When piety kills: power, religious performance and inhumanity, the case of Hena Akhter

That body is of 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Hena Akhter. Her story has distracted the western mass media from the still very confused situation in Libya. Hena Akhter was sentenced to receive 101 lashes to be delivered with extreme force after a village court implemented the fatwa of the local imam, whom decided that she had committed fornication with her much older married cousin. She died a week later from the injuries. The story is a script seen too many times in rural Bangladesh, at least since 1991 when Bangladeshi villages increased these extra-juridical sentences (Riaz 2005). Hena Akhter’s cousin, Mahbub Khan, eyed Hena and molested her. Hena’s parents had complained to local elders, which form the village court. The elders admonished Khan and ordered him to pay $1,000 in fines to Hena’s family. Yet Hena’s father decided to ask for clemency for his nephew. Khan, in an act of revenge against Hena, ambushed her one night and raped her. Yet in the act of raping Hena, his wife was woken by Hena’s protests and saw the couple.

Khan’s wife accused Hena, the victim, of seducing her husband and the case ended in the village court. Both Khan and Hena were sentenced: 101 lashes to her; 201 to him. Khan was able to escape the punishment while young Hena had to bear the torment before the desperate eyes of her parents. One week later, she died and the local doctor certified the death as a suicide (a quite common occurrence among rape victims). The case however did not pass unnoticed and soon reached the heart of the city. Justice was called for and her  body exhumed, arrests made and justice this time, perhaps, will be delivered. Indeed, Bangladesh has a robust, albeit very religious, civil society.

Hena Akhter’s story will provide ammunition to those whom wish to show that Islam is a barbaric religion, or even that religion is barbaric per-se. Indeed, even in the so ‘civilized’ west, people still kill in the name of religion, even when their intention is to declare life as sacred. It is easy to focus on the emotive aspects of an individual case such as this while neglecting to understand the dynamics of the event, which has little to do with Islam as an abstract entity, and everything to do with contextualized dynamics of performative piety, power and inhumanity so common among humans. Let us focus, first, on some important elements of Hena Akhter’s drama.

The scene is a rural village, as many in Bangladesh. Rural villages posses their own structures in which elders are central to the social life of the village itself. The elders are mediators and express their power through the village court or salish. The salish often function to resolve conflicts among families and neighborhoods before they escalate into violence, which could threaten the entire village. Mediation remains the salish’s main tool. The salish have no religious authority per-se and the local imam is in charge of guiding the elders in decisions involving, as in Hena Akhter’s case, religious regulations. The word ‘fatwa’ traditionally means religious advice and was used to clarify theological matters. In the Sunni tradition, it never meant ‘verdict’. Yet things have changed and fatwas have increasingly, particularly in certain radical interpretations of Islam, become a vehicle to bypass religious courts and provide ‘verdicts’ issued by imams with no Islamic juridical training. This was the case for Hena Akhter, where the local imam asked for her life and the village court applied the sentence, which in Bangladesh is illegal.

Ali Riaz in his 2005 article has suggested that this kind of ‘innovation’ within the juridical landscape of Bangladeshi villages is not a rejection of modernization imposed by the city, but rather an effect of the infiltration within Bangladesh of certain radical views of Islam, which use villages to boost its support. Patriarchalism deeply marks most villages and such radical views of Islam are more acceptable if repeat some existing stereotypes – hence the reason why the majority of victims are women. In this the difference between the rural and urban areas is strongly marked.

Although I tend to agree with Riaz that some imams use salish and harsh punishments against women to reinforce their position, we cannot discard the rural-urban tension that exists in Bangladesh and the villages’ rejection of being subjected to a modernization that would mean the reshaping of the social and power structure of the village itself. There is a generational struggle for which young, often better educated than before, village women are perceived as a threat to the (male) elders themselves.

Therefore, the conjunction between piety and power becomes handy and imams, as well as some Islamic extremist groups, can play their games in challenging the urban areas through the ‘piety’ of the village. There is an attempt to show how modernization brings moral corruption and condemn the urban lifestyles of Bangadesh as un-Islamic when compared to the ‘pious’ traditions of the village.

Some may still argue that it should be something more, something directly linked to Islam, that can explain how an entire village let a 14-year-old be beaten to death. In other words, Islam as a religion is barbaric and facilitates barbaric behaviour. However, the reality is more complex than simply taking a cultural object (in this case, Islam in the village) and transforming it into a causative force, which would absolve the villagers (i.e. the humans) in the process.

