While Muslim orthodoxy continues to stonewall any attempt at reform, neighbouring Bangladesh contemplates sweeping changes in family laws
Divorce may no longer be such a traumatic experience for women in Bangladesh. If the country adopts the Uniform Family code (UFC), women will have a greater say in marriage, divorce, maintenance, inheritance and child custody. The proposed uniform family code seeks to reform existing family laws to make them more humane and beneficial to women. By reforming laws to end discrimination against women in these matters, the UFC seeks to give equal rights to women belonging to all religions.
The UFC, which is presently under consideration by the government, is the brainchild of the Bangladesh Mahila Parishad (BMP). The BMP has been working for women’s rights over the last 30 years. “We realised that women are subject to oppression and discrimination in matters relating to personal rights. They are also denied access to opportunities for development, despite the Constitution guaranteeing equality to men and women,” explains Ayesha Khanam, general secretary, BMP.
Since they provided legal aid, BMP members were conversant with all laws, particularly those relating to women. According to Khanam, although 85 per cent of the population in the country is Muslim, the demand for a uniform family code cuts across all religions. “Although laws for women do exist, like the Cruelty to Women Ordinance, Dowry Prohibition Act, and the Family Court Ordinance, structural weaknesses limit their efficacy,” contends Khanam. It is these limitations that the UFC hopes to redress.
In the first part, which deals with marriage and divorce, the UFC makes it mandatory for every marriage and divorce to be registered. It also lays down the minimum age of marriage for boys at 22 years and for girls at 18. “Many girls are married as soon as they reach puberty, sometimes even earlier. These are rarely, if at all, registered. So the girls are deprived of their rights if they are abandoned or divorced by their husbands. If marriages and divorces are registered, it will give women legal grounds to get what is rightfully theirs,” points out barrister–at–law Tania Amir.
In a bid towards gender equality, the UFC gives women equal rights to property acquired during the course of the marriage. The UFC also outlines grounds for divorce for both men and women. While there are eight grounds on which men can claim divorce, women have 10.
Besides the usual reasons like immorality, impotency, and physical and mental torture for which women can claim divorce, the UFC also puts down dowry demands as a valid ground. Inability to pay maintenance for two years or disappearing for the same period also gives women reason to demand divorce. In fact, even if the husband is addicted to drugs of any sort, divorce claims are valid. A husband can also ask for a divorce in the event of his wife being a drug addict.
However, although the UFC gives husbands the right to seek divorce if the wife is a lesbian, it does not give women the same right if their husbands are gay. Says Khanam, “This aspect could be looked into later. We first want men and women to understand that a woman cannot be divorced merely on the whims of her husband. The reasons have to be in accordance with the laws. Women are often taken for a ride because of their ignorance.”
In the second part, the UFC provides for maintenance to become compulsory and uniform, thus transcending religious customs and traditional laws. While laying down the grounds for maintenance, it also outlines the course of action that can be taken if the maintenance amount is not paid.
“The number of abandoned women is on the rise,” contends Farida Arif, executive director of the SERWTCI Trust, a quasi-governmental body that looks after the socio–economic development of distressed women.
“Organisations like ours try to make women economically independent. But if maintenance becomes their right by law, their aspirations for self–sufficiency will become greater and reduce their dependency on others,” says Arif.
The third part of the UFC deals with the appointment of guardians of minors and lays out eligibility conditions for guardians and their duties and rights. It also provides for regulating the conduct of guardians if they act against the welfare of the minor or the property they have been nominated to protect.
The uniform law of adoption forms the fourth part of the UFC. It simplifies adoption procedures for married couples. But it has still not made a provision allowing single women or men to adopt children if they so desire.
The most important aspect of the UFC is the uniform law of inheritance. Property rights are often the most contentious. This law lays down that women, whether married or unmarried, shall have equal rights to property. In fact, it also makes provisions for children born out of wedlock — it gives them the right to their maternal property.
“Property rights are one of the most important tools for empowering women. This helps them control their resources and become independent,” avers Aroma Dutta, chief of the PRIP Trust, a Dhaka–based non–governmental organisation (NGO) working towards women’s empowerment.
New dreams and aspirations are stirring within Bangladeshi women. Education is helping more women realise that they are entitled to certain rights under the Constitution. But since structural contradictions of laws still exist, reforms are imperative to make these dreams come true.
Women’s organisations pushing for the UFC have received considerable political support, not just from the coalition parties in power but also from the Opposition led by former premier Begum Zia. Since a woman Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is in the saddle at present, hopes are high that the Uniform Family Code will be adopted soon.
Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2001 Year 8 No. 69, Cover Story 5