Dilemma and Intricacies of Law, Society and Religion towards the Empowerment of Women in Bangladesh -Mahmudul Hasan and Abdul Alim


The footsteps towards a better status of women in Bangladesh are the upshot of victorious results of various struggles. Women in Bangladesh are subordinate within an intensely hierarchical system of gender relations, which constantly attempts to deny not only access to social power and control over their own lives, but also to guaranteed rights to which they are entitled (Kabeer, 1988, p.101). As politics is restricted to the public sphere of human life and perceived as an area of male activity. Hence, women’s roles, in most societies, have been defined by and largely limited to the private sphere and women’s activities are deemed essentially apolitical. As women are deemed to be confined within private sphere—not directly connected with the organs contributing the economy—their role in the gross social and economic progress is remained elusive comparing their ability on one hand and their contribution in private sphere is undervalued on the other.
Sometimes it is argued by the dominant portion of the society that religion did not give equal status of women with men and this mindset often deprives women even of their rights guaranteed by religion. It is neither religion nor tradition, but the lack of values, conflict of interests and tricky ways of exercising power that create such chaotic situations.  Economic empowerment of women is the pre-requisite of social justice—which is the finest balance between our joint responsibilities as a society and our responsibilities as individuals to avail a just society—that can create an environment for their participation in social and economic organs. Women’s empowerment through grass-roots organisations and popular participation is one of the most important steps towards changing of historical relations of inequality and exclusion (Eyben, 2011). But ultimately, the action has to come from individual actors, both male and female, finding the right balance of rights and duties in every respect.
The basic objective of this paper is to show that the rights guaranteed by law are often not implemented due to the malpractice of male-dominated society. Legal lacuna and religious misconception reinforce the attitude of the society to be more oppressive towards the women and add salt to the injury of this segment of the society. Patriarchal interpretation of law and norms creates the permanent blockage to make the way out for the empowerment of women. Though the situation has started to change but the process is very slow.

Status of Women in Bangladesh
Status of women in the society is driven by different legal, social and cultural forces in Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh is committed to attaining the objectives of different international legal instruments for empowering women but still there remain a lot of elements in law, and social and religious practices, which are contributing the non-implementation of government’s commitment towards the empowerment of women.

1.    Constitutional and Legal Status
In Bangladesh, the proliferation of statutory mandates and the state constitutional provisions against sexual discrimination are both catalyst and consequence of changing attitudes towards the status of women is becoming tangible (Rhode, 1989).
The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh ensures the rights of women on the basis of universal principles of equality and participation. Different articles of this Constitution deal with gender equality. The Bangladesh Constitution upholds the principle of equality before law (Article 27), non-discrimination (Article 28), equal rights for men and women in all spheres of public life [Article 28(2)], participation of women in all spheres of public life (Article 10), and making special provision in favor of women and children or for the advancement of any backward section of citizens [Article 28(4)]. Article 10 (1 and 3) also speaks on the equality of opportunity and participation of women in all spheres of public life. Article 28(2) speaks on the constitutional guarantee of equality and non-discrimination in public life only and, therefore, excludes the personal life from constitutional panorama.  Thus, personal laws in Bangladesh are based on religion and culture with principles of gendered interactions that do not operate on the basis of absolute equality of men and women rather recognises their symbiotic co-existence (Monsoor, 2008, p.38).
The other branch of the legal system of Bangladesh—e.g. laws against sexual harassment and domestic violence etc.—also extends the rights and protection for women.
Bangladesh stands the patriarchal interpretation of the law and that makes implementing legislation extremely problematic (Islam, 2014, p.6). The word public in the Article 28(2) of the Constitution is the explanation of the riddle which means that equality is guaranteed through the constitution in the spheres of state and public life. This means that in the private or personal sphere women are pretty much on their own. This results women’s personal and family life to remain outside the jurisdiction of constitutional guarantee.  The guardianship of children, as an example of the patriarchal interpretation of law, typically belongs to the husband or to an older male family member. The mother has only the duty to care for the sons until they attain seven years, and to care for the daughters until marriage (Islam, 2014, p.6).

