A South Asian woman is often subjected to innumerable rituals. In Bangladesh, for the majority of the population, if a baby girl is born, the Azaan (call for prayer) is quietly whispered into her ears. In the case of a baby boy, the Azaan is loud as it is meant to announce his arrival with pride. During a girl's Aqiqah (christening), a goat is sacrificed, but when it comes to a boy, the number of goats becomes two. In case of inheritance, while the wife inherits only an eighth of her husband's property after death and the daughter gets only a fifth (as the daughter is assumed to inherit from her husband's as well), no one really mentions that upon a wife's demise, her husband too inherits one-fourth of her property. These are only a few instances of unjust inheritance laws that are prevalent in South Asian societies.
In reality, empowerment and equality have been in public and academic discourse for quite a long time. Somehow every South Asian woman has the same pain to digest and the same struggles to address. And in case women in the region ever come together to discuss these issues on a public forum for dialogue, at the first opportunity, they put their heads together and often ask the question, “How do we make it there?”
In Nepal, two weeks ago, at such an event featuring women leaders, policymakers and international researchers from groups such as Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) at Harvard Kennedy School, there were many stories to listen to and ponder. Apart from the lack of employment opportunities for women, the issue of women owning little or no property struck a deep chord amongst many of us. What stood out was the realisation of South Asian women being handicapped by laws that stain the moral fabric of the society.
During the panel discussions, it appeared that Nepal had progressed quite a bit. While Nepal has the highest female labour participation in South Asia, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka are following in Nepal's footsteps. It was also clear that India, Pakistan and Afghanistan were the lowest in the ladder. What was disappointing was that India was the only South Asian country that has a downward trend of female labour participation. It was also pleasantly surprising to discover that in Nepal, almost 20 percent of women own land or homes and while 27 percent of urban Nepali women have fixed assets, almost 19 percent of rural women own the same.
This hasn't been an easy road for Nepalese women however. Nepal too had to go through the decades-long struggle to achieve equal inheritance rights for women.
The first steps in Nepal were to convince those within the women's movement that property rights were the right battle to wage (as opposed to focusing solely on equalising girl's education) and to research the existing laws and their economic effects, in order to better argue for their reversal. At the turn of the millennium, Nepali law dictated that a woman had to be 35 years old and unmarried in order to inherit property. A research study by Sapana Pradhan Malla, a jurist before the Supreme Court of Nepal, found that exclusion from inheritance impacted overall development by limiting women's broader economic opportunities. Since Nepal was still a Hindu state and not a secular one when the struggle had begun, activists like Malla had no option but to challenge the state, religion, and culture. Malla says, “It wasn't easy.”
The strategy she and her movement used was public litigation – a class action lawsuit. Nepal's high court ruled that the law was indeed and issued a directive to the government to change it. Malla and her team celebrated, believing change would come quickly, but it took seven years for the bill to enter Parliament – and even then, change was gradual. The first amendment in 2002 dictated that a daughter had equal right to inheritance as a son, but she had to return the property upon marriage. The second amendment in 2006 allowed her to keep her property upon marriage, and the third amendment nine years later removed discrimination based on marital status. Finally, equal inheritance rights were guaranteed in Nepal's new Constitution in 2015. Today, Malla believes that the number of women owning lands and houses will “triple in the upcoming census.”
In Bangladesh, for Hindu women especially, property rights are meagre in comparison to male members and their religious counterparts. No single piece of legislation has been enacted to reform traditional laws in order to broaden the scope of Hindu women's property rights. Bangladesh, a country with around three million female readymade garment workers, cannot subject women to bias, when the Constitution assures equal rights for both men and women. If women contribute a major portion to the production of food and still remain invisible as female farmers in the bigger picture of prevention of food insecurity, then there is no choice for the society but to correct the dent in its psyche. Above all, the plight of all women, irrespective of their caste, creed and religion, in Bangladesh must change. Most unfortunately, the practices continue because many within us resort to laws of convenience. This may be explained better with the next example.
A friend in Dhaka was recently complaining about a male family member – who was atheist – having turned to Shariah law when it had come to inheriting the property his father had left. He knew that it was his father's wish that his daughters would have equal rights to inheritance. But in this case, the man fell back on a discriminatory law that he didn't agree with but that benefitted him financially.
There are countries where only fathers can pass citizenship on to their children. There are places that allow disproportionate abortion of female fetuses. There are courts in some lands that arbitrarily deny women custody. There are women survivors of spousal rape. There are countries in South Asia where schools for girls are burnt down and closed forever.
Thus, it is perhaps not unreasonable to assume that even globally, religion and rituals are used as tools to suppress the rights of and discriminate against the better halves of the world.
Rubana Huq is the Managing Director of Mohammadi Group. Vestal McIntyre is Staff Writer at Evidence for Policy Design, Harvard Kennedy School.