Out of the rubble of a garment factory, just outside Dhaka, hundreds of bodies of women are brought to light, shalwar kameez and saris vivid against death’s pallor. In the capital itself, meanwhile, Islamic extremists burn buses, loot shops and attack policemen. Their main demand: an Islamic state, in which women are segregated from men.
The irony is lost on them that it is women who bring vital resources to Bangladesh (at $19 billion, the overwhelmingly female garment industry is the country’s main income earner); women who toil hardest to sustain many livelihoods beyond their own; women who bear the brunt of an appalling labor-safety record.
For more than two decades, two women have swapped the political leadership of this country back and forth between them. And yet this country, my homeland, continues to fail its women.
The Islamists are also demanding that “atheist bloggers” be hanged. Protesters, many of whom have never accessed the Internet, have compiled a list of 84 bloggers they want executed. There would have been more names on this list, but one blogger, Rajib Haidar, has already been hacked to death. Another, Asif Mohiuddin, has been stabbed.
Inspired by the bloggers, hundreds of youths have taken to the streets to protest against extremism. But in the process, they have unleashed an extremism of their own: They want the death penalty for all those accused of war crimes. The irony is lost on them, too: It does not occur to them that human rights apply as much to the guilty as to the innocent; that even the worst perpetrator deserves due process.
What of the political class? In a calculated but dangerously short-sighted move, the main opposition party has thrown in its lot with the Islamists. The government, for its part, is saying one thing and doing another. It announces a gender equality policy but leaves discriminatory laws intact. It condemns Islamist extremism but arrests four of the bloggers (including Mohiuddin) and charges a newspaper editor with “instigating negative elements against Islam.”
And it does nothing to curb rampant corruption that puts millions of workers’ lives at risk, whether through shoddy construction or disregard for safety regulations. As the body count at Rana Plaza approached 1,000 (later it climbed to 1,127), another textile factory went up in flames. Eight or more people died.
Over a lifetime of human-rights advocacy, I have seen the discourse fragment and diversify as societies and communities gain in complexity. Political rights. Women’s rights. Labor rights. This approach may help mobilize constituencies, but it fails to reflect the way rights shade into each other, feed off one another, rise and fall together.
In Bangladesh, this connectedness stares us in the face: Labor rights are linked to women’s rights, women’s rights to freedom of religion, freedom of religion to freedom of conscience, freedom of conscience to freedom of speech. The freedom of bloggers to write what they wish. The freedom of women — and men — to work without fearing for their lives.
Human rights are universal: Does Bangladesh have the vision, the courage and the political will to make as complete a commitment to human rights today as it did at independence, four decades ago? In 1971, the people of my country fought not just for the religious, but also for those who were not. In 1971, we fought to remove discrimination not just against our ethnicity, but against our gender. In 1971, we fought for rights for all.
But rights for all is not what Bangladeshis got. The Rana Plaza disaster and the outbreak of Islamist violence are part of a concatenation of ills, fed by corruption, political expediency and contempt for universal human rights. When only my rights count, not yours, no human right is safe.