2.    Socio-Economic Status
In Bangladesh socio-cultural and economic conditions tend to put women in a less favourable position. Despite women are playing an important role in the society, in a male dominant society, like Bangladesh, the status of women depends on the gender. The girl children often suffer the worst kind of discrimination with respect to their basic human necessities, such as, intra household distribution of food, clothes and access to education (Islam, 2007, p.27). Many women in Bangladesh are living as second class citizens. Their jobs are confined within looking after men’s house, doing housework and taking care of the children. They do not have their own choice and cannot exercise agency in making decisions about their own life.
The practical dominance shows the deplorable condition of women in the matter of dower, maintenance and inheritance. Let alone the getting of dower/Mohr at the time of marriage, women have to endure the oppression of dowry—a curse for the society. Instead of employment they have to fight for their proper maintenance from their husbands. Instead of better education, they have to fight with the early marriage. The rural poor feel anxious getting their daughters married, so they try to arrange a girl’s marriage as early as possible (Islam, 2014, p.6). A study shows that fathers are very happy with having male children. Because a family that consists of more male children has a better chance to get more money by way of dowry (Alim, 2015). This curse of dowry is not only an issue of marriage ceremony rather it runs as long as life. Almost 75% of gender violence happens as the outcome of dowry demand (ed. Rahman, 2000, 111).
The patriarchal society thrusts women to be subordinate, dependent and dominated and even creates obstacles to access power and resources. Men think that women are their property, dictate their sexual activity and treat them as a commodity rather than as a human being. Because of this kind of social structure, most of the women have the mentality to tolerate torture and to permit impliedly inhumane treatment to them (Farouk, 2005). Hence, in societies constructed and dominated by men, men have been enjoying and enforcing a superior status while women have continued to remain subjugated and subjected to all the associated disadvantages and sufferings. There may have been some exceptions here and there in history but by and large this has remained basically true till today around the world (Ahmad, 2014, p.08).
Although the situation has started to become better, this happens at a very slow speed (Hasin, 2005). Neal Walker, the UN resident Coordinator to Bangladesh (2011-2014) states about the real picture of women’s status, “Bangladesh is an interesting country-case where major milestones have been achieved in women’s empowerment and gender equality, particularly in achieving parity in primary education. Yet, much remains to be done. For instance, over 60% of all women continue to face at least one form of violence during their lifespan” (Walker, 2013).

3. Religious Status
Bangladesh is a country in which socio-legal structural entities are strongly influenced by religious values. Islam, the religion which governs 88% population of Bangladesh, plays a vital role in structuring the normative rules and ideology of the family issues in Bangladesh. Islam places the provision of women empowerment on the agenda by giving them their actual right to property enshrined in the Quran. There are eight female Quranic heirs out of twelve and women also become the full legal owner of the property inherited and can transfer it according to their own choice. Moreover, Islamic family law narrates the provision of dower/Mohr and maintenance to guarantee the empowerment of women in their respective arena.
The male and female dynamics in Islam are such that there is equality of sexes in the spiritual life.  However, Islam contains an ambivalent massage concerning the equity of the sexes in the worldly affairs and social relationship between people (Monsoor, 2008, p.12).  Islamic law justifies gender differentiations on the ground of creation and nature, giving special rights and duties to both male and female (Muthhari, 1981, pp. 113-123). Islam does not believe in the concept of sexual equality which ignores the natural differences and normal aptitudes between men and women, rather it regards man and women as complementary to each other (Siddiqui, 1966, pp.21-22).
Though there are some anomalies in the practical Hindu law in Bangladesh about the women’s property rights, the State filled this lacuna by constitutional guarantees. However, religious norms and respective personal laws towards the women are, reportedly, being violated. Women are not given their granted rights and status under personal law by the dominant patriarchal system.  These are instances of patriarchal arbitrariness of Bangladeshi society, which regards women’s claim to their rights as challenging to the existence of patriarchal system itself, despite the fact that these claims are based on Islamic obligations or official law (Monsoor, 2008, p.16). Religious dogmas and misconceptions are worsening the situation.
The major problem of the family law, both religious and statutory law, system in Bangladesh appears to be that it does not take into account the reality of the social conditions, particularly, women’s concern about freedom from economic deprivation (Monsoor, 2008, p.13).
Fatwa or expert opinion on religious matters is becoming one of the aggressive social practices against women.  In theory, Fatwa is the system of seeking expert opinion on a disputed religious matter from a highly learned Islamic scholar. In practice, it is being misused by village leaders with the aid of local Mullahs or people with nominal or operational knowledge of Islam. Practical examples suggest that Fatwa is being used for legitimating rapes, extramarital sexual relations of husbands, husband’s torture on wife and so forth. While Fatwa is permitted in religious issues only but, in practice, it is arbitrarily being used outside the religious issues where State laws sufficiently deal with. The real scenario of this so-called Fatwa is that women are the common victims of Fatwa and the real perpetrators are released. The practice of this so-called Fatawa as seen in Bangladesh has been severely criticised by many prominent Islamic scholars.

