Most of us are familiar with terms like ‘born free’, ‘birth right’, and ‘freedom of speech’; but how many of us are actually entitled to it? The concept of freedom varies from person to person; for some it may mean travelling on their own, for others it may simply mean being comfortable within their surroundings.
Despite being deemed as a developing nation, the masses in Bangladesh are still striving to achieve freedom; particularly women. In the wake of this ordeal, some of our women leaders evaluate what it truly means to be ‘free’ as a woman in Bangladesh. In conversation with Human Rights Activist, Khushi Kabir, Lawyer, Sara Hossain and Lawyer and Human Rights Activist, Sultana Kamal, to learn about why women’s freedom and rights continues to take a backseat in our society.
Setting It Straight
By Farasha Sayeed
Photograph by Kazi Mukul
Sultana Kamal, lawyer and human rights’ activist, enlightens us with the key aspects and drawbacks of women’s freedom in Bangladesh.
Advocate Sultana Kamal has been working tirelessly for the rights of women in our country. She feels that although women in Bangladesh have come a long way in terms of professional freedom – exemplifying our honorable prime minister, leader of the opposition and speaker, women in high positions in the civil administration and the army, in business and other entrepreneurship – there is a long way to go in terms of personal freedom for women here. “If we judge by the professional standards, I think we even gain attention from the world in the way our women have emancipated despite our many complexities and lack of resources. Our constitution also guarantees women’s rights in the public life. However, quite interestingly, it remains silent when it comes to their private entity. Women in Bangladesh are still governed by personal laws which are discriminatory against women, regardless of which religion the law is derived from.” Sultana feels the existence of the old age idea of social division of labor which states that women should work at home and men work in the external area means that even if women can contribute a lot in the public arena, the fact that they are not relieved from their domestic responsibilities manages to restrain them from doing so. Sultana suggests that there should be a transformation in the idea of arrangement of domestic responsibilities so that women can be unburdened from this struggle between their public and private life.
Women in Bangladesh are still governed by personal laws which are discriminatory against women, regardless of which religion the law is derived from.
In order to move away from gender biases, people at every level have to be informed about and committed to women’s equality, she feels. There should be a committed understanding of the concept of gender equality at the family level that will permeate to the state level understanding of men-women relationship. Vice versa, she states, “the discriminating attitude towards women is informed by cultural and religious ideas which are quite often patronised by state. If the state refrains from that with the expected determination, it will filter down through policies, acts and rules to the social level to bring about a change in the overall mindset.”
The question of protection is something which Sultana feels should not only apply for women. “If there is a situational need for safety and special protection, it is the right of the women to receive it. However, protection should not be used as a tool to keep women at a disadvantaged position.” The concept of freedom is always subjective to a particular individual. “For me, freedom means the ability to decide for myself what I want to do without having to depend on others in all aspects of my life- personal, social, economic and political.” Unfortunately a woman’s life essentially is defined as dependent on her male counterpart at every stage. One of the main barriers in our country now is the cultural mindset that discriminates against women, and the other is the state’s role in it. “The state is bound by Constitutional obligations to create an atmosphere where women will feel free. As I mentioned earlier, the personal laws which are based on religion, do not really take into account women’s equal rights in the personal life. The state should be absolutely transparent shaking off all its ambivalence regarding women’s equal rights to facilitate enabling conditions in which women can enjoy freedom.” Unequal rights in the private life will automatically result in women being unable to take advantage of the public liberty guaranteed to them by our Constitution in the public life. So this vicious cycle often ends up in women having the short end of both sticks.
Our personal laws are based on religion, and unfortunately all the laws are discriminatory with women. Sultana cites some strong examples. “When it comes to divorