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World Press on Marital rape and Commitment to Free Press : New Age Islam's Selection, 31 October 2020

By New Age Islam Edit Desk

31 October 2020

• Marital Rape Killed A Child In Our Country. Why Is It Still Legal?

By Taqbir Huda

• Sheikh Hasina’s Commitment To Free Press: The Real Test Is In Practice

By Mahfuz Anam

• In 1953, Britain Openly Removed An Elected Government, With Tragic Consequences

By Gaiutra Bahadur


Marital Rape Killed A Child In Our Country, Why Is It Still Legal?

By Taqbir Huda

October 29, 2020



On October 25, 2020, a 14-year-old girl from the Kalia village in Basail upazila, Tangail, reportedly died due to excessive genital bleeding after being admitted at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH).

The girl has been identified by the police and locals as Nurnahar, a student at the local Kalia Biddaloy. Nurnahar belonged to a poor family. Since both her parents were full-time labourers and would frequently quarrel with one another (with her father being absent most of the time), Nurnahar's maternal grandfather, Lal Khan, brought her to his home in Kalia village when she was aged four, and she had been living with him ever since. He enrolled his granddaughter in school, and was paying for her upkeep and education from his daily wages as a labourer. Nurnahar got promoted to eighth grade this year and was known as a meritorious student, coming second in her class.

The ongoing pandemic has magnified the struggles of low-income families, and Lal Khan's household was no exception. On September 20, Nurnahar was contracted into marriage with a 34/35-year-old man named Rajib Khan, hailing from a nearby village in Kauljani union. As Rajib is an expatriate working in the United Arab Emirates, currently visiting his homeland, Nurnahar's family was incentivised to marry her off to him due to his relatively high earnings. Lal Khan spent Tk 30,000 on her wedding. Since Nurnahar had not reached the minimum age of marriage under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 (eighteen), the marriage was not registered by the families. Nurnahar was then taken to her in-laws' house in Fulki Paschimpara village, Basail.

Lal Khan told Dhaka Tribune, "My granddaughter informed us that she had been receiving treatment from a village doctor [kabiraj], since she told her in-laws that she has been bleeding from the first night of her marriage." Far from ensuring proper medical treatment, Rajib continued having sexual intercourse with Nurnahar, disregarding the girl's injurious condition. As the bleeding did not stop, the families discussed Nurnahar's condition and afterwards her mother-in-law fed the girl some medicine from the kabiraj. It is only when Nurnahar's condition took a dangerous turn that her in-laws took her to a private clinic in Tangail on October 22, and tactfully handed over the girl's custody back to her family and relieved themselves of further responsibility. As her condition kept on deteriorating, she was then shifted to Kumudini Hospital in Mirzapur.

Meanwhile, Nurnahar's family was struggling to finance the treatment, and the local villages pooled together Tk 60,000 for her treatment. Afterwards, Nurnahar was finally transferred to DMCH for better treatment, but by then it was too late and she ultimately succumbed to her injuries on October 25. The next day, she was buried at a local cemetery near her grandfather's house in Kalia, after an autopsy had been conducted. Lal Khan blamed Rajib Khan for the death of his granddaughter. Rajib did not even bother to show up at the girl's funeral.

Bilkis Begum, Nurnahar's mother-in-law, told the press that the girl was "possessed by a demon" and that is what apparently caused the genital bleeding. Dr Firozur Rahman, Basail Upazila Health and Family Planning Officer, said that panic and fear is a natural reaction for girls during their first sexual encounter and that genital bleeding often occurs with those who get married early. In order to stop the bleeding, a gynaecologist ought to be consulted immediately.

The girl's in-laws have proposed to "settle" the matter through shalish. However, Nurnahar's family has reportedly filed a complaint with the Basail police station against her in-laws—although, in contracting an underage girl into marriage, they themselves committed an offence under section 8 of the Child Marriage Restraint Act 2017 (CMRA), punishable with up to two years' imprisonment and/or Tk 50,000 fine. It did not matter that Nurnahar was the second-best student in her class and could one day have been their ticket out of poverty. What only mattered, even to a grandfather who had admirably been financing her education on his own initiative, was the economic prospects of creating marital ties with an expatriate grandson-in-law. 

While it should be clear to anyone that Nurnahar died after being forced to have intercourse with her husband, the sad thing is, our law would not consider Rajib's action to be rape as marital rape of wives above the age of 13 is specifically excluded from the offence of rape in section 375 of the Penal Code 1860, which defines rape. Furthermore, according to section 376 of the Code, which originally set out the punishment for rape, marital rape is only punishable if the wife is under the age of 12, and there can only be a maximum of two years' imprisonment or even just a fine. These provisions were introduced by our British colonisers at a time when Victorian morality dictated that wives ought to be treated as the husband's property, so the very concept of holding a man liable for raping their own property was seen to be absurd.

