Bangladesh’s religious state tendencies were undone in August 2005 when a Bangladesh High Court declared constitutional amendments during military rule as illegal and unconstitutional. Later in January 2010, after a legal battle, the Bangladesh Supreme Court upheld the verdict of the High Court thereby allowing restoration of the original nature of the 1972 Constitution which defines Bangladesh as a secular democratic country.
*“The original 1972 constitution of the founding president of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a secular constitution,”* says Bangladesh Consul General in Hong Kong, Ashud Ahmed. *“However, over time, the constitution had been amended and had departed from it’s original secular spirit.”*
This issue came up from a seemingly innocuous case of verbal harassment seven months ago when a school headmistress, Sultana Arjuman Banu, took a government official to court for calling her an “uncultured prostitute” because she did not wear a burqa. The court asked the official to unconditionally apologise.
The burqa had become a topic of debate not only in the Bangladesh parliament but also in educational institutions. The judgment is the fourth passed by the courts, all unequivocally upholding a woman’s right not to wear a burqa if she does not want to.
The first order came in March. The high court then banned police from hassling women who did not wear the garment after nine teenage couples were arrested in a park in northern Rangpur district, because the girls were not in burqas.
In April, a court ruled that women teachers could not be forced to wear the garment in their educational institutions. Last month, the order was extended to all students following reports that the principal of a state-run college in northern Bangladesh was forcing the girls to wear burqas.
The Dhaka High Court on 4 October ruled that no woman in Bangladesh should be compelled to wear a burqa against her wishes. “Attempts to coerce or impose a dress code on women clearly amounts to a form of sexual harassment,” a court statement said, in what is being seen as a landmark verdict for human rights in the Muslim majority country.
With the verdict, Law Minister Shafique Ahmed announced that the original spirit of the constitution including secularism has been restored automatically with this supreme court judgment, upholding the right of all women in Bangladesh to choose what they wear.
*“That is a moot question,” explained Consul General Ashud Ahmed, “because, another school of legal thought has it that the change still has to be debated and agreed upon in parliament.
“The original 1272 constitution of the founding president of Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was a secular constitution,” says Bangladesh Consul General in Hong Kong, Ashud Ahmed. “However, over time, the constitution had been amended and had departed from it’s original secular spirit.”*
The original constitution of 1972 embodied four fundamental principles of nationalism, socialism, democracy and secularism.
*“When the military government of president Ziaur Rahman’s regime took over they came up with amendments that changed the nature of the constitution by allowing religion-based political parties and which included a phrase in Arabic that changed everything.”*
The words were: *’Bismillah-ir-Rahman-Ir-Rahim’, or, ‘in the name of God, the most merciful, benevolent’,* placed in the preamble.
*“The report of the committee is yet to be announced the matter will have to be settled in the next meeting. Then will come the decision. But everything appears on track,”* ended Mr Ashud Ahmed.
*”Bangladesh is now a secular state as the Appellate Division (of the Supreme Court) verdict scrapped the Fifth Amendment to the constitution. In this secular state, everybody has religious freedom, and therefore no man, woman or child can be forced to wear religious attires like burqa, cap and dhoti,”* a high court bench stated, 4 October, 2010.
The court comprising judges A H M Shamsuddin Chowdhury Manik and Sheikh Mohammad Zakir Hossain, however, made it clear that no citizen can be prohibited from wearing religious attires either, if he or she wished to don them.