Today, Ukraine reminds us how helpless a nation or its people can be. On the one hand, there is global solidarity, and on the other hand, innocent lives are lost. If carefully examined, one realizes there are synonymous injustices in many parts of the world; those just don’t make global news. A closer eye to home keeps me sleepless – the systemic deprivation of Hindu daughters from their inheritance in Bangladesh.
The issue of land rights is usually correlated with land ownership and gender-based violence, hence, gender inequity. It is a global problem, particularly in low and middle-income countries. In Bangladesh, the complexity runs much deeper as it involves economically vulnerable religious and ethnic minority women in Bangladesh. In other words, the minority of the minority. I am one of these women. So, how can words express decades of disappointment or equate the loss impacting generations? To speak for myself, I can say, my loved ones failed me, and my community failed me. Yet, I must not succumb to the tyranny of the majority and remain voiceless. This cause is greater than myself. It is time that I dive deeper into my values and demonstrate that I have what it takes to face the challenge and pursue the much-needed reform.
The existing laws and practices in Bangladesh act as instruments to subjugate and victimize women. Domestic violence is rampant in Bangladesh. However, it is much more rampant in the marginalised and minority communities because women have nowhere to turn to. Economically dependent women mean they rely on their fathers, brothers and husbands even when they are abusive or engaged in polygamy and when they are not providing for the family. For instance, elderly widows are not adequately provided for by the sons simply because there isn’t any legal right ensuring care or mechanism ensuring the sons’ accountability.
Female self-sacrifice and self-harm are also idealized and encouraged. This manifests when the wife starves to feed the husband and the daughter is given less food because the male child has to stay well-nourished. Simple and very preventable cases of malnourishment and complications related to reproductive health is indicative of the social position women hold in our communities and an aspect of gender-based violence in Bangladesh.
Deliberate hunger or poverty is a form of violence. Nobel Laureate Professor Amartya Sen examined women in South Asia where he found them to be missing. He labelled them as “missing women.” These women are missing, and census can’t account for them. They went missing due to intentional deprivation and malnourishment.
Land, property and inheritance laws and regulations are discriminatory towards women of all diversity. Women are treated inferior compared to the male counterpart in most instances. In this hostile patriarchal climate, women are expected to survive when their education and economic independence are not encouraged. Hindu women don’t have any legal claim to their father’s or husband’s property. The same law applies to other religious and ethnic minorities including the Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and indigenous groups. Socially, we have not reached a stage where we are discussing and considering the rights of the LGBTQ community.
In depriving women of their ownership rights, they are often evicted from their land or property, harassed and attacked leading to GBV. Or, the situation initiates through GBV and leads to ultimate eviction and adverse possession. This is true of women who are dispossessed by their father, brother, son, in-laws and their communities. Others target religious minority women because they are vulnerable and easy preys. If a woman leaves her abusive husband, she is communally isolated. If a women protests or claims her right, she is labelled as greedy. The religious philosophy, the patriarchal toxicity, the customs and the norms, the practices and the sisterhood that exists in being deprived, exists both in the Hindu community and other religious and ethnic minority communities in Bangladesh.
I work to restore freedom, human rights and human dignity of religious and ethnic minority women in Bangladesh by attempting to reform laws of inheritance. These laws are governed by personal law based on the religion of the concerned person. This means that Muslim women are governed by the Shariah Law where daughters and wives are entitled to a portion of the property from the father or husband with a legal claim to the property albeit significantly less than the sons. When we turn our eyes to the Hindu women in Bangladesh, the scenario is strikingly different and ghastly discriminatory. I speak as a victim, and I speak as an advocate of women’s economic freedom. My journey is trying to reform the archaic laws is a tough one but is a true test of my character and this defines who I am and the legacy I intend to leave behind.
In the past recent years, the Awami League Government in Bangladesh has taken several steps to legislate and equalise women’s inheritance rights but was faced with opposition from the Hindu community itself. Minority-led organisations prevented any bill to be introduced at the Parliament. Women were not involved in the process at all. Some of the members from these minority-led religious organizations have been quoted saying, “Our women don’t want property. This is something the activists are making up.” From a deep sense of negligence, I have to admit that it has been around 51 years of independence of Bangladesh and there are strong human rights advocates from the religious minority community. Yet, I have not seen any of them raising their voices against this issue that occurs in our own homes. It is almost as if they just want the play to go on. They don’t want the curtains raised for the audience to see how toxic and regressive their own mindset is and also their fathers and brothers. I want to say that women are perpetrators in this. As if they feel a certain sense of pride in maintaining the toxic patriarchal norms.
Moreover, there is a general lack of awareness among the population of the importance of land rights or ownership because land is an important commodity, and it is associated with luxury or abundance. Reality is different. At the grassroots level, land is the source of livelihood for many religious and ethnic minority women in Bangladesh and specially for groups like farmers. So, when these vulnerable women lose the land they own, if they own, that is, there is no access to resources for help or no support network for women with land issues. Authorities and/or agencies or communities predominantly regress to patriarchy. Women as land owners are not encouraged socially. So, how does such a nation promote democracy? It is a false positive!
Commonly, cases are not registered at the local police stations and instead, law and enforcement agencies encourage private settlement. I have even witnessed it for rape cases. So, how do you negotiate and claim your right when you are negotiating with your own family members and you have no legal claim to anything? Women simply don’t have the bargaining power. We see videos floating in social media of minority women’s land forcefully possessed with lack of action from the police. These incidents rarely make national headlines. Because these women are disposable. I am disposable.
When a woman is not recognized as a lawful owner in her own community, how can one expect that she will have a voice when she’s attacked by land-grabbers? There are plenty of cases where the women and their daughters have been raped or physically assaulted to the point it became possible for the assailants to drive them out of the household and take possession of it. Land-grabbing is an issue the government and the religious-minority communities have been trying to address since 1971 and especially when it comes to vested properties. So, gender-based violence is used as a means of systemic coercion and physical violence. My own narrative or my other stories are true for women at all their diversity.
From a legal standpoint, India amended the discriminatory provisions of the Hindu Succession Act 1956 in 2005. This has been followed by further supportive caselaw including Vineeta Sharma v Rakesh Sharma. Bangladesh, despite considering India to be a strong legislative reference, hasn’t managed to achieve that. We did witness a case where a favourable decision was held in the favour of a Hindu widow. There is a greater need for state intervention with community involvement. Equality of women at all their diversity in land ownership is still a far cry.
I am pursuing legislative reform to give religious and ethnic minority women equality in land, property and inheritance rights. It is a journey through ‘Agnipath’, the path of fire. As the poet, Harivansh Rai Bachchan says, I must walk on this path of fire with tears, sweat and blood: undelayed, unturned and unrested. This is my oath to myself and to the countless, faceless women whose existence have been disposed of!
Isn’t the war in Ukraine an unescapable allegory? Just like the brave souls defending human freedom in Ukraine, I am a soldier on the ground battling for justice and trying to save myself and my sisters from a social and legal disease that has plagued my community for centuries. I am alone, unarmed and socially isolated. Yet, I am challenging this systemic deprivation of women through the use of archaic and oppressive laws. Like Senator John McCain, I choose to keep this battle above my own self-interests and just like him, I am trying to do the right thing.