There is an unfamiliar uneasiness the night before a woman gets married. As she tosses and turns on her bed, perhaps in excitement, perhaps with dread, she realises with a heavy heart that this is the last time she will ever be under the roof of her parents/family with the identity of being just a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter. What she knew as home all her life will suddenly become a place to visit. She will refer to it as her parents' home (Maer bari/Babar bari) entering into the reality of being in a bizarre state of homelessness.
For it is either her in-laws' or husband's house that will now become her shelter – as long as they want her that is. She will be luckier, if by some miracle, she becomes the co-owner of the house through her own contributions or the generosity of her husband but that is hardly the norm in our society where often control of a woman comes in the form of keeping her economically dependent.
Inheritance is of course a very sensitive issue and heaven forbid you talk about equal inheritance laws – for that will trigger vehement opposition from so many quarters that you will be forced into silence. It is one of those things all religious leaders will become united against – as you know laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance are in the realm of religious laws of respective communities.
Just this Sunday, Pakistan, a country where violation of the rights of religious minorities is rampant, passed a landmark Hindu marriage bill that allows Hindus to register their marriages for the first time since partition, file for divorce and remarry. The law aims to protect marriages, families, women and children and safeguard the rights and interests of Hindus.
If you are a Hindu woman in this country however, not only are you deprived of your parents' property, you also do not have the right to divorce since no legal provisions upholding such rights exist. Thus no matter how much we claim to be a country that endorses international conventions that seek gender equality when it comes to inheritance we tend to shy away with great reservations.
But imagine a different scenario where the groom is the one tossing and turning in his sleep. It is his last night as a single man in his own home. Tomorrow, after the marriage ceremony, he will be going to his wife's house. It may sound bizarre to the majority in this country but for the Garo community, it is the most natural thing. That's what Hira (last name withheld), a freelance physiotherapist, tells me. The Garo community is matrilineal which means the lineage is through the female children not the male children. So property is automatically owned by the daughters. What's more when a Garo woman marries, it is her husband who will go to her house and live with her. It may sound like the ultimate feminist fantasy but Hira tells me that is how it is. Which is why when she heard she was having a daughter, she was thrilled as was the rest of the family. That's how it is in the Garo family – the birth of a daughter is a celebration not a curse, not a burden for parents. Sounds strange, doesn't it – in the context of the majoritarian reality?
Hira tells me that because females are so valued in the community and command a lot of respect, it is very unusual to hear about women being physically assaulted by their husbands. “What about the husbands?” I ask perversely, “Are they treated badly?” “Oh they are treated with a lot of respect and their in-laws are very good to them,” she exclaims. I am doubly surprised – despite the power structure being tilted towards the woman, men are not oppressed or discriminated against.
The fact that Hira is financially independent does not seem to create a power imbalance between the husband and wife. Nor does it evoke resentment among her in-laws. Raising their daughter in the best possible way is what preoccupies the two, says Hira, who works from morning till evening six days a week, taking public transport to go to her patients. Sometimes her husband carries the heavy ultrasound machine for her when she needs to take it with her to work.
Education seems to play a big part in ensuring such harmony between the sexes. The younger generation of Garos especially is usually educated and progressive in their outlook. But it is the culture of giving such importance to the females that has ensured that girls and women are valued and treated with dignity and respect.
So what am I saying? That we should all become matrilineal societies? Let's not get carried away. For the majority of communities in this country, the idea of a woman inheriting more than a man is ludicrous, even equally is rarely accepted. But there have been instances where through legal channels brothers and sisters have shared their parents' wealth equally without any kind of acrimony. This has been possible because the men in the family have endorsed the idea that their sisters/daughters are just as entitled to the property as their brothers/sons.
Strangely, there are many women living in the patriarchal system who are the sole or main breadwinners of the household. They are either widowed or have been abandoned by their husband, raising the children by themselves. Yet most of these women are caught in a cycle of poverty that is enhanced by being cheated out of parental property if there was any. Thus even though they are the decision-makers, they seldom have enough funds to own a home or piece of land.
We live in a society, unfortunately, in which violence against women is routine. Often it is even acceptable. But the worst thing is that in most cases, women who are constantly abused by their husbands or in-laws just have nowhere to go and therefore have to bear with abuse all their lives. Even if parents are sympathetic, they may not have the means to support their daughters financially. This is why it is crucial that we build a society that will create opportunities and the mindset for women to be economically independent, that the wealth of their parents is equally distributed. So that she can say with confidence: This is my home and no one can throw me out of it.
The writer is Deputy Editor, Editorial & Opinion, The Daily Star.