Hafiza Nilofar Khan
When I had a civil marriage in St. Helens, Oregon in the year 1998 with a Caucasian American, my father was alarmed since he believed that a Muslim woman cannot marry a Christian man without first converting him into Islam. In my gender ignorance about Islamic rules, I tried to pacify my distressed father by arguing that people who are “ehlekitab”, meaning, believers in the book (Torah, Bible or Koran) may marry each other without having to convert. When my father retorted that only Muslim men are allowed to marry a non-Muslim woman, and not vice versa, I did not grasp the full significance of the convention, and took it for my own religiously inclined father's desire to have a Muslim son-in-law. This August, when I was allowed to leave Dhaka only after paying eighty thousand taka to the Passport and Immigration office in fees and fine, and going through endless stress on account of having a foreigner for a husband, and a daughter, did I realise the actual import of my father's premonitions. If my father were alive today, he might have said, “I forewarned you”, but I am also pretty sure that as progressive minded as he was, he could not have wholeheartedly condoned the unfair and inhumane treatment of Muslim women by our government in the name of Islam.
I came to Bangladesh in 2000 after my father suddenly passed away on account of a heart attack. Since I was on a J-1 visa (exchange student visa), and had a two year home residency requirement on my head, Carl, my husband decided to join me in Bangladesh and pass the required time together. Accordingly he applied for a visa at our nearest Bangladesh Consulate office in L.A. There, they first gave him the “No Visa Required” stamp that spouses of Bangladeshi citizens are entitled to get, but then thinking God knows what, struck it out, and gave him only a six month tourist visa. Upon Carl's arrival we were both so excited about the prospects of living together in my country and amidst my people, that none of us bothered for a while about the type of visa he had procured, and the length of time he would be allowed to stay legally.
Before coming to Bangladesh, Carl had also contacted North South University in Dhaka, and was offered a teaching position there with hopes that they would arrange a long term visa status for him. This relaxed my financial and legal worries to a great extent. Carl started appropriating my culture fast, and I almost forgot that we had a visa to renew. However, before his six month time period was over, we tried to renew his visa, but instead, he was told to leave within the next two weeks! Carl immediately requested North South University to work on his visa situation. My mother and I also went to Uncle Altaf Chowdhury, the then Home Minister, and my father's junior colleague during his Air Force days, to request him for a long term visa for Carl. Uncle addressed Carl as “my Bangladeshi Jamai (son-in-law)” and reassured me of a hassle free stay for the American “guest.” Indeed, my husband was treated only as a guest, and despite the fact that we had just had our daughter, Alisha, my formal application for at least a full year visa, was granted for only three more months! After those three months elapsed, I wrote another application as a mother of an infant, begging for humanitarian considerations, and explaining my own legal needs to stay in Dhaka for a considerable period. Months passed by, but I got no response from the Passport office; as they explained, it was “pending.”
In the meantime I learnt about how the term “spouse” was being used rather whimsically by some of the Bangladeshi visa officers to mean only “wife” and not “husband,” of a Bangladeshi citizen, especially after the religious minded group had helped form the current government. To add to my legal frustrations, I came across several mixed couples living in New D.O.H.S Mohakhali area, where I was living. None of them were having the kind of visa problems that I was encountering. The reason was, they were Bangladeshi men who had brought home foreign wives. These wives had been granted the “No Visa Stamp” without any question, and were just waiting for the completion of one year residency in Bangladesh in order to enjoy the status of a full fledged citizen. It was assumed that these women had converted to Islam since they now carried their husband's last names. It was also assumed that they would all be duly converted into typically domesticated Bangladeshi housewives and pose no threat to the culture or job market. However, the fact is that many of them hated living in Bangladesh despite enjoying the services that their cheaply affordable maids and drivers provided, not to mention the spacious luxury flats that they inherited from their retired defense officer father-in-laws, and most of them were working.
Anyway, once I was convinced of the blatant gender discriminatory immigration practice that my government had adopted of late, I decided to stop renewing my husband's visa on principle, and seek help from the women's associations in Dhaka that are devoted to clinching women's rights. Bangladesh National Women Lawyer's Association (BNWLA) is one such organisation that showed me hopes of redressing my wrongs with the help of the law. Through them, I became aware of the fate of many Bangladeshi women like my self who are married to “outsiders,” and are undergoing drainage of funds every few months as punishment for bringing in potential “terrorists.” I was further shocked to learn that most of these women were married to Indian or Pakistani men, who are our neighbours, and once were considered our brothers. I was most disappointed by the fact that our Prime Minister (now former) was well aware of this type of gender discrimination. Despite having promised equal rights to Bangladeshi women at several CEDAW meetings, her representatives have taken no definite steps towards changing this prejudiced government practice. However, my lawyers assured me that since I had an application pending with the government, they could not penalise me with an outrageous fine for not having renewed my husband's visa on regular intervals.
Finally the time arrived for us to think of leaving Bangladesh. Carl got admission in the Ph.D programme at the University of Southern Illinois, and I had to refer back to the Passport and Immigration Office. To my utter shock I learnt from them that it is their policy to burn citizen files every few months, whether they had pending applications or not! This meant that officially the government had no records of our case, though we were still in grave danger of being held hostage at the airport, lest we tried to leave without their consent. To add to my gender related legal chagrin, I further discovered that despite giving birth to a child as a Bangladeshi mother in Bangladesh, my daughter was considered an “alien” whose arrival was “illegal” in the country. According to the Passport Office, for Alisha too I had to pay a fine of taka 500 every day since she had been granted an American passport, as the daughter of an American father. When I tried to fight for my rights as a Bangladeshi mother, I was told by the passport office authorities that as a Muslim mother I did not even have guardianship rights over my daughter; I was merely her custodian! I left the passport office fuming with rage, but literally unable to do anything about the total amount of fine and fees that had by then accrued against Carl and Alisha's names. Carl was getting fined taka 500 for every day that he was overstaying, and the total figure was shooting to twenty lakhs according to their calculation!
Feeling bewildered and lost in my own country, I knocked at the door of the lawyers again. They suggested that I sue the government on the basis of gender discrimination, and promised to procure an injunction from the judge, allowing us to leave Bangladesh without any harassment at the airport. However, they needed the total amount of the fine and fees in writing from the Passport Office. This was something the Passport authorities refused to produce, especially after they figured out that I had already served them a legal notice. My problems now compounded, since the only way suggested to me was to apply to the Home Ministry again, requesting for a waiver of the charges. I could not mention anything in writing about the discrimination meted out against my gender, although there were many sympathetic ears within the Ministry, who eventually worked out as guardian angels for me and helped me get away with a minimum fine and fees of taka 80,000 only. However, I believe that my father was turning in his grave when I was desperately trying to reach out to someone who would listen to my grievances and show me a way out of my ordeals.
As our plane took off from Zia International Airport, Alisha started singing her favourite song: “Shurjodoe tumi, Shurjaste o tumi, O amar Bangladesh, prio jonmobhumi,” which celebrates love for the country one is born in. Tears skipped my eyes to think of the way my daughter was leaving the country she was born in, but I was determined, more than ever to keep the Bangali heritage in her, ever alive. As far as Carl is concerned, he is looking forward to visiting Bangladesh again in the near future because his second novel on Bangladesh is underway, and he hopes to publish it in the country where it originated. We arrived in America on the 10th of August, and I have already received my Green Card, which is in recognition of my status as an American citizen's wife, and as an American child's mother.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006