Written by Carole Spary.

We are delighted to introduce our 2017/18 Tomlinson lecture speaker, Sara Hossain.

Sara Hossain is a lawyer in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and the Honorary Executive Director of Bangladesh Legal Aid Service Trust (BLAST). She has worked on a wide range of human rights issues, including campaigns for justice for Bangladesh garment industry workers.

Globally, this issue gained greater contemporary visibility after the Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, but Sara Hossain was already fighting another case of a factory collapse in 2005 when the Rana Plaza tragedy occurred. Both the 2013 collapse and the 2005 collapse, which killed 65 workers, occurred in the district of Savar. Building regulators had already raised concerns about safety of construction projects in Savar back in 2006, but the concerns were not made public until after the Rana Plaza tragedy in 2013. Interviewed for a 2013 Time article on the latter, Hossain remarked “This is not a wake-up call…This is like somebody sleeping in after the alarm has been ringing and ringing and ringing”. In the context of these events, Hossain has probed legal questions of remedial (in terms of compensation) and retributive justice (in terms of criminal law) in Bangladesh, as well as the influence of global consumer awareness and pressure versus the effectiveness of legal systems to address discrimination and inequality faced by Bangladeshi workers across all sectors, not just the garment export industry.

Sara Hossain has also worked to address gender-based violence in Bangladesh. Alongside the women’s movement in Bangladesh, she fought for the country’s first comprehensive law on violence against women (2010), challenged how women’s integrity is questioned in rape cases, and sought to ban the discredited and traumatising ‘two-finger test’ in rape cases to determine whether rape victims are ‘habituated’ to sex, a British colonial legacy still in operation in Bangladesh (and India). She has also highlighted the lived effects of another enduring British colonial law which criminalises homosexuality in Bangladesh (and other former British colonies). She has also worked extensively on women’s rights and justice in relation to marriage and divorce, and co-edited a volume of essays on ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women (2005, Zed Books). She has witnessed first-hand the challenges in implementing laws which seek to address violence against women, including institutional infrastructure, the shame of abuse, and economic poverty in the context of very limited social security or alternatives.

Sara Hossain has also spoken out in favour of freedom of expression for journalists and bloggers.** A number of Bangladeshi journalists and bloggers have been murdered in recent years – three bloggers were killed in the first five months of 2015, more followed in 2016 – and secular bloggers have increasingly received death threats. Some have allegedly been targeted for opposing religious fundamentalists, another because they were the editor of Bangladesh’s first LGBTQ+ magazine. Islamic State reportedly claimed credit for the 2016 murder of an English professor who, they claimed, had supported atheism, but the Bangladesh state denied the presence of IS in the country. Commentators have criticised the lack of government action. In addition, many journalists and bloggers have been arrested, for example, under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Act, applied to material published online, a law which Hossain has called ‘draconian’, and which others in Bangladesh have said is used to harass opponents.

Sara Hossain has been active in international fora on human rights law, as a Member of the Human Rights Committee of the International Law Association (ILA), and a Member of the Advisory Committee of the Women’s International Coalition on Gender Justice (WICG). She has been involved in cases in national and international courts including the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Human Rights Committee. She has also been invited to give lectures at universities around the world, including a plenary lecture at Columbia University in 2011 and the Chowdhury Center Distinguished Lecture at UC Berkeley in 2017. She was educated at Wadham College, Oxford, called to the Bar from Middle Temple (1989), and has been practising law at the Bangladesh Supreme Court since 1992. To honour her achievements, in 2016 she was awarded the International Woman of Courage award by the US Secretary of State.

We are delighted that Sara Hossain will be delivering the IAPS Tomlinson lecture 2017/18 on the evening of 22 March on the topic of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. She will also join us earlier in the day for a roundtable event on economic and social rights in Bangladesh, discussing her work and experience in these areas in conversation with University staff and doctoral researchers. Please register for the lecture here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/institute-for-asia-and-pacific-studies-annual-tomlinson-lecture-sara-hossain-tickets-42741362566.

Carole Spary is the Deputy Director, IAPS, and Assistant Professor, School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by U.S. Department of State/Flickr

* Listen to this 2014 interview with Sara Hossain on the Bangladesh Rana Plaza Tragedy at the Institute of Human Rights and Business.

** Listen to Sara Hossain’s 2015 interview with Radio New Zealand here.

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