Islamist hardliners must not be allowed to turn the country into a "Taliban-style pariah state", activists say.
Rights groups have called a grand rally in Dhaka on Saturday (April 27th) to warn political parties not to indulge radical Islamists who demand a ban on "free mixing of women for protecting Islam", and who want to scrap the women's development policy that stipulates equal rights for both sexes.
Sixty-eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working for women empowerment, human rights and other development issues have formed a Social Resistance Committee (SAC) to counter what they say is a fanatical attempt to turn secular Bangladesh into a "Taliban-style pariah state with the policy of subjugating women".
"We urge all democracy-loving men and women to converge at the grand rally of women for the nation's sake," Sufia Akhtar, a spokeswoman for women's rights group Mahila Parishad, as well as SAC secretary, told Khabar South Asia. The rally will take place in front of the National Press Club.
"We will in no way allow the mullahs' attempt to establish Taliban rule here. Why should we allow them turning Bangladesh into another Afghanistan?"
The hardline Islamic group Hefajat-e-Islam staged a rally on April 6th in Dhaka's commercial hub, Motijheel, to counter the Shahbagh Square movement that has demanded a ban on Jamaat-e-Islami. Zealots beat TV reporter Nadia Sharmin as she was covering the rally, which virtually shut down the country.
The group, comprising madrassa students, teachers and Jamaat members, also gave the government a May 4th deadline to enact a blasphemy law with capital punishment for denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, or face a shutdown of the capital the next day.
The Hefajat leaders also demanded action against any NGOs (non-government organisations) that play a key role in empowering women in Bangladesh.
That rally prompted women leaders and activists to hold protests on April 7th and April 9th to denounce the Islamist activists and warn the mainstream political parties not to side with extremists – or lose the support of women who constitute half of all voters.
"We want to tell the Awami League and the BNP (Bangladesh National Party) that women account for 50% of the total votes. Please do not support (the extremists)," Salma Ali, chief of the Bangladesh Women Lawyers' Association, told the April 7th rally outside the National Press Club.
"They want to subject us. They want to crush all of our achievements in empowering women in the last 42 years," Shirin Akhter, chief of Karmojibi Nari, and NGO, told the same gathering.
In Bangladesh, considered a model for women empowerment in developing countries, the prime minister, opposition leader, deputy leader of the house, foreign minister, agriculture minister, telecom minister and women affairs minister are all female.
"The people are non-communal and religious tolerant. The nation cannot cave in to the muscle-flexing of a handful of fanatics," Ain-O-Shalish Kendra (ASK) head Sultana Kamal told Khabar.
Women workers, numbering over 3 million, are the lifeline of Bangladesh's ready-made garments (RMG) industry, which earns 80% of the country's $24 billion export revenue.
"The country will totally collapse if the women are shackled. The country's RMG sector has become the second largest in the world because of the women," Mushrefa Mishu, the president of the Bangladesh Garments Association, told Khabar.
The extremist campaign to shackle women must not come to pass, she said.
The Hefajat would "drag us behind", said garment worker Mili Begum, who supports her parents and three siblings in Southern Barisal district.
"Why should we listen to the huzurs (clerics)? Will they give us food?" asked Sakhina, another garment worker.