On 5 May 2013 leaders of the Hefazat-i-Islam (‘Guardians of Islam’), an obscure coalition of Islamist groups, marched into the commercial centre of Dhaka city for an indefinite sit-in. It was their second such attempt in a month. Over the course of the day, the crowd swelled to an estimated half a million men and young boys, some barely out of adolescence. The occupation of Shapla Chattar, a plaza facing the headquarters of Bangladesh Bank, by several hundred thousand bearded, white-capped males waving sticks and/or Bangladeshi flags, was at once political theatre and a calculated show of force. This nationally televised performance sought to dramatise Hefazat-i-Islam’s (HI) position as a powerful counterweight to the secular-nationalist protests unfolding just kilometres away at Shahbagh. The core demand of Shahbagh protestors was capital punishment for individuals found guilty of war crimes in the 1971 Liberation War. To its detractors, Shahbagh stood for atheists and bloggers intent on defaming Islam.
In its previous ‘siege’ of Dhaka, HI leaders presented the government with a 13-point charter, the contents of which reflected the group’s objections to the Shahbagh movement as well as long-standing preoccupations with gender, morality and public space. Thus, along with demands to introduce an anti-blasphemy law and the death penalty for ‘atheist bloggers’, the 13-point charter called on the government to put a stop to ‘free mixing’ in public, using language that cast feminists as promiscuous bearers of alien values and immoral practices. HI also demanded cancellation of the National Women’s Development Policy, an issue that had first brought it to the national spotlight in 2010. Notably, the charter incorporated some subjects typically raised by the women’s movement – steps to prevent sexual harassment and violence against women and the elimination of dowry demands.