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|Volume 11 |Issue 40| October 12, 2012 ||
The Voice of the Powerless
'A study on the Necessity and Importance of Hindu Marriage Law' conducted by Research Initiatives of Bangladesh (RIB), in collaboration with Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), shows that most Hindu women want marriage registration to be mandatory
Though Durga, the Supreme Goddess, saved the world from the tyranny of the demon Asur, her female devotees in Bangladesh can do little to protect themselves from the oppression created by discriminatory marriage laws. Unlike the Goddess, their place in the society is far below the rank of their male counterparts. As daughters, they are burdens to their parental families. They are given away as a gift, along with a dowry, to the husband's family who takes the full responsibility of their well-being for the rest of their life.
But in reality the scenario is far from being ideal. A snapshot of this truth came up in the research 'A study on the Necessity and Importance of Hindu Marriage Law' conducted by Research Initiatives of Bangladesh (RIB) in collaboration with Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF). The research, carried out in response to the recently passed Hindu Marriage Registration Act, showed the vulnerability of Hindu women in the absence of a codified law governing marriage, separation and divorce.
The Hindu Marriage Registration Act, the first of its kind for the Hindu community of Bangladesh, was passed in parliament on September 18, 2012, keeping registration optional. Immediately, it met with criticism from progressive quarters and rights groups, who argued that such optional provision would not help change the scenario for Hindu women. Without a complete codified law, the provision for court-sanctioned divorce and prohibition of polygamy remains far-fetched.
Hindu marriages take place according to Hindu rituals and customs and no documents are made as evidence of marriage. As a result, it becomes difficult to provide proof of marriage, when necessary. The necessity for legal evidence of marriage came up in the research, which was based on survey of 936 Hindu households and 36 case studies, along with a number of workshops and legal case histories across nine districts of Bangladesh.
In the research most female respondents say that marriage registration will help prevent denial of marriage. A number of such incidences were found both in the survey and the case studies, informs Dr Professor Meghna Guhathakurta, Executive Director of RIB and the lead researcher of the study. She says that cases of abandonment happened when the husband left the wife and migrated to another country or district, refused to accept her or hid the previous marriage.
Under such circumstances, it becomes almost impossible for Hindu women to prove their marriage and thus they are denied of their rights to maintenance and support. Even their children are denied of paternal rights. Dr Guhathakurta explains that the scenario is worse for abandoned women of the lower echelons of the society with little or no education. Even their poor parents do not want to take them back and they too cannot force their rights in their paternal home in the absence of rights of inheritance.
The lack of evidence of marriage also deprives a Hindu woman from exercising her constitutional rights as a citizen. She has difficulty accessing laws such as the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010, says Shaheen Anam, Executive Director of MJF and moderator of the seminar. To get protection under this Act a woman, who is a victim of domestic violence by her husband or in-law, has to establish her marital relation to the perpetrators in court. Without a legal document of marriage it becomes a very difficult task, says advocate Nina Goswami, from Ain o Salish Kendra.
The positive role that marriage registration can play in reducing domestic violence against women was reflected in the perceptions of the respondents of the survey. Most women respondents are of the opinion that they will receive justice under the law and even just village arbitration if they can present a legal document of marriage. Even Hindu men have said that marriage registration is necessary to present documents in different situations, for example, while going abroad with a spouse.
Advocate Uttara Deb Chowdhury, a participant in the seminar, shares the problem faced by her son due to the absence of legal documents of marriage. Her son, who was married before the enactment of this law, faced resistance from a foreign visa consulate when he could not provide legal documentary evidence of his marriage. Chowdhury has recounted how she had to obtain a marriage certificate from a priest in return of Tk 5000. Since that certificate did not have a legal basis, her family was forced to appeal to the foreign country's court and explain that since “they reside in an Islamic country, there are no marriage laws for Hindus”. She says, “I felt very bad that I have to say this, because this country is mine too but there is no law for me.”
