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Bangladesh's Hindu women fight for divorce rights

Published Jun 27, 2012 03:40am


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A Hindu bride holding flowers in her hands.—Reuters Photo
A Hindu bride holding flowers in her hands.—Reuters Photo

DHAKA: Unlike her Muslim compatriots, Tarulata Rani is unable to inherit anything from her family, cannot divorce and cannot claim maintenance from her absent husband—all because she is a Bangladeshi Hindu.

Unlike Bangladeshi Muslims or Hindus in neighbouring India and Nepal, Bangladeshi Hindu women can't divorce as the legal provisions do not exist and their marriages have not been allowed to be officially registered.

“Is it a crime to be born a Hindu girl?” Rani, 22, who was married two years ago, told AFP.

“I can't inherit any property. I can't divorce my husband and remarry even though he left me for another woman and beat me all the time.”

Last month Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina approved a new law that will introduce official marriage registration for Hindus in Muslim-majority Bangladesh in a move designed to protect the rights of women like Rani.

The legislation, expected to be passed shortly in parliament, has been welcomed by civil rights activists and many Hindu women.

But critics say it is a token gesture that does not go far enough amid opposition from the religion's hardliners, who see it as unnecessary political interference in their cultural traditions.

Bangladesh has a secular legal system except in matters related to inheritance, marriage and divorce, when Muslims follow sharia law and Hindus follow laws based on ancient un-codified customs.

Under the new law, Hindus—who make up 10 per cent of the country's 152 million population—will be able to register their marriages with local councils or courts for the first time.

“At the moment, when a Hindu man walks out on a marriage, the wife can't sue him for alimony or maintenance because lack of marriage papers make it almost impossible to prove that they were married at all,” said lawyer Nina Goswami.

“Tens of thousands of Hindu men keep multiple wives, knowing that they can't be prosecuted,” added Goswami, who is director of the respected rights group, Ain O Salish Kendra.

Goswami, herself a Hindu, has seen how lack of rights have driven many Hindu women to “unwanted jobs and extreme poverty” after they were dumped by their husbands.

However she believes that the government's new laws are only a token gesture to placate mainstream Hindu women without angering Hindu men, who generally vote for the Awami League, the current ruling party.

“Unfortunately, these women don't exist in the government's eyes and ears,” she said.

“To our politicians, the Hindu community is a big vote-bank, made up of only males.”

The government rejects such criticism and says that it is hamstrung by hard-line Hindu activists who oppose changes to the law.

Law Minister Shafique Ahmed told AFP the new legislation would cut down on polygamy, which is increasing among the Hindu males, and ensure maintenance rights for women whose partners have left them.

“We couldn't reform Hindu personal laws further because of opposition by Hindu groups including some of their most educated people. Hardliners did not even want registration of their marriages,” Ahmed said.

Radical Hindu activists say they reject any reforms that go against their scriptures or traditions, saying divorce could threaten the basic foundation of the Hindu family.

“We don't mind optional registration because Hindu couples sometimes need the marriage certificate when they travel,” said Hiren Biswas, the president of the Samaj Sangskar Parishad group.

“But we won't accept mandatory registration, or divorce and inheritance rights to women because our scriptures and customs don't allow them,” he told AFP, alleging the new law was a conspiracy hatched by foreign-funded charities.

Muslim women in Bangladesh can divorce and seek damages for break-ups or sue their partners thanks to decades of legal activism by women and rights groups.

But Bangladeshi Hindus, who have suffered widespread persecution and religious discrimination since partition of the subcontinent in 1947, were bypassed by the new rights.

Despite the new laws, Hindu women face a long struggle as their community is split on whether women's issues are the best battlefield to fight for wider equality.

For leading reformers like Supreme Court lawyer Subrata Chowdhury, himself a Hindu, the battle must now move on.

“Persecution by Muslims, forcible conversion, eviction from land and stealing of our properties are more important now,” he told AFP.


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Comments (36) Closed

Balwant Jun 27, 2012 08:09am
A hindu bride must burn with her husband's dead body. No divorce in hindu religion. British Raj banned suttee and allowed divorce but then she was 'used goods' of no value in marriage, only as a slave. In Christianity, according to Jesus in the Bible, even to think of a women in your heart is adultery. Divorce and remarrige is also adultery for all parties involved, direclty or indirectly. Marriage is forever on earth and in heaven.
Agha Ata Jun 28, 2012 12:25pm
I am no scholar of Hindu religion, but historically, suttee has never been a part of Hindu religion. It was a very late introduction.
Suprakash saha..SILIGURI..INDIA Jun 28, 2012 04:16pm
BAGLADESH And SECULARISM......what a joke indeed....
Malone Jun 27, 2012 09:51pm
I am a Bengali Hindu who has read the Dhaka newspaper the Daily Star since it was available on the internet, as i have read Dawn. This article in the Dawn is very well balanced, and the posters are not reading it careully. On the one hand, it is indeed true that Bangladeshi Hindu women have no legal protection against exploitation by their men. On the other, what the last two sentences in the article says is also true (see comment by "reformer" Subrata Chowdhury) i - Bangladesh is indeed a progressive Muslim nation where Hindus are nevertheless a deprived community, largely because one of the major political parties has identified them as fifth columnists who have only Indian interest in mind (not true). This make the other major party use the Hindus as a vote bank. FYI - the percentage of Hindus in Bangladesh is closer to 7% (according to their own newspapers) than to10%. It was 18% or so after their independence in 1971. The enire situation is very complex, and of course the weakest sections of the society - minority women - pay for the sins of others.
prince Jun 28, 2012 12:58pm
I dont understand why people are still speaking about a custom (suttee)that is not existing in India for the last 200 years(though isolated suspected cases of 1 or 2 within last 100 years ) and keep on saying hindu religion is like this There is nothing like a 'sharia' law in hinduism applicable to all hindus. It is just a complex set of beliefs and customs..Suttee,even when existed, was a custom followed only by elite among upper caste hindus..mostly rich zamindars/rajas etc..99% of hindus never followed suttee at any point of time in the history
A Singh Jun 29, 2012 08:21am
This is what some muslim ( not always same as Islamic) fundamentalist groups tell us in India when we try to introduce equal legal rights for minority women. The want the government to go by their rabidly narrow minded and self-serving interpretation of the holy scripture. I think not only the Hindus of India, but all the rational minded people in the world have right to speak in this matter and decry the poor situation of women in community. It is something at par of speaking for democracy in Burma, because this is an humanitarian crisis.
Amber Shah Jul 01, 2012 12:00am
They are selective about their laws to suite their own wishes. not Shariah.
Kunal Jun 27, 2012 07:45pm
When they is no law as such for this then ,... how can court grant anything beyond law..This is whole logic of having a law........after all alimony is not a fundamental right in any country......
richard Jun 29, 2012 07:46am
Muslim sisters get half what their brothers get in their parents property.
richard Jun 29, 2012 07:47am
Law should be secular and religion must have no role to play. Laws should be based on the welfare of people and they should change with time.
M.A.P Jun 27, 2012 10:10am
Typical people from Narendra Modi´s India crying foul for Hindus in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a secular countries where everyones rights are equal, People might get offended there if you ask anyone about their religious identity. Bangladesh is best example of a moderate, secular muslim majority country where peoples live with harmony with each others regardless religion,ethnicity. Please read out the Report carefully first then comment.
Balwant Jun 29, 2012 09:31pm
My reference was to what Jesus Christ said in the Bible. In addition he said there can be NO exceptions. You can have your own religion, and rationalizations, just please don't justify them in Jesus' name.
Andleeb Jun 30, 2012 11:56pm
Not so. Please reference your one liner in context.
Balwant Jun 29, 2012 09:34pm
It was also to ensure that the young wife does not murder her rich husband and be in a position to enjoy his wealth.
Spud Jun 29, 2012 01:19am
The suttee tradition was started by some unscrupulous evil people to keep the woman from claiming her husband's property. It was sold as a loving gesture by a wife to her husband. The women did not want to become a suttee but was forced into it. Thankfully it does not happen due to the government strong laws against it.
Deb Jun 29, 2012 12:58am
But that shariah law has so many clauses attached to it that it becomes irrelevant in the 21st century. Take a look at Saudi Arabia and Iran for instance.
Deb Jun 29, 2012 12:57am
What does that have to do with this article? If you are in any way insinuating that Islam has more rights for women than Hinduism, I would strongly disagree with you there.
Hirsh Jul 01, 2012 08:59pm
Mughals tried to ban the practice of Suttee, not start it, but failed because of the need to live in harmony with Hindu religious leaders. Next they tried to make it difficult, cumbersome and time consuming by requiring very many legal forms to be filled, that delayed the girls execution but could not totally prevent it. The British, except for on going isolated incidents, ended it by making it a capital offense...with burning as punishment. While still practiced, rarely, it is against Indian Legal Code.
Sanaam Jul 01, 2012 09:07pm
@Amir: You are refering to the Islamic concept that a destitute widowed woman is safer and better off under her husband's roof, rather than at the mercy of the 'predatory' street. Other scriptures do not allow divorce/remarriage.
Mona Jul 01, 2012 08:37pm
Right on, Andy.
Janice Khan Jun 27, 2012 08:19am
"Muslim women in Bangladesh can divorce and seek damages for break-ups or sue their partners thanks to decades of legal activism by women and rights groups." Not "decades of legal activism". It is Shariah Law 1400years old, principles are detailed in the Quran anyone can verify.
Vineeth Jun 27, 2012 09:53am
For me as an Indian Hindu, this is shocking, really! I guess this is what happens in many 'minority' communities worldwide, irrespective of religion. Vested interests (Hindu males, in this case) are able to push forward their feudal agenda, using the 'persecution' and 'identity protection' arguments as convenient shields. Unlike some other religions, Hinduism lacks clear cut injuctions for every day life and hence, is very flexible to adapt to modern laws.
Vineeth Jun 27, 2012 09:32am
I hope you have noted that the chief impediment here are the people in the Hindu community itself, not the Bangladeshi administration.
Chez Jun 30, 2012 05:33am
Not so.
Subashis Das Jun 28, 2012 09:52pm
I am a Bangladeshi Hindu. Most of the Bangladeshi hindu are religious. We want to obey our religion. Country or Court should not interapt our religion. WE want to stay like the way it stated in our holy scripture. what is the problem with that? Our women are very devoted to husband and they should be for her family. I support the Hindu law. Bangladesh government should not interapt us. I do not think any hindu women want divorce. they love their husband. If a hindu woman want divorce, she does not have any right to stay with hindu community. she should leave out community. But we will not tolerate any change in hindu marriage that is against our religion.
Pramod Jun 27, 2012 05:39am
That is the situation of minority in most of the countries where peace loving, equal rights and complete path of living life religion is in majority.
faps Jun 27, 2012 05:44am
Thanks for highlighting this issue. Though I am an Indian Hindu, I never knew that such a problem even existed. I truly respect the fact that Dawn highlights social issues plaguing our subcontinent.
Amir Jun 27, 2012 01:27pm
"Divorce and remarrige is also adultery for all parties involved". Women who are forced to intense labour and sex trade (not by choice) after divorce would otherwise find a companion and partner to support from remarriage is not an adultery and crime.
Agha Ata Jun 27, 2012 12:52pm
But Bangladesh is a secular country. She can go to the court of law and claim her rights.
vishnu dutt Jun 27, 2012 07:15am
whats new. hindus have always been prosecuted in their own land. nobody hears about them because media doesnt bring up our plight and we dont cry like other communities.
Nikhil Jun 27, 2012 01:54pm
I would urge Bangladesh to not give in to religion based politics. Politicians in India are fully exploiting the religious sentiments of majority and minority communities. Hopefully Bangladesh learns from these mistakes and make sure that the law is uniform for everybody, be it a Muslim majority or Hindu minority.
Madan Jun 28, 2012 12:53am
Perhaps Bangladesh can borrow a page from laws on this subject from India.The action of the goverment is the first right step in this direction.
naseer qureshi Jun 28, 2012 02:27pm
Islam grants women rights to marry, divorce their husbands upon their will and remarry another person if they wish. Islam protects women honor, property and dignity.
farid Jun 28, 2012 06:24am
I am a Bangladeshi--residing in USA. I have seen societies around the world--by Asian standard--Bangladeshi society--is a SECULAR AND TOLERANT SOCIETY. There are many instances---of social harmony--just one example-- --in the eighties--military rule period--a Dhaka University HINDU STUDENT [ AUDITORIUM ] HALL / HOSTEL --collapsed--many students died --NEARBY MADRASHA STUDENTS CAME--- FIRST --TO RESCUE ---- DONATED BLOODS .
farid Jun 28, 2012 06:29am
As is evident from the report----------- ---she do not have --LEGAL DOCUMENTS--to prove her case--
Jalwant Jun 28, 2012 06:33am
Sati pratha was never a part of Sanatan Dharma , it was evil trend started in the mid of Mugal Period. There were hardly few cases of sati pratha are their in history. On Divorce , yes it is not allowed in Sanatan Dharma , once you are married then there is no remarriage or Talaq or Divorce , coz marriage is considered a sanskaar in Dharma it is not contract which can be broken.. but now the time has changed and in kaliyuga people do what they want , and Dharma provides flexibility in that..