Our country has introduced special laws on violence against women (including rape) three times since the independence: first in 1983, then in 1995, and finally in 2000. However, each time, our lawmakers consciously chose to retain the marital rape exemption clause in the Penal Code, instead of repealing it, while Britain for its part criminalised marital rape in 1991. Pakistan, which also inherited the same marital rape exemption clause, removed it in 2006.

The National Survey on Violence Against Women (2015) found that 27.3 percent of ever-married women experienced sexual violence perpetrated by their husbands during their lifetime, including forced sexual intercourse. This means, out of the 19,987 ever-married women interviewed by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, over 5,390 women said they were raped by their husbands. In retaining the marital rape exemption clause, we are telling these women, and the thousands of other women and girls who are undoubtedly subjected to marital rape, that they have no right to seek justice for being raped. We are reinforcing the archaic notion that wives are the chattels of their husbands and upon signing the marriage contract, a wife perpetually and irrevocably consents to sexual intercourse with her husband whenever he so demands. We are forced to accept that even when a victim of child marriage, like Nurnahar, dies as a result of marital rape, this forceful intercourse is not a crime, simply because the man happened to be her "husband"—as a result of a forced marriage in which she most certainly had no say.

The one offence that Rajib, and others in his position, could be charged with is "contracting a child marriage" under section 7 of the CMRA, the maximum punishment for which is two years' imprisonment and can also just be an order of fine. Therefore, if any sex-crazed man wants to rape a girl every night of the week with total legal immunity, child marriage continues to be the perfect option—there is always plenty of unwanted daughters to choose from and no police station or court could file a marital rape case against him.

This is our law. This is our reality. We must know it. We must loathe it. We must challenge it.


Taqbir Huda is a Research Specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and leads the Rape Law Reform Now campaign. Email:


Sheikh Hasina’s Commitment To Free Press: The Real Test Is In Practice

By Mahfuz Anam

October 30, 2020


File photo of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.


Nothing could please us more than to hear Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina reiterate her commitment to the freedom of the press and democracy. But does it match with how the Digital Security Act operates, especially against journalists?

We couldn't agree more when the PM called on us to shun unethical and yellow journalism and keep in mind the interest of the nation and its people with the utmost importance. She quoted Bangabandhu as saying, "Like unprincipled (nitiheen) politics, unprincipled journalism also cannot bring good to the society." Again, we couldn't agree more.

The problem arises when we question: who decides what constitutes "unethical" journalism? Who decides what is in the "national" and "public" interest? Is it the "public" or the "powers that be"? (The latter have all the coercive machinery of the state to turn things their way, while the public must wait another five years to have their say, which too can now be "custom-made".)

The PM also urged us to engage in "constructive criticism" but not to "confuse" the people. Here, we could do with some details as to what constitutes constructive criticism. For example, up to what point is criticising the government "constructive", and when do our criticisms start to become destructive?

A government elected for a specific period of time is by definition going to use all its power and influence to get itself re-elected by any means possible, sometimes even bending democratic norms and reinterpreting the legal regime. At that moment, what should a media committed to the "public interest" do?

For politicians, national interest and party interest often appear to be the same (we cannot cite one example where a politician opposed their own party because they thought it went against public interest; given the nature of our politics, it just cannot happen). And thus we hear them accusing us of hurting the national interest when, in reality, we are just exposing corruption and crimes. While we talk about "yellow journalism"—and we accept the criticism with bowed heads and due humility as and when it occurs—we may also raise the issue of "yellow criticism" when unfounded, out-of-context and outright lies are spread against well-researched investigative reports, and when fact-based editorial positions are termed to have a yellow hue.

It is the media's pledge to the public and its bounden duty to expose cases of abuse of power, corruption, waste of resources, and the depriving of citizens of their individual and collective rights. When a government claims to have done this or that, a fundamental fact is not given prominence—that is, everything is being done with public money. When a specific project estimated to cost a particular amount ends up costing several times more—without any credible reason—it is "we the people" who pay for it. So the media is bound to investigate and report how public money is spent. Very often, as recent revelations have also proven, government high-ups don't even know how public money is being wasted, syphoned off or just gobbled up through false papers or fake submissions. It is only when the media reveals them that some action is taken. We dare say if the media did not report, all such cases would never have seen the light of day.

