Over a grim concrete gateway in a small town near Dhaka, a blue sign reads, “Sonagazi Islamia Fazil (Degree) Madrashah”. This is where Nusrat Jahan Rafi, a teenage girl in Bangladesh, was burned alive.
The girls who attacked Nusrat wore burkas. So did she. This was, after all, an Islamic school. And even when murdering, its female pupils were expected to abide by Islamic principles of conduct.
The madrassa students who held Nusrat down and helped tie her hands and legs, before she was set on fire, were acting under the authority of leaders of the local Awami Muslim League and their own principal who had been an emir with Jamaat-e-Islami whose mandate calls for an Islamic state.
The girls weren’t trusted to do the actual killing. That allegedly fell to Javed Hossain, a man, if you can call him that, wearing a burka, who poured kerosene on Nusrat while she lay tied up on the roof.
He struck a match and set her on fire. Then he went down to take an exam. The same exam that the burning girl was supposed to take.
Outside the court, after his conviction and death sentence, his mother called on Allah.
There were other men in burkas on the roof that day. Saifur Rahman Mohammad Zobair tore away Nusrat’s burka and used it to tie her up. Shahadat Hossain Shamim had bought the burkas that the men wore with money from a leader in the Awami Muslim League and gagged her with his hand while she was set on fire. More of the conspirators guarded the area to keep anyone else from intruding.
In court, the girls, now women, one of them a mother, went on wearing their burkas. When they were taken out of court, with a death sentence pronounced on their heads, they went with their faces already covered. While Nusrat covered her face much of the time, in the final photos, her face is uncovered, while her body is swathed is white bandages. When the pupils of the Islamic school set her on fire, 80% of her body was left burned. And she died that way in Dhaka Hospital for the crime of telling the truth.
The truth helped bring down the Madrassa and its principal, Siraj Ud Doula, a small scowling goateed man, the tips of the goatee dyed a noxious orange-red, who sent Nusrat to her death, and whose plot against her, led to a death sentence for 16 men and women, including himself. His crimes dragged in his students, the Awami Muslim League, Jamaat-e-Islami, and shocked all of Bangladesh.
The first truth that Nusrat told was that Siraj had sexually harassed her. She continued telling the truth while her brother taped her on his phone in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
It was also the final truth she told in a hospital bed, declaring, “I will fight till my last breath.”
Nusrat had not been meant to survive to tell that truth. After accusing her Islamic school principal of sexual harassment, she had faced violent assaults and death threats. Then, a plot had been hatched to have other students lure her to the roof of the madrassa, tie her up, set her on fire, and make her death look like a suicide. But the headscarf she had been tied with burned up and she survived to tell the truth.
That truth means death for her murderers.
Siraj had come to court smiling. Her former principal and Jaamat-e-Islami emir left it in tears.
In Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, girls often die without any explanation. The conviction of the 16 men and women who plotted Nusrat’s death provides a horrid window into how such girls die. And how high up the crimes extend. At one end of the murder plot were schoolboys and schoolgirls. On the other end was their jailed principal, and local leaders of the Awami Muslim League.
The Avami Muslim League is the governing party of Bangladesh. Its roots go back to the Muslim League that divided India, and created Pakistan, before Bengali nationalists went on to create Bangladesh.
The trial of Nusrat’s killers dragged in Maksud Alam, a local councilor, a member of the governing body of the madrassa, and acting general secretary of the Awami League in Feni, the small town outside Dhaka where the atrocity took place. Also facing justice was Ruhul Amin, the Madrassa’s vice president, and the local Awami League president. The links between the Feni leaders of the Awami League and the Islamic school highlighted the interconnections between Islamism, politics and, the brutal crime.
Before the murder, some figures in the Awami League had staged rallies in defense of Siraj. One of those was Alam, who had not only participated in protests, but also helped provide funding for the crime.
And Ruhul Amin’s job had been to keep the cops away while the murder was taking place.
Siraj, the Islamic school principal who had sexually harassed the teenage girl before trying to have her killed, had been a former emir with Bangladesh’s Jamaat-e-Islami. Unlike the Awami League, Jamaat is a genuinely hard-core Islamist movement which has been responsible for numerous atrocities in the past. Its agenda is a full Islamic state with the uncompromisingly brutal application of Islamic Sharia law.
Setting a teenage girl on fire would not have fazed Jamaat’s Islamists who had tortured, raped and killed anyone standing in the way of their vision of an Islamic state. But Siraj had proven too nasty even for Jamaat which had expelled its former emir. The madrassa where Nusrat was killed had been Jamaat territory and the former principal’s associates had been Jamaat loyalists. After Siraj’s sexual habits became too much, the madrassa shifted sides to the Awami Muslim League whose local leaders conspired to cover-up his perversions with murder.
The Islamic school principal’s associates in Jamaat-e-Islami and the Awami Muslim League had been bribed and the police had turned a blind eye to events at the madrassa. All this had to be done because Siraj had entangled the local Islamic political leaders with his own crimes until they had no choice but to help murder a teenage girl to protect their sources of income, power and their Islamic legitimacy.
It took 16 men and women, and more behind the scenes, to try and kill that teenage girl.
Nur Uddin, Siraj’s aide at the madrassa, and Hafez Abdul Kader, a teacher at the madrassa, had allegedly served as the interface with their jailed boss. And after no amount of pressure seemed to dissuade Nusrat from telling her story, the Islamic pervert who had assaulted her, told his minions to set her on fire on the roof of his own school.
Nusrat’s murder wasn’t unusual. What was unusual is that the killers were caught and will be punished. And that may be due less to public outrage than to the political divisions within the Awami League. Girls like her die all the time. Their deaths are ruled a suicide. Or they disappear and are said to have run away.
And that’s what would have happened if the 19-year-old girl hadn’t been so determined to live.
The horror of the crime, Nusrat’s determination to live and to denounce her killers, were vital. As she lay burned badly, the teenage girl told a familiar story, but one that very few murdered girls live to tell.
The Islamic leaders she had trusted had betrayed her, they had assaulted her, covered up their crimes, and then tried to kill her, but burned and dying slowly, she had brought them down anyway.
As her killers left the courtroom weeping, the ghost of the teenage girl followed them into the sunlight.
Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the Muslim world are full of such ghosts. They are usually invisible. Their voices have been turned to ash, dirt and dust. There is no counting the number of women and girls who have been killed. But in Bangladesh, one girl managed to speak and be heard even after her murder.