South Asia

Bangladesh lifts fatwa ban but forbids enforcement

Muslim woman in Bangladesh
Image caption Human rights groups say that fatwas have been used to persecute women

The Bangladesh Supreme Court has ruled that clerics can issue fatwas - Islamic religious edicts - but said that they cannot be enforced.

A high court ruling 10 years ago banned fatwas altogether after several women were sentenced to brutal punishments.

Clerics appealed against that ruling, arguing that fatwas were an integral part of Islamic religious practice.

Correspondents say this ruling allows clerics to practise Koranic law but leaves them no power to punish people.

Bangladesh, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, has a secular legal system. Most of the country's population practices a moderate version of Islam.

"No fatwa can be issued against the existing laws of the country. That means that no-one can dole out punishments in the name of a fatwa, especially when it may be mental or physical punishment," Attorney General Mahbubey Alam told the BBC Bengali service.

Some rights groups have also welcomed the ruling, arguing that it will help to protect women from punishments handed down to them in the name of religion.

"The order is actually a very positive one. We definitely believe that it will help women save themselves from the torture that is quite often perpetrated on them in the name of religious injunctions," Sultana Kamal of the rights group Ain o Salish Kendra told the BBC.

But other groups still argue that fatwas should have remained illegal. They say that despite the ban on fatwas over the past decade, women have still been publicly whipped when accused of transgressions such as adultery or having a child out of wedlock.

In one notorious case earlier this year a 14-year-old girl died after being publicly lashed for allegedly having an extra-marital affair.

Fatwas issued by village councils - known as shalish - are often used to resolve local disputes in poor, rural areas.

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