By and large, the mainstream media in Bangladesh follows the broad ethical codes of the profession. But when a rare example of a rotten apple comes to the fore, it is cited as an example of how the whole media behaves. We have stood firm in supporting democracy, secularism, national sovereignty, illegal takeover of power, etc. We have loudly proclaimed and celebrated every success that our people and government have achieved. No credible example can be cited where the media took a position that was against the public interest.

The differences in perception/definition/interpretation of what constitutes "national" or "public" interest between a government and the media are historical. Some examples will illustrate the point.

In 1961, soon after assuming power, US President John F. Kennedy was preparing to invade Cuba and topple Castro by landing troops at the Bay of Pigs. The New York Times found out about it and was preparing to report. The story goes that President Kennedy personally called the editor of NYT urging him not to publish it, saying that printing the story would jeopardise the US national interest and endanger lives of American troops. The NYT editor said, attacking Cuba is against the US national interest and it is the administration—not the paper—that was jeopardising American lives by waging an illegal war. The story was eventually printed and the invasion ended in a total fiasco. No journalist was jailed, nor was the NYT sued for treason, which might have been the case elsewhere. Issues of far lesser gravity have landed many here with sedition charges.

The case of NYT publishing the classified Pentagon Papers (which contained secret documents about US involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967), against the wishes of the US government, is another celebrated example of who defines the "national interest". The US constitution did not empower the government to forcibly stop its publication. The government went to the Supreme Court, where its petition was thrown out, making for one of the most famous cases on the First Amendment to the US Constitution. (This is an excellent example of media-judiciary collaboration to uphold the freedom of the former. Without the judiciary giving unwavering support to the free press, it is very difficult to withstand assaults by governments. Two examples illustrate the point: the Trump administration tried its best to muzzle the press but the court prevented him; In Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Myanmar, etc., there is no such protection of the press by the courts.)

In South Asia, one of the crowning examples of ethical journalism is what Anthony Mascarenhas, a Pakistani journalist, did in 1971. The military junta brought him along with several others for a visit to East Pakistan to see and report on how the army had "saved Pakistan" from the Bengali traitors. Upon their return, the other journalists sang the military's song while Anthony Mascarenhas revealed to the world, in graphic detail, the genocide that we Bengalis were being subjected to. (He had to defect to the UK to do so.) He went against his own country's "national interest" and exposed, through The Sunday Times, the killing machine that his own army had become, dramatically changing the world public opinion in favour of our independence struggle. His book "The Rape of Bangladesh", published in 1971, raised global awareness about the crimes against humanity, which was our case during the recently held war crimes trial.

Wasn't supporting Bangabandhu's Six Points against the "national interest" of Pakistan? Those of us who are old enough to have passed a part of our lives in Pakistan remember the role that most newspapers consistently and unwaveringly played in supporting the case for our political autonomy, cultural identity, share of the economic pie, and freedom of expression and democracy—causes that were personified by Bangabandhu. All those papers and the journalists who worked tirelessly at that time could have easily been accused of sedition for "working against the state" and "confusing" the public, if seen from the perspective of the government of the day.

Let us consider the media coverage of the "caretaker government movement" spearheaded by Awami League during the 1993-96 period. Those of us who saw the merit of the demand and supported it through reporting, columns and editorials were writing something that the government of the day considered to be anti-constitutional (since the caretaker government concept was not in our constitution), anti-government, against the "national interest", and an attempt to "confuse" the public.

Late Saifur Rahman, BNP's finance minister for several times, while in opposition once saw this writer at a diplomatic reception and introduced The Daily Star "as the conscience keeper of the nation." Later, on another occasion, after he returned to power and saw me in a similar event, literally shouted out "here comes the enemy of the government." I politely replied, "Saifur Bhai, I am where I was but you have moved from one side of the fence to the other and with it your views about things have become the exact opposite."

I recount the above story only to drive home the point that the attitude towards an independent media drastically differs with being "in or out of power". When in opposition, an independent media is the "conscience", and when in power, we are the "enemy". We are neither—just committed and ethical journalists performing our professional duty.

Coming back to the issue of "unethical" journalism, definitely it is something that we must abhor and shun with every breath in our body. However, quite often critical journalism is termed as unethical just because it embarrasses the government or puts it in an awkward position or even proves it to be corrupt. We are accused of "confusing" the people because we are contesting the government version, and we are supposedly not serving the public interest just because we are opposing the official narrative.

A vital lesson to learn from the socialist/communist failure is that they never allowed the official narrative to be contested, with the result that they were never aware that the ground was shifting under their feet. Finally, when the day came, a 70-year-old system collapsed from within. In my view, one of the vital reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed along with all its "friendly" countries was because they never allowed a free and independent press. The Brezhnevs and Kosygins of the day did not know how corrupt their regimes had become, how little public support they enjoyed, and how little influence they had on the public view of things. All because of the absence of a free media. 