Her anguish was shared by other participants in the seminar. They also expressed their disapproval of the recently passed law. Nina Goswami said that the expectation was for a complete marriage law that would not only make registration compulsory but would have provision for divorce and clauses prohibiting polygamy. In fact, the study showed that a majority of men and women wanted provisions for divorce. At present Hindu women in Bangladesh can only opt for separation. However, obtaining maintenance from husband requires proof of marriage, which again becomes difficult in the absence of mandatory registration.
Goswami points out that since Hindu personal law is used by both the Hindus and Buddhists of Bangladesh, a complete marriage law would have benefited a large community of people. Mentioning the example given by Chowdhury, she says, although a certain class of the society will benefit from the optional feature of the present law, the same will not apply to the majority of underprivileged Hindu women. She explains, “If the law is kept optional, then men will avoid it. Men tend to suppress the wishes of women.”
Advocate Chitra Roy, Secretary of Baidik Nari Shakti Sangha, says that the Hindu religion believes in reforms. Giving examples of reform in the banning of customs such as satidaha (burning the widow alive in the pyre of her dead husband) and introducing practices such as widow marriage, she questions why reforms could not happen in case of Hindu personal laws.
Roy also talks about the inheritance law, noting that inheritance of property empowers women. Interestingly, the question of inheritance by Hindu women spontaneously came up in the research although the topic was not included in the questionnaire. 70.4 percent of the total respondents were not happy with the existing Hindu family laws for women. At present, a Hindu daughter can inherit property in the absence of a brother, in which case she must give birth to a son. Otherwise the property goes to a nephew or an adopted son, if any. Roy says, “We are not giving property to our own flesh and blood --- our daughters, but we are giving full property rights to the son of another person, even to an adopted son.”
The research findings showed that 91.3 percent of the total respondents, which included both men and women, demanded a compulsory marriage registration system. As Guhathakurta read out the statistics, participants of the seminar naturally questioned who the government had discussed with before enacting the law. Shaheen Anam, rather reminded the audience that around 90,000 signatures were collected in favour of making Hindu marriage registration mandatory, but the opinion was not followed. She hoped that this research would present the actual scenario to the government and give them an idea of what Hindu women and men really want regarding a complete marriage law.
The policymaker, Advocate Fazle Rabbi, present in the seminar defended the current law, by saying that the government had discussed with Hindu community leaders before its enactment. The community leaders dismissed the need for either registration or a codified law. Professor Niranjan Adhikari, Department of Sanskrit, University of Dhaka and Trustee, Hindu Religion Welfare Trust, explained the fear and mindset of Hindu clerics. With much chagrin, he said that Hindu clerics, in their defence, showed concern about the security of Hindu women in case of divorce and the protection of property in case of inheritance by women. Though Hindu personal law was reformed in India, a country with a Hindu majority, Hindu clerics in Bangladesh noted that the personal law of India's minority Muslims was not changed. Why then would the personal law of the minority population of Bangladesh be changed, they argued.
It became clear from advocate Rabbi's statement that it was not easy breaking through the rigid mentality of the Hindu leaders who represented the community in the discussion with the government before the enactment of the law. Rabbi also complained that the draft of the complete Hindu marriage law proposed by human rights organisations was not placed before the Parliamentary Standing Committee for the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs.
Nevertheless, the research findings as well as the discussion appeared to reach at least one of its objectives -- getting the attention of policymakers. At the end of the seminar, Advocate Rabbi suggested that the rights organisations, together with members of the Hindu community should present the findings of the study directly to the Prime Minister and convince her for a complete Hindu marriage law.
With the end of the Bengali month of Ashwin, the drum announcing the arrival of the Goddess Durga pounds in the distance. Hindu devotees will pray to her for good fortune and prosperity. Perhaps this time Durga's female devotees can pray for the establishment of their rights and the respect due to them as human beings.
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