By Tahmima Anam
March 5, 2014
It’s fine to call yourself a feminist in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s even encouraged.
The title, earned through the work of a generation of women who heralded the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 with promises of a transformed nation, has not yet accrued the complicated history that makes it an uncomfortable label for women in the West. In London, I hear the word whispered, hedged with caveats and reservations; in Dhaka, it is shouted and sung in public forums as a riposte to the cacophonous voices of religious fundamentalism and ingrained patriarchy.
Bangladesh has made extraordinary progress in the past 43 years. By the end of the 1990s, Bangladesh had closed the gender gap in primary education, and it is now one of the few countries in the world where the number of girls in high school is greater than the number of boys. Low-cost health-care initiatives have been responsible for a significant improvement in maternal and infant mortality rates, with the maternal mortality ratio (that is, maternal deaths per 100,000 live births) reduced to 240 today from 800 in 1990.
Finally, women have entered the work force in great numbers, largely because of the growth of the garment industry — now estimated to be worth $20 billion a year. Although the industry needs to address the working conditions that led to the death of 1,129 workers in the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex last year, the fact that over three million women are in formal, paid employment in this sector alone has had a significant social impact.
This past January, at a public lecture in Mumbai, India, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen praised Bangladesh’s record on gender equality, stating that Bangladesh had surpassed India’s record “in every aspect of the human development index” because of its investment in women’s health and education. While Professor Sen is correct to praise Bangladesh — and we always enjoy outdoing our powerful neighbour — the larger issue of how near women have approached real equality is still debatable: One great obstacle stands in their way.
At the time of its drafting in 1972, Bangladesh’s Constitution was considered a remarkably progressive document. It enshrined equal rights for all citizens; it guaranteed religious freedom; it made secularism a pillar of the new nation. The Constitution’s guiding spirit reflected a prevailing desire to create a new — and better — social contract than the one left behind when the country won independence from Pakistan.
The Constitution, however, has created a barrier to women’s advancement. Article 28 states that “Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life,” but elsewhere it acknowledges Islam as the state religion and effectively enshrines the application of Islamic law in family affairs. The Constitution thus does nothing to enforce equality in private life.
Marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody are all still determined by Shariah law, which was established by legislation dating from 1937 (and amended in 1957 under Ayub Khan, president of Pakistan, which then included the territory that later became Bangladesh). Under the Muslim Personal Law, a woman is legally entitled to inherit only half of a brother’s share on the death of their parents. Whether they are pious or not, in matters of property men become sticklers for religion.
The same goes for divorce settlements. Contemplating the end of a long marriage, a friend of mine must now wait patiently while her husband decides what financial settlement he will give her. In her case, she trusts that the arrangement will be dictated by his sense of fairness, but if it is unacceptable, she has little legal recourse.
This contradiction in the Constitution — guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens while allowing women’s lives to be circumscribed by Shariah law — is a block to social progress. Bangladesh has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women — sometimes called the United Nations bill of rights for women — but has done so only with certain reservations, all stemming from the Constitution’s admission of Shariah law.
The conflict between women’s formal rights in the public sphere and their deprivation of rights in the private one is not just an issue of assets, property and child custody; it also has a strong bearing on women’s security within the home. When there is an accepted principle that family life is exempt from the standards of public life, women suffer behind closed doors.
A recent survey of over 12,000 women, conducted by the United Nations Population Fund, in partnership with the Bangladeshi government, revealed that 87 percent of women interviewed had suffered domestic violence, while one-third had experienced marital rape. Since 2010, Bangladesh has had a Domestic Violence Act, but it goes largely unenforced; there have been almost no convictions.
A constitutional amendment alone won’t be a panacea. The basic assumptions that men and women make about their respective places in society need shifting. A new initiative, introduced this week by President Abdul Hamid, aims to do just that. (My mother, Shaheen Anam, herself a feminist activist, has been involved.) Called “Equality through Dignity,” the campaign will highlight the contribution of women to society in general.
It starts with a publicity push in which famous men — national celebrities, government ministers, members of Parliament and the president himself — hold up placards saying: “I am sorry. Let’s change.”
Apologies are all very well, but the show of contrition would mean more if it were accompanied by the amendment of Bangladesh’s founding document. In the meantime, we feminists will continue to shout proudly from the rooftops — demanding that promised change.
Tahmima Anam is a writer and anthropologist, and the author of the novel “A Golden Age.”