In reading Bangabandhu's "Unfinished Memoirs" and "Prison Diaries", especially the latter, it is clear how attached he was to newspapers and how respectful he was of this profession. Recently, in an op-ed column that we carried, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina shared her own stories of growing up with newspapers. An intrinsic respect for journalism is obvious in both. We would like to assure the prime minister that we remain essentially of the same genre with the vital difference that now she is the focus of most of our attention—both positive and critical.

The journalism of her younger days was single-mindedly focused on gaining our independence. The goal for the people, as well as for journalism, was crystal clear. The task at hand was not to question but to enthusiastically rally behind. The demand of the day was sacrifice—sacrifice everything including our lives.

Then she was a freedom fighter. Now she is the head of government which, by definition, is a highly complex institution, and running it is one of the most exacting tasks that there is, especially when a country has as many challenges as we do. Journalism of today is focused on nation building whose important ingredients are democracy, freedom, rights, accountability, transparency and good governance.

None of the above can be assured without an independent, free and ethical media. As Walter Cronkite, a global icon of quality journalism, said, "Freedom of the press is not just an important part of democracy, it is democracy."


Mahfuz Anam is Editor and Publisher, The Daily Star.


In 1953, Britain Openly Removed An Elected Government, With Tragic Consequences

By Gaiutra Bahadur

30 Oct 2020

Guards outside the governor’s residence in Georgetown, British Guiana, in around 1955. Photograph: Evelyn De Long/Getty Images


For generations, a parable involving outside intervention has circulated in Guyana, formerly British Guiana, in South America. The story goes that soldiers sent in to suppress the independence movement fixated on homes flying red flags, believing them to be a sign of Communist allegiance. Instead, they were Hindu prayer flags. I’ve encountered this tale in a self-published memoir, in a yarn told me by one of the country’s former attorney generals, in speeches edging cane fields. On the eve of a tarnished independence, the local Hindu establishment did protest that British troops, looking for concealed weapons, were targeting homes flying the sacred pennants. But the story has gained the quality of folklore. Sometimes, it’s accurately set in 1964, two years before independence. Sometimes, it’s misremembered to be 1953 – a year that carries its own significance, as it was when Britain overthrew the country’s democratically elected government.

Hope had been sown earlier that year by an unexpected victory in an election that extended, for the first time, the vote to people who couldn’t read English and didn’t meet income or property requirements. With 75% of this new electorate casting ballots, the rhetorically brash, inexperienced People’s Progressive party (PPP) surprised even themselves by winning 18 of 24 legislative seats. Its founder-leaders were a cinematically attractive couple with Marxist leanings: Cheddi Jagan, the Chicago-educated dentist and homegrown son of plantation labourers who became premier, and his Chicago-born wife, Janet Rosenberg, a nurse by training. The premier’s charisma extended beyond beaming good looks to a chemistry with the rural poor that the Bajan novelist George Lamming described as “a fundamental unbroken link with the earth, with the people from down there”.

Winston Churchill remarked archly on the PPP’s electoral triumph: “(W)e ought surely to get American support in doing all we can to break the Communist teeth in British Guiana … (P)erhaps they would even send Senator McCarthy down there.” In the decade to come, the US would act to thwart this perceived domino’s fall; but what the British prime minister saw as the threat of totalitarian communism was, in fact, an anti-colonial awakening finding its tongue in the language of global workers’ struggle.

A few years earlier, the PPP had earned a mass following by organising protests after colonial police shot dead five striking workers at a sugar plantation near the capital, Georgetown: the latest in a long history of violent repression of labour uprisings in the crown colony. The PPP began with the aura of a subaltern Camelot: its multiracial, largely democratic socialist candidates sought to represent the colony’s working-class majority, most descended from enslaved Africans and indentured Indians, and cast themselves as part of the rebellion against British imperialism arising worldwide, from Malaysia to Kenya.

Before 1953, political power had been the hoard of the largely white colonial elite, especially sugar planters. The firm Bookers (of the book prize) so dominated “BG”, as the colony was known, that the initials were said to stand for Booker’s Guiana. The newly elected government aimed straight for that supremacy. They mounted a challenge to the union recognised by Bookers, which they viewed as co-opted and corrupt. For 25 days in September of 1953, work halted on many plantations when the new ministers urged it. Already, they had angered the Colonial Office by repealing an “undesirable publications” law, which banned everything from Paul Robeson records to radical trade union periodicals, and another law barring West Indian leftists from entering the colony. Nor had Jagan and his party endeared themselves by refusing to send an envoy to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and by urging clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted as Soviet spies in the United States.

