The young student thought she was helping to promote virtuous behavior by participating in a play aimed at raising awareness of social ills. Instead, she was subjected to a caning at her school.
Seventeen-year-old Rasheda Begum didn't have the slightest idea that she could be punished for acting in a play that highlighted various social ills that are forbidden in Islam – usury, dowry, gambling, child marriage and corruption.
Her participation came at a painful cost, however. The 10th grade madrassa student was caned in front of her classmates and expelled from indulging in "un-Islamic activities" when she returned to her class on June 2nd after the end of summer vacation.
"I still do not know what my crime was," Rasheda told Khabar South Asia. "The play was all about the bad things that Islam forbids and I thought I was doing the right thing by highlighting the social ills."
For 18 days Rasheda begged her teachers at the Jagabandhu Islamia Senior Madrassa, located in the district of Kamalnagar, to let her resume her studies, but they refused.
She says they also insulted her father Mohammad Ali, a poor rickshaw puller from Pandithat, a remote village in southeastern Laxmipur district, when he accompanied Rasheda to plead on her behalf. She and her father also sought the help of village elders but they refused to intervene.
Having found no other avenue, the family reported the matter to the local human rights groups and police.
Their intervention paid off. A meeting was organised among local leaders, rights groups and the madrassa authorities to settle the issue. The madrassa not only decided to accept her back, but also agreed to bear the costs of her studies until she graduates next year.
Religious scholar: Islam does not forbid women from acting in plays
While he expressed sorrow for caning and expelling Rasheda, teacher Maulana Mohammed Ismail insists the actions were justified. "She has defiled the reputation of the madrassa by acting in the play as such acts are forbidden in Islam," he said.
An Islamic scholar, however, disagrees, saying there is no ban that prohibits women from taking part in acting, especially in a play that depicts social ills and aims to raise awareness about their pernicious effects on society.
"Islam does not prohibit women from playing any role in a drama or skit provided they wear modest dress and do not make any provocative gestures," Abdul Munim Khan, professor of Islamic Studies at Darul Ihsan University in Dhaka, told Khabar.
Ismail has been relieved of his duties following recommendations from the madrassa-appointed investigation committee. Another teacher who allegedly participated in the caning, Nurul Amin, is still at his job, having been cleared by the committee for lack of evidence.
Both men may face legal problems over the matter. Enamul Haq Khan, officer-in-charge of the Kamalnagar police station, told Khabar Tuesday (June 26th) that the teachers have been formally charged under Section 323 of the Penal Code.
The case of Rasheda, who has launched a formal complaint, has triggered an outpouring of support from womens' groups and Bangladeshis opposed to the misinterpretation of Islam.
On June 25th, several cultural and women rights groups held human chain in front of the district headquarters as a gesture of solidarity.
"The widespread protests and outpouring of sympathy for Rasheda is very encouraging," said Mahbuba Nasrin, a women's rights activist, who works as the communication and advocacy co-ordinator at BLAST (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust), an NGO. "It only shows that Bangladesh is no place for hardline Islamists and people are willing to take on any vested interest groups acting in the name of promoting Islam."
By Shariar Sharif for Khabar South Asia