Saturday, June 30, 2012

The other side of the coin

In India, one of the general complaints made by the opposition parties is that Government keeps pampering the minorities. All the reforms and rules for social behaviour, that are enacted by the Government, normally concern the Hindu majority and all the minorities such as Muslims or Christians, are left to decide their norms of social and religious customs or behaviour by themselves, even if it means that a grave injustice is being done to some intra-society group like women.

I was quite amazed to find out that exactly reverse thing is happening in Muslim majority Bangladesh, where Bangladeshi Hindus are in minority. Bangladesh has secular laws and legal system except for matters related to inheritance, marriage and divorce. Majority Muslims follow the sharia law. However , Hindus in Bangladesh follow laws based on ancient customs that have been never even codified like India. Bangladeshi Hindu marriages are not allowed to be officially registered in the first place. As a consequence Hindu women neither can divorce their husbands nor inherit any property from in-laws. If a Bangladeshi Hindu man walks out on a marriage, the wife is not able to sue him for alimony or maintenance because the marriage is not registered and there are no papers that can prove that they were married at all. Thousands of Hindu men in Bangladesh manage to keep multiple wives since they can not be prosecuted. Complete lack of any rights for Bangladeshi Hindu women is forcing many Hindu women to unwanted jobs and extreme poverty, after they are dumped by their husbands.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh recently approved a new law that will introduce official marriage registration for minority Hindus in a move, which can protect the rights of married women. The legislation is expected to be passed shortly in parliament and has been welcomed by civil rights activists and many Hindu women. Bangladesh law Minister, Shafique Ahmed says that the new legislation would cut down on polygamy, which is on the rise among Hindu males, and ensure maintenance rights for women, whose partners have left them. He says that it is not possible for the Government to reform Hindu personal laws because of the stiff opposition from Hindu hardliners, who are even opposed to registration of marriages in spite of having many learned people amongst their ranks. According to him the Government of Bangladesh is hamstrung by hard-line Hindu activists who oppose changes to the law.,

Response of the Hindu hardliners from Bangladesh is stunningly similar to what hard core Muslims come out in India to any proposal from Indian Government. Radical Hindu activists in Bangladesh reject any reforms that go against so called scriptures or traditions and put forward a theory that divorce could threaten the basic foundation of the Hindu family. Mr. Hiren Biswas, the president of the Samaj Sangskar Parishad group of Bangladesh says “We don’t mind optional registration because Hindu couples sometimes need the marriage certificate when they travel. But we won’t accept mandatory registration, or divorce and inheritance rights to women because our scriptures and customs don’t allow them,” and very much like hardcore Muslims from India, adds that proposed new law was a conspiracy hatched by foreign-funded charities.

In Bangladesh, legal activism by women and rights groups have forced the Government to make new laws or amend old archaic personal laws for Muslim women. They can divorce and seek damages for break-ups or sue their partners. Hindu women of Bangladesh, who in the initial years after partition in 1947, suffered widespread persecution and religious discrimination, were bypassed by the new rights. After the new laws are passed by Parliament, Bangladeshi Hindus , who make up 10 percent of the country’s 152 million population, will be able to register their marriages with local councils or courts for the first time.

Many organizations fighting for the rights of Hindu women feel that new laws are only a token gesture to placate mainstream Hindu women without angering Hindu men, who are generally the voters for the Awami League, the current ruling party. Nina Goswami, director of the respected rights group, Ain O Salish Kendra. Says that “Unfortunately, these women don’t exist in the government’s eyes and ears, to our politicians, the Hindu community is a big vote-bank, made up of only males.”

The situation between India and Bangladesh is so similar that we only need to change India for Bangladesh and Muslim for Hindu and the present problems faced by Bangladeshi Hindu women would appear as if these are problems faced by Muslim minority women of India. They also face issues like triple 'Talaque' , alimony and inheritance.

It becomes so clear that minority women situation in Bangladesh is just a mirror image of the minority women situation in India, only the religions are different. To improve the lot of these minority women more pragmatic thinking and action by the minorities themselves, is required. The Government in both cases can precisely do very little.

30 June 2012

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