A girl returns home from school in a rural area of Tangail district of Bangladesh in this 2014 file photo. Shah Ahmed Shafi, a hard-line Islamic cleric, has drawn fire after opposing girls' education. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
A radical Bangladeshi Islamic cleric, known for his derogatory remarks about women, has drawn flak from activists and the Catholic Church for his statement opposing girls' education.
Shah Ahmed Shafi, head of Hefajat-e-Islam (Protectors of Islam), made the remarks during the annual gathering of parents of students at Hathajari Madrasa in Chattogram on Jan. 11.
"Don't send your daughters to schools and colleges after grade 4 or 5. If you send your daughters after that, they will become disobedient and elope with men," Shafi reportedly said.
The cleric also convinced parents to make pledges in front of him not to send their daughters to schools.
His words sparked a public outcry and took social media by storm, where many reacted angrily.
"Shafi's statement is against the country's constitution and he deserves punishment for what he has said and done. Our constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women. I believe most people in Bangladesh won't listen to his call except for a few conservatives," Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the women's desk at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh, told ucanews.com.
Supreme Court lawyer and rights activist Sultana Kamal expressed similar sentiments.
"Shafi's comments are medieval and follow his earlier anti-women rhetoric. I think there are legal procedures to take action against Shafi as his remarks are slanderous and go against our constitution, and the government should take it seriously," she told ucanews.com.
Mohibul Hasan Chowdhury, state minister for education, said Shafi's comments were personal and conflicted with the Bangladeshi constitution.
"The right to education is for both men and women, and if anyone tries to deprive women from education, it is unconstitutional. Ahmed Shafi's statement is personal and will have no impact on the government's education policy for women," Chowdhury said.
On Jan. 13, Shafi sent a statement to media outlets to defend his earlier remarks.
"Girls can go to colleges and universities wearing the burqa and they can get education only if their teachers are female. Women deserve education in a safe environment and their life and honor must be protected. You cannot send your daughters to an unsafe environment for the sake of education," Shafi said in the statement.
"A vested quarter is trying to malign my image by portraying me as anti-women, which I am not. My statement has been manipulated without understanding what I meant," he alleged.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, Bangladesh has a primary school enrolment rate of nearly 100 percent and is among the few Muslim countries where more girls (50.85 percent) go to primary school than boys. At secondary level, 54.02 percent of students are girls. In primary education, 64.39 percent of teachers are female.
For the past two decades, successive governments have offered nationwide stipends to encourage poor parents to send their daughters to schools and colleges instead of marrying them off at an early age.
Shafi entered the spotlight in 2013 for telling a huge of rally of over half a million Muslims in capital Dhaka to make radical Islamic demands including a blasphemy law, execution of atheist bloggers, Islamization of education and abolition of a women's development policy.
The rally turned deadly when more than 50 were killed as police tried to disperse marchers with rubber bullets, sound grenades and water cannons.
Since then, Shafi has come to terms with the ruling Awami League and maintained a low profile. However, he sporadically makes anti-women remarks.
In a speech in 2013, Shafi described women as a "mouth-watering fruit like tamarind" and, quoting the Quran, he said that women should stay at home and their primary duty is to take care of the family and children.