In Shariatpur, Bangladesh, 14 year old Hena Begum was recently publicly flogged with 100 lashes, dying in the hospital six days later of injuries sustained from the beating. Begum was sentenced to the punishment by a group of Islamic elders and clerics under Sharia Law, despite the fact that fatwas (religious rulings) have been illegal since October 2010, when the High Court declared Bangladesh a secular state.
Sharia, which literally means “the path to a watering hole” is an Islamic religious code that governs all elements of daily life, although there are varying interpretations of what Sharia actually means. Some countries live entirely under Sharia law while others have a hybrid civil/sharia law system. Under Sharia law there are a set of crimes called hadd, carrying the most serious consequences such as stoning, flogging, exile and execution, though not all Islamic countries exercise such punishments. Hadd crimes include murder, theft, drinking alcohol and adultery.
Hena Begum was charged with adultery, having been accused of having an affair with her cousin, a 40-year-old married man. However, is also alleged that the relatives of the married man beat Begum before she was sentenced by the village court. According to reports released by the High Court, Hena was actually raped by her cousin and she was sentenced to the whipping the following day.
Hena Begum lost consciousness after 80 lashes. Her family was ordered to pay a fine of approximately $700 USD for her crime. Despite the fact that she was whipped to the point of unconsciousness, the original autopsy report failed to record any injuries to her body. The High Court ordered her body to be exhumed and examined in a second post-mortem. That report found that Hena Begum had bled to death from multiple injuries.
The High Court has ordered that Begum’s death be treated as a murder and as such a new investigation has begun.18 named and 12 unnamed people are sought on five charges of holding unlawful assembly, hatching conspiracy, abduction, torture and rape. Included among the suspects is a sub-inspector who submitted a false inquest report and an inspector who failed to properly record the murder. The 40-year-old cousin of Hena Begum has been arrested and charged with rape; his wife and family are also among the named suspects.
What is not being contested in the investigation thus far is that a fatwa was issued in the first place. Even though such orders are against the law; the officer in charge of the case has been quoted as saying: “there is no specific law in this regard.”
Hena Begum’s murder under Sharia Law is not the first since the secularization of Bangladesh, despite strong efforts by Bangladeshi women’s groups and civil society. In December a woman was caned publicly and severely – dying of her injuries – also for adultery. Ideally, Sharia Law would protect the life of any woman; according to the Qur’an: You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness, that you may take away part of the martial gift you have given them, except when they have been guilty of open lewdness; on the contrary, live with them on a footing of kindness and equity. If you take a dislike to them, it may be that you dislike a thing through which Allah brings about a great deal of good. (Qur’an 4:19)
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 5000 women are murdered in ‘honour killings’ globally each year. Those are just the reported numbers. The murder of Hena Begum is despicable, but it is being treated as a crime. A full criminal investigation is being mounted, those responsible are being arrested, and the eye of the world is watching to see how justice is served. As Begum’s father told the BBC: “What sort of justice is this? My daughter has been beaten to death in the name of justice. If it had been a proper court then my daughter would not have died.”