Badrul Alam from the Communist Party of Bangladesh (Marxist-Leninist) spoke to Solidarity.
We’ve read about big demonstrations organised by Islamists demanding stronger religious laws. What effect are they having on the garment workers’ movement?
There have been very big demonstrations but their demands are illegitimate. They are not rational. Mostly their demands are against the rights of women — they are demanding that the government pass a law restricting women’s rights.
Their demands are medieval. They believe in the rule of the Qu’ran, in the rule of Allah; their organisation is called “Protection of Islam”.
They claim to be non-political and non-partisan, saying that they’re only for Islam, but they’ve said that the government should accept and implement their demands, or it’ll be removed or forced to resign.
On 5 May, the Islamists set up barricades in the streets. They initially said they would leave, but then committed to stay until the government resigned. In the early morning of 6 May, the state moved in to disperse them, and many Muslim militants were killed in these clashes. The government is claiming around 20 people were killed, Hifazat-e-Islam is saying that thousands have been killed, Amnesty International says 44 have been killed.
On 11 May, progressive women’s organisations gathered in front of the National Press Club and declared that women will not be bound by Hifazat’s demands. Since our independence in 1971, women have achieved a lot and they are not ready to lose it.
There were around 20,000 on that demonstration, with 100,000 Hifazat supporters demonstrating on 6 May.
Where is Hifazat’s support drawn from?
Many of them are young students from madrasas. A lot of them don’t know that much about the political demands; they go to the demonstration out of loyalty, or because they hear that someone might be saying something about the Prophet or about Allah.
We spoke to some of the young students, and they told us they didn’t know that much about it. They said they were called by their Huzur, the senior scholar of their madrasa, and told they would be given travel and food expenses for a trip to the capital city. A lot of them come from different districts and remote areas.
How have workers reacted to the demonstrations?
Workers are also protesting against Hifazat. Most garment workers are women, so if Hifazat win their demands their rights will be severely restricted and they may not be able to go to work.
They have used the example of Reshma Begum, a garment worker who survived for more than two weeks in the rubble of Rana Plaza. They have said that this shows how women workers can survive in very difficult conditions, and will not accept being ignored or repressed by any corner, including Islamist militants.
• “No more deaths for profit: solidarity with Bangladeshi workers” AWL London forum, Wednesday 29 May, 7-9pm, University of London Union, Malet Street. Includes live link with Bangladeshi labour activists.