DHAKA — When a Bangladeshi government official told Sultana Arjuman Banu she was an "uncultured prostitute" for not wearing a burqa, the outraged headmistress took him to court.
In a landmark verdict, Bangladesh's High Court ruled that "attempts to coerce or impose a dress code on women clearly amount to a form of sexual harassment".
A woman's right not to wear the Islamic veil has become a hot topic in Bangladesh, with three high court rulings in less than six months banning "forced veiling" in the Muslim-majority country.
The veil is neither compulsory nor customary in Bangladesh but public opinion is divided on the politically-charged issue, and even as the courts affirm a women's right to go bare-headed, more women are opting to cover up.
"My hijab is my freedom," 19-year-old television presenter Fahmida Islam, who reads the news on the privately-owned, conservative Diganta Channel and wears a full-length veil, told AFP.
"Bangladesh should embrace its Islamic heritage more," she said.
Bangladeshi women traditionally wear saris or salwar kameez, and the Islamic veil is a relatively new arrival -- which some credit to the influence of the Bangladeshi diaspora, particularly the millions of migrant workers in the Gulf.
Burqa-clad women are an increasingly common sight both in the capital Dhaka and in rural areas, though Fahmida said "many people have the wrong concept of the veil, some girls wear burqas but take them off to go to parties."
The veil has become a new front in the battle -- fought in the courts, in parliament and the education system -- to keep the Bangladeshi state officially secular, despite the country's predominantly conservative population.
In March, the high court banned police from "hassling women" who do not wear the full-face veil after police in northern Rangpur district arrested nine teenage couples in a public park and ordered the girls to wear burqas.
"A girl can only be arrested if there is a criminal case against her, not because of what she is wearing," the country's deputy attorney general, Rajik Al Jalil, said at the time.
In April, the court banned forced veiling of female workers after an official insulted Sultana Arjuman Banu, trying to force her and fifty other female teachers at the school in Kurigram district to wear headscarves.
"How an educated man could utter the word prostitute to a headmistress of a government primary school is not comprehensible," the court said in its ruling, before ordering the official to make an unqualified apology.
Last month, the high court issued a ruling banning the imposition of any religious clothing on students, following reports that a principal at a state-run college in northern Bangladesh has forced students to wear veils.
"No girl should be repressed, harassed or punished for not wearing burqa or religious attire," education secretary Syed Ataur Rahman said in a Ministry of Education order issued to support the court verdict.
"Forcing a girl to wear veil or any religious wear or barring her from sports and cultural activities will be considered an offence," he said.
Bangladesh was created as a secular democracy in 1971 after a bloody battle for independence from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
A series of constitutional amendments in the 1970s and 1980s made Islam the state religion and legalised religion-based political parties.
The Awami League government, which came to power in December 2008 elections, is committed to protecting the secular status of the state -- moving to ban religious political parties and launching an overhaul of the education system.
But Bangladesh is also a deeply patriarchal society, experts say, where the idea that a woman should dress modestly to prevent sexual harassment is accepted across the social spectrum.
"It is a justification often used in ordinary conversations as well as policy rhetoric -- 'oh, well, women really ask for it, they should be modestly dressed,'" said barrister Sara Hossain.
"Ultimately, this can get pushed to an extreme where women feel safest if they are covered up," said Hossain, a petitioner on headmistress Sultana Arjuman Banu's case.
The recent court rulings are a step towards turning this situation around, by "creating safer, securer spaces and putting the burden on others to make sure that they don't assault women," Hossain said.
"The rulings will give space and strength to women who do not want to observe these kind of [Islamic] dress codes or who want to be freer in the way that they want to conduct themselves," she said.
But many women, like Samia Islam -- who started wearing the veil a few years ago, after her husband completed the Hajj pilgrimage -- argue the Islamic veil is the best way for women to stay safe.
"When I started wearing the veil properly, it changed my experience of my own country," Samia said, adding "irritating, insulting rough talk," she used to hear from men had transformed into polite compliments about her veil.
"Most women wear the veil because of their family -- this was all me, willingly I've embraced the veil as a Muslim woman. I think all women should do this. It protects them from all types of unwanted attention," she said.
Mehtab Khanom, a psychologist who teaches at Dhaka University, warns the recent court rulings will have a limited impact on women's rights.
There is significant pressure on young Bangladeshi girls to dress modestly and behave politely, she said, and in the family and even in official quarters, women's misconduct is still seen as the main driver of sexual harassment.
"It is always the girls being blamed in this country," Khanom said.
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