Wednesday, 27 January 2010

At least she wasn't stoned

The Telegraph brings us the charming story of a 16 year old Bangladeshi girl whose misfortune it was to have grown up in a village ruled by a combination of hardline religion and traditional community values. The formal authorities have little power here, so when she was raped by the local sex-pest she had nowhere to turn. The truth emerged some weeks later when, after an arranged marriage, she was discovered to be pregnant. She was immediately divorced and sent home in shame.

At that point an informal village council, which included two local imams, stepped in to "arbitrate". They decided that the alleged rapist had no case to answer, but that the girl deserved to receive 101 lashes for her unchastity. Her father was also fined, presumably for taking insufficiently good care of his daughter's honour. The punishment was delivered by the local headman last week. "At one stage of the inhuman torture, the girl collapsed and fainted" reports the Bangladesh Daily Star. It took her two hours for her to recover sufficiently to allow the beating to resume.

Declaring that the alleged rapist had ruined her life, the girl told the reporter, in tears, "I want justice". She's unlikely to get it, however. Although she has support locally, neighbours "did not dare to say anything against the so-called village arbitration." Her father, meanwhile, "said members of the influential group are now keeping a watch on them so that they could not move or seek legal action." The police said that they couldn't investigate unless the girl made a formal complaint.

This would seem to be an especially severe case, but CNS mentions "a rash of earlier floggings of women, including one who spoke to a man from a different community, another who filed a rape complaint, and a third who refused sexual advances made by a relative. In each case locally-issued fatwas ordered punishment of 101 lashes." It also notes that Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - another country where this sort of "community justice" is commonplace - are all currently members of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Bangladesh isn't Saudi Arabia, where handing out severe sentences to rape victims is part of the official legal system, or even Pakistan, where institutionalised Sharia principles regularly leave rape victims thrown into prison for "adultery". Formally, the country has a recognisable and humane judicial system along British lines. Since human rights campaigners drew attention to the case, the country's high court has stepped in and ordered the girl to be taken into protective custody. This follows an earlier ruling in which the court ordered the authorites to clamp down on extra-judicial punishments such as this, but which seems to have been widely ignored.

Mohammad Ashrafuzzaman of the Asian Human Rights Commission blamed a number of factors for allowing such abuses, ranging from a culture of automatic respect for local elders to rampant corruption in the local police. Bangladesh isn't unique in that respect, of course. Similar, and even worse, reports of "traditional justice" repeatedly emerge from countries like Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Sudan and even parts of Indonesia. Even in glitzy Dubai a British couple have been charged with illegally having sex after the woman reported a sexual assault to the police.

There's little anyone in the West can do except gape open-mouthed at the extraordinary inversion of humanity that must be involved in identifying a victim of rape as an accomplice, with her attacker, in an immoral act deserving of brutal chastisement. Whether or not Sharia law (however that is understood) is actually to blame, it rarely seems to help much. But that's not my point here. Rather it is to point to the vast moral gulf that has opened up between progressive and traditional societies. A case like the Bangladeshi one seems incomprehensible even to many people in Bangladesh; yet no doubt the village elders genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing according to their culture. These attitudes die hard.

There's much talk, these days, from people like David Miliband about the necessity of welcoming the Taliban into power in Afghanistan. That would be the logical the endgame of our involvement in that country - an entrenched Taliban, propped up by international support, going back to doing what they love best, enforcing traditional tribal morality. It would mark a huge symbolic defeat, not just for the Western alliance but most importantly for progress. But it would probably make little difference in practice. Outside Kabul itself, the removal of the Taliban has done nothing to improve the lot of women, and their return would be unlikely to make it much worse. You can't, after all, blame the Taliban for what happened last week in Bangladesh.