Their fatal move, right after the strikes ended, was to float legislation that would have forced recognition of any union winning majority support from workers. Modelled on the Wagner Act in the US, part of what the PPP saw as a “socialist New Deal”, it alarmed foreign investors, for whom Guiana amounted to nothing more than its resources. The summer the PPP took office, two oil companies, a gold dredger and a metals miner all cancelled projects in Guiana. A run on the banks drained coffers of $1.4m in the month before the Queen signed an order on 4 October 1953 to dispatch troops to British Guiana.

The “imperial coup d’etat”, as the late historian Colin Palmer described it, was a badly kept secret. Three days before the naval cruiser the HMS Superb discharged a battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in Georgetown, the Daily Mail blared: “Plot to seize British Guiana, navy sending troops.” The Colonial Office accused the PPP, based on hearsay from paid informants to the police, of plotting arson in Georgetown, with its famously elegant wooden architecture. Meanwhile, those on the ground reported calm. The day before troops arrived, the deputy police commissioner told the Daily Mail: “There are no demonstrations, there is no general strike, there is nothing abnormal happening here whatsoever.” The American consul noted that the bayoneted procession of troops did not disrupt the march of the everyday. A cricket match with Trinidad proceeded, as did horse races and boxing. Children attended classes and played in the streets.

Yet what happened was momentous. Never before had the United Kingdom openly removed a legally elected government from office. On 9 October 1953, one of several Black Fridays in Guiana’s political history, the colonial governor, Alfred Savage, dismissed the Jagans and their colleagues and declared a state of emergency. The order banned political gatherings and made it illegal for more than five people to meet. Except for funerals, there were to be no processions without police approval. The constitution, which the PPP had in any case dismissed as status quo, with “more checks than balances”, subject to Savage’s reserve and veto powers, was scrapped.

Over the next four years, swollen ranks of police constantly raided the homes of the party’s leaders, seizing “subversive literature”. But none was ever prosecuted for arson, sedition or a Communist takeover. Instead, they were arrested for defying restrictions on their movements in a concerted campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. In 1954, Cheddi Jagan was sentenced to six months in prison, with hard labour, for travelling from the capital to the countryside. In court, he proclaimed: “Today Guiana is a vast prison. Whether I am outside or inside matters little … Justice has been dead since the British troops landed.”

Those British troops live still in Guyanese popular memory. Every schoolchild learns verses about them by another jailed leader, the radical intellectual Martin Carter, who wrote his “Poems of Resistance” during his detention in 1953. Copies were later seized during a raid on a PPP print shop by the very troops these lines evoke:

Whose boot of steel tramps down the slender grass?

It is the man of death, my love, the strange invader

watching you sleep and aiming at your dream.

The dream the Colonial Office struck was that of a united, truly independent nation. British officials fomented a split in the People’s Progressive party, which hardened into a racial rift, which later caused scarring violence.

During the emergency, the colonial government gave rival PPP leader Forbes Burnham fewer restrictions, no jail time and tacit encouragement to lead a breakaway faction while the others were imprisoned. The commission investigating the constitution’s suspension suggested that its restoration depended on his taking control. By the time the emergency ended, in 1957, two separate wings of the PPP contested that year’s election: a largely Indian one coalescing around the Jagans and a largely African one coalescing around Burnham, the London-educated lawyer with oratorical flair and pragmatic politics who would rule for 21 years.

“(T)he heavy hand of imperialism came down like a ton of bricks,” says Eric Huntley, a party leader jailed for failing to report daily to the police. He fled the party’s troubles in 1956, ironically for Britain. The letters he exchanged with his wife, Jessica, temporarily left behind in Guiana, overflow with the ache of separation and the growing divide in the party. In 1957, when she ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the PPP-Jagan wing, she shared what she witnessed: “The whole country is preaching race. Coolie. Black. So the situation is disastrous.”

The parable of the misconstrued red flag was as true for 1953 as for 1964, when it was fact. It imparts a lesson about the tragic consequences of outsiders misunderstanding Guyana’s landscape. That year, there was a shining moment of utopian possibility in the colony, and the emergency fractured its politics in ways sadly still evident. The most recent election was resolved in August after five months of impasse, with racialised violence a spectre throughout. Significant reserves of oil, discovered by Exxon five years ago, have created stakes for the rest of the world. Guyana still amounts to its resources for some. For those of us who carry the wounds of 1953 within us, as the heirs of divide-and-rule, the stakes have always been clear and heart-breaking.


Gaiutra Bahadur, a professor at Rutgers University, is the author of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize



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