The explanation can be instead found in how we are humans. Stanley Milgram (1963) conducted an experiment. He and his assistants asked ordinary people to administer painful and potentially lethal electric shocks to other people as part of an alleged “teaching study.” Milgram reported that two-thirds of the subjects were willing to give the highest level of shock, even though the “victim” (an actor, unbeknownst to the participants) screamed in pain and then went silent.

His main conclusion suggested that people will knowingly hurt others in certain situations, specifically ones where some authority (e.g. the elders of the salish, whom in turn received authority through the imam) urges them to do so and absolves them from responsibility for it. His study concluded also that an essential element for committing injurious acts is a lack of empathy for potential victims.  If people believe that the victim deserves pain or is beneath the concern of the perpetrator (i.e. subhuman), people may actually feel good (or not feel anything) while harming or even killing their victim.

In her village, Hena Akhter was dehumanized – something that is not difficult since traditionally in Bengali villages, and much before the arrival of Islam, women are considered inferior. Hence, if Islam may become in certain circumstances a force of emancipation for women in the city, in the village it can be used as a tool of oppression against women in the name of a power structure (the elders) which, as any power structure, does not want to fade. Hena Akhter is one of the many victims of such social-cultural struggle. Yet if things do not change radically within the Bengali villages, there will be more and more Hena Akhters, the majority of whom will pass unnoticed and unremembered.


8 thoughts on “When piety kills: power, religious performance and inhumanity, the case of Hena Akhter

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    1. I suppose that this message works well also with the Christian world, or maybe you have forgotten about what happen in Ireland, Italy, the US and different kind of Churches. I suspect also that ‘the our’ here may be ‘their’. In any case, to link this kind of situation to a particular religion or culture or race is very mislead, in particular when the “West’ has officially the highest number of cases.

  1. Regarding from the accident, i would like to point out the main reason why you supporting the victim and just insulting the elder that making the decision. The reason is the elder was punished her without any detail investigation, i thought But to deal with this matter, islam did not simply punished someone without concrete evident on it. With this matter i was eagerly not support both party because there have been misunderstanding between the victim and elder. In Islamic jurisprudence, to punish the faulty we must have two witness that cannot be a women, in that case the witness is a women indeed. so, the punishment is illegal within islamic syari’a. And regarding the victim there have been some exaggeration in media that she was died because the lash isnt? but you were point out about discrimination of women. I not agree about that argument because islam is not kind religion that discriminate women freely, according to the case it seem that islam is brutal that discriminate women in that way. I aware about the problem of islamic society lately but its not the right way to put islam at the wrong side.

  2. “Yet in the act of raping Hena, his wife was woken by Hena’s protests and saw the couple.” The couple? I’d hardly call them a couple. Wow! Gotta wonder about where your head is at.

    1. Dear Sir,
      I think that your understanding of the word “couple’ is very restrict.
      Yet I also see that you do not have very much else to say.
      Best wishes

      1. Maybe the word “couple” means different things in various parts of the world. In most parts of America, you never would call any 2 various people a couple. Generally, the word couple means two people who are in a sexual relationship. Therefore, calling a rapist and his victim a “couple” is offensive to most Americans. I’m not sure where you’re from so it may be a cultural thing.

  3. To claim that there is some sort of equivalency between a person killing an abortionist and what happened to this young girl is abhorrent. Perhaps you cannot bring yourself to confront the very real evil in human nature that finds a form of piety and succor within Islam.
    Do I support the killing of abortionists? No.
    Is it equivalent to the punishments inflicted on women, punishments that find the basis for their justification in Islam? Again, no.
    But maybe you feel better being able to say “Look, Christians are bad, too.” Bet it brings a whole lot of comfort to the women of the Islamic world.

    1. Dear Luzu,
      thanks for your comment. Unfortunately you do not develop your argument.
      I have the impression that your viewpoint derives from an extreme (albeit very common) culturalist position, in which people act because of symbols instead of using symbols to express themselves as a person or expression of a certain collectivity (which is still a person plus a person, plus a person as so on). Hence, metaphysical categories such as Christianity or Islam have little to do with the reasons for such brutal actions. Indeed, how can we explain that the majority of people following similar religions or even political ideologies do not support such actions and do not commit such aberrant crimes? To say that Islam, Christianity, or any other cultural entity is the only reason for actions does not make sense within good scientific analysis.
      Best wishes

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