rally and in Canadian newspaper articles some feminists insisted that the attack had nothing to do with religion and was purely a “domestic violence” issue, claiming that to say otherwise would be racist. It is true that violence against women occurs in all societies, crossing class, religious and national bounds, but what happened to Rumana had all the markings of an attempted “honour killing.” There have been countless such murders in the Near East, in South and Central Asia as well as in many imperialist countries. These brutal crimes grow out of the clash between a woman’s desire for independence from “traditional” culture and the legacy of pre-capitalist social and economic norms that persist in large swathes of the world.
The attack on Rumana is reminiscent of the murder of 17-year-old Aqsa Parvez at the hands of her father in suburban Toronto four years ago, and of the series of brutal murders of Sikh women in B.C. by their husbands and other relatives. Aqsa had refused to wear the Islamic hijab (headscarf); a pattern among the Sikh women was that their relative economic independence, with jobs as teachers, nurses, software engineers, etc., clashed with traditional Sikh society, where arranged marriages and dowry are the norm. In Rumana’s case, her academic pursuits and independent life abroad were similarly at odds with traditional Muslim culture.
Such crimes highlight the explosive mixture of women’s oppression and anti-immigrant racism in Canada today. We denounce attempts by racist reactionaries and capitalist politicians to exploit these horrible murders in order to fuel anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bigotry. Racist hysteria against Muslims has been the domestic fuel of the rulers’ “war on terror,” which has seen countless frame-ups, detentions, people “rendered” to other countries to be tortured and a sustained assault on the rights of everyone. As an extension of the “war on terror,” veiled Muslim women have been repeatedly scapegoated.
We sharply oppose this racist ruling-class drive against Muslims and other minorities. At the same time we strongly solidarize with women who seek to throw off the strictures of religious traditionalism. Bangladesh, like the rest of the Indian subcontinent, bears the imprint of pre-capitalist social and economic norms. This neocolonial country is dominated by the dictates of the imperialist order while also subject to the tyranny of religious obscurantism; capitalist exploitation manipulates and deepens the ancient traditions and taboos.
The concept of “family honour”—control of a woman’s sexuality by her family—is not the exclusive purview of Islam but occurs in a number of religions, including Christianity. It is the reflection of the treatment of women as the property of their husbands or fathers. This was powerfully captured by Friedrich Engels in his classic work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884): “In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.”
Understanding the deadly consequences for a woman in Bangladesh if her “virtue” is questioned, Rumana’s family solicited testimonies from classmates and friends in Vancouver to attest to her fidelity after her husband accused her of adultery to “justify” his torture. Such allegations have meant death for many women and young girls. This was the fate of Hena Acuter, a 14-year-old rape victim who was whipped to death in January following a “fatwa” issued by local Muslim clerics that declared her an adulteress. Since then at least three other Bangladeshi women have reportedly killed themselves after being subjected to similar public humiliation and torture.
In places like Bangladesh, burdened by centuries-old “customs,” even basic questions of democratic reform can be explosive. In 1994 Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin was hounded out of the country by Islamic fundamentalists incensed by her fight for the rights of women, including to contraception and abortion (see “Women and the Permanent Revolution in Bangladesh,” Women and Revolution No. 44, Winter 1994-Spring 1995).
In April of this year, reactionary fundamentalists staged a general strike in response to the government’s National Women’s Development Policy. The policy has drawn the fundamentalists’ ire for its modest reforms to family law codes enacted under Islamic edicts. A number of left-leaning women’s groups, including the Women’s Cell of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, have rallied under the platform “Equal rights is our minimum demand.” They protest the incompleteness of the government policy and demand a “unified” family law and equal rights of inheritance for women. Whatever reforms can be wrested from the bourgeois rulers, however partial, must be defended. However, reliance on appeals to bourgeois governments to protect women and create real equality between the sexes is a dead end.
Christianity and Judaism, in their many variants, also preach stifling moral codes to uphold the patriarchal family, the main social institution oppressing women. But these religions, though they had roots in pre-capitalist society, adapted to conform with rising industrial capitalism and the bourgeois democratic nation-states where they existed. The radical democratic principles of the Enlightenment were the ideological reflection of historical material advances over a backward, feudal society. As a religion Islam has not had to adapt, largely because it is rooted in those parts of the world where the imperialists have reinforced social backwardness as a prop to their domination.
The emancipation of women as part of the liberation of all the downtrodden of Bangladesh and the entire subcontinent requires a struggle for permanent revolution—the working class seizing power at the head of the peasantry and oppressed masses through socialist revolution, reorganizing society on the basis of collectivized property and fighting to extend the revolution internationally, especially to the imperialist centres. The best historical model for this is the great October 1917 Revolution in Russia led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. Such a perspective means taking up the fight against religious obscurantism and women’s oppression. Bangladesh has a vibrant and potentially powerful working class with a significant component of women workers concentrated in the garment and jute industries. Such women workers will be a great motor force for the revolution. As Trotsky wrote in 1924:
“And this, moreover, means that the Eastern woman who is the most paralysed in life, in her habits and in creativity, the slave of slaves, that she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress; she will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas, a new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker.”