3.4    Law, Religion and Practice and the Famous Kite Theory explained
The religion and the constitution of Bangladesh evidently guarantee certain rights of women. But the patriarchal understanding of the law continues the supremacy of patriarchal attitudes (Mundial, 1990, P.79). Study shows that 56% husbands do not maintain their wives. The same study also shows that 53% of rural women and 30% urban are deprived of their inheritance rights. The study also found that 9.1% urban women go to the courts for realizing their rights whereas rural women depend on family compromise and 0% goes to the courts (Monsoor, 2008, pp.12-18).
If we consider Professor Werner F. Menski’s (Professor of South Asian Laws, School of Law, SOAS University of London) famous ‘Kite Model of Legal Pluralism’ (Menski, 2011) the significance of social structure and practice in gender dynamics will be easy to understand. The aforesaid theory imagines a society as a flying kite of which the corner no. 2 signs for society, corner no. 1 is for religion, corner no.3 is for state and corner no. 4 is for Human rights.  The kite model shows the interconnectedness of men and women and, thus, demands a balancing act between the respective expectations of men and women, rather than a gender war.
If we start from corner 2 as the dominant socio-legal reality, a male decision-maker would still need to consider the other corners. Corner 3 suggests that there should be gender equality (Article 28 of the constitution). Corner 4 advises that the human rights of women need to be protected. Corner 1, for Muslims, clearly states that women have their own independent rights, but are expected to work together with men to follow the right path. The male members of the society desire to curtail and restrict female rights, especially rights to independent property, easily slips into denial of women’s empowerment. We can see that we can never include corner no. 2 in defining the rights and duties of individuals as members of social groups.
Legal changes, which the country has now implemented, are often a necessary step to institute gender equality, but not necessarily sufficient to mitigate the prevailing problems and create lasting changes. Addressing the gaps between what the law proscribes and what actually occurs often requires broad, integrated campaigns (Srivastava, 2009). It is this control-focused mindset that needs to be changed by education and more balanced treatment of the ‘women question’.

Women empowerment in Bangladesh has attained commendable success over the past two decades in the political arena. The key positions in government, the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, are both occupied by women. But it should be remembered that only political participation of women at the top does not ensure the rights of all women, rather it is a stepping stone to achieve guaranteed rights. At the end of the day it is only the patriarchal society which plays the key role to ensure women’s empowerment in all spheres of life. This is because decision making processes about such relationships are made at social level, and as we know, this involves much discretion, which may easily be misused to the detriment of women.
There is no single way of proper implementation of laws and policies to achieve gender equity. What is more, to some extent, our laws and policies are sufficiently enacted in line with the international laws and conventions to address the empowerment of women and gender equality. But in reality, theory and practice hardly walk hand in hand. We have failed to make our way out to optimize our legal norms into the social practice. It is our actions or inactions that render our laws and policies unimplemented and useless. The male-dominated society, at the one hand, keeps violating women’s rights either under the disguise of religion or veil of women’s security question, and leaves laws and policies unimplemented by simply unheeding the issue or not bringing them within action plans and policy implementations. Social justice for women—having the same significance as justice from the broader sense—is, thus, remained vulnerable. Therefore, we are being deprived of from the fruits of social justice—in particular, a balanced society in which economic development is achieved in full swing with the participation of both, male and female, and outcomes of development is enjoyed by all without any discriminations. So empowerment of women should be our primary agenda at hand. We should penetrate the age old patriarchal social structure through our extensive action plans and policy implementation programs.  Government is primarily responsible for creating an environment to respect and guarantee women’s rights through its legal, administrative, judicial mechanisms.  Other actors, such as, NGOs, civil society, media, academicians and so forth assume a large responsibility to cooperate government and to further the issue of social justice and human rights for women by empowering them.