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     Volume 4 Issue 40 | April 1, 2005 |

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Human Rights

A Closer Look
at the Law

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

It's like laming a dog and then saying, "See, it cannot walk."

A recent publication on marriage, inheritance and family laws in Bangladesh has, with the above allusion, pretty much hit the mark with regards to the position of women in our society. Almost every day, the media carry news of repression of or violence against women. From marriage of minors to dowry-related crimes, from rapes to murders, hardly a day goes by when another woman is not violated in some way, be it physically, mentally or emotionally.

Some women simply accept it as the inevitable, thinking that their parents have the right to marry them off without their consent, or that if their husband simply pronounces the word "talaq" three times she is divorced -- not only as his wife, but from the whole package deal of family, children and property that comes with marriage. Only when they are conscious of their rights and given an equal standing in society can women move forward to be on a par with men.

Marriage, Inheritance and Family Laws in Bangladesh: Towards a Common Family Code, published by Women for Women and UNESCO, takes a closer look at the status of women in our society, both legal and actual. While some laws are in fact biased against women, the bigger problem seems to be the ineffectiveness of existing laws that in theory should be protecting them but are not due to lack of implementation.

For example, even though the law requires a man to be at least 21 and a woman, 18, to be eligible for marriage, early marriages are a common phenomenon in our society, with girls as young as 13 or 14 being married off to slightly older boys or even much older men. According to the book, a recent study has shown that 70 percent of girls in rural areas are married off before they are 20. The direct consequence of this is the rate of desertion and the increased female-headed households. In Islam, a minor girl can apparently revoke an early marriage upon becoming an adult (18 years of age), but many conditions make the process difficult to implement.

Consent of the bride and groom in a marriage is mandatory in almost every religion. But there are still numerous forced marriages taking place where parents and guardians impose what "they think is best" upon their children more out of family considerations than those of the individual. There is a fine line between arranged and forced marriages, and, in such marriages, "a woman's worth is weighed against the amount of dowry the bride can bring to the groom's family and in return securing her acceptance to the new family. Often, even grooms are roped into marriage due to dowry gains and other material considerations".

All this in a system where dowry is forbidden and where it is actually an offence punishable by law. But the brutal torture and deaths of countless women for being unable to pay the promised dowry after marriage continue.

Thousands of women are left abandoned by their husbands who remarry with or without stating any reason. Even in religions such as Islam where polygamy is technically permitted, a number of conditions must first be met, including securing the written consent of the Arbitration Council. But, as usual, men belonging to a patriarchal society use religion to their best advantage to have their way with women and marry multiple times without any qualms.

It is not that all laws favour women anyway. While husbands have inherent and unilateral rights to divorce, says the book, women's rights to divorce are delegated and conditional. In Muslim law, the wife can only divorce her husband if she has been given the right of divorce by the husband; otherwise, she has to file a suit for divorce under the Dissolution of Muslim Marriage Act 1939.

Women can claim maintenance, but even there, enforcement is difficult and a lengthy process which scares off many women right from the start. Regarding children, in most cases, the father is the natural guardian while the mother is the custodian. According to Muslim law, the mother is entitled to the custody of a male child until he is seven years of age, and a female child until she reaches puberty. Somehow, this situation does not seem conducive for the mother. Not only is she not the natural guardian of her child, but she is the custodian for the most difficult years of raising the child. Not only that, but in Hindu law, the mother is the natural guardian of any illegitimate child, and she will not lose guardianship even if she marries another man. Instead of this being something positive, this places the onus of the illegitimate child on the mother while absolving the father of his duties.

While in Muslim law women inherit only half the amount of property as a man, in Hindu law, married daughters without a son, barren daughters who have passed their child-bearing age and widow daughters without sons are excluded from inheritance because of their "failure to produce sons for the appeasement of the departed soul [of their father]".

These are only a few examples regarding the legal status of women in our society. Regardless of their religion, women are discriminated against in every social situation. Either they are not treated as equal to men by the law, or they are treated unfavourably by society. Where age-old laws should in fact be amended to fit the times, they are instead being used to draw women back further. Perhaps a better understanding of the laws regarding women, or even a reshuffling of the whole system to suit the needs of a changing, modern society, can be the only way to give women their true worth in society. While establishing clear, proper, unbiased laws may be the first step required, the most important thing is to enforce them so that they do in fact bring positive change to the lives of women.


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