Sultana Kamal – A Voice for Equality

Even though equal rights are guaranteed by the constitution of 1972, the imbalance of power between the sexes takes "the worst possible form" in Bangladesh, according to Sultan Kamal, human rights lawyer. Annette Hartmetz reports

photo: ai
Sultana Kamal

​​When Sultana Kamal speaks in front of 50 people, she does not need a microphone. "I have the loud voice of an activist," she says with a laugh. The 55-year-old lawyer is one of the most prominent human rights lawyers in Bangladesh today.

As the daughter of Sufia Kamal, national poet and pioneer of the country's women's movement, and a writer who is also active in the movement "Freedom of the Spirit", she grew up with two sisters and three brothers in an atmosphere of tolerance, freedom and respect. This has had a great influence on her path in life, according to Sultana Kamal.

In the late sixties Sultana Kamal studied law in Dhaka Jura and completed a course of research studies at the "Institute of Social Studies" in the Netherlands. Since 2001 Sultana Kamal has served as the chair of the NGO "Ain o Salish Kendra", founded in 1986. The 130 employees of this legal and mediation center, including 82 women, assist victims of domestic, public and state violence.

Women Living under Muslim Law

They offer legal advice and trainings, do publicity and presswork and are very successful at conveying the importance of human rights through such mediums as plays. Among other things, Sultana Kamal is a member of an organization of women lawyers in Bangladesh and the international network "Women Living under Muslim Law".

Those working to enforce human rights in Bangladesh are inevitably confronted with severe human rights violations that victimize women. Even though equal rights are guaranteed by the constitution of 1972, the imbalance of power between the sexes takes "the worst possible form" in Bangladesh, according to Sultan Kamal.

An especially chilling example of domestic violence is acid attacks, which are more frequent in Bangladesh than anywhere else in the world. According to a hospital study in Dhaka, nearly 3 out of 4 victims are women, with an average age of only 21 years.

The danger of refusing sexual advances

When women refuse sexual advances or marriage proposals, for example, they may fall victim to this extreme kind of attack in which acid is thrown on them, usually concentrated sulfuric acid of the kind used in car batteries.

The acid eats the skin down to the bones, and a woman's chances of living a normal life after such an attack are virtually nil.

The first known acid attack in Bangladesh took place in 1967, and the number of attacks has been rising constantly since the mid-1990s. In the first six months of this year alone "Ain o Salish Kendra" learned of 159 acid attacks, but the number of unreported cases is certain to be higher.

Not even ten percent of these cases go to court, while less than one percent of the perpetrators are sentenced, according to Ms Kamal. As is the case in many countries, the lack of punishment contributes crucially to continuing violence against women.

The tolerance policy of the authorities

The state authorities display no political will to change whatsoever. Today Sultana Kamal goes so far as to speak of a process of "disempowering" woman, in other words, an intentional effort to undermine their rights.
"Ain o Salish Kendra" and its employees are under constant surveillance by the intelligence service. The organization must report on all the details of who visits it and what topics it is working on.

Since October 2001 Bangladesh has been ruled by the Islamist "Jamaat-e-Islami" and the conservative "Bangladesh National Party" (BNP). This has made work harder for many human rights organizations and activists. The NGOs that are supposedly or actually critical of the government are restricted in their activities, while the Islamist NGOs are supported.

The entire society is dominated by insecurity and fear, says Sultana Kamal, and never have so many friends warned her to watch what she says when she travels abroad. However, due to her prominence Sultana Kamal enjoys a certain degree of protection: "The authorities would think twice before arresting me."

Concern about growing influence of fundamentalists

She is extremely concerned about the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalists, noting that negative effects on society, especially on the status of women, can already be seen and that state television is now completely controlled by the fundamentalists. Between programs long ads are repeatedly shown exhorting women to behave in compliance with Islamic norms.

This means wearing the burkha, avoiding contact with men, leaving the house as little as possible and pursuing typically "feminine" activities. If women follow these rules, the ads suggests, they will live in safety.

Despite all these obstacles, the women's movement in Bangladesh is still quite vital and active. "Sometimes", says Sultana Kamal, "I feel that in our country the women are almost the only ones fighting social inequality and political oppression."

Perhaps this is because they have less to lose than the men. And she points out one positive effect of state oppression: at least it makes the NGOs cooperate better.

Annette Hartmetz

© Amnesty International 2004

Translation from German: Isabel Cole

The author works in the Publicity Department of the German amnesty international section in Berlin.

Website of the human rights resource centre Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) in Bangladesh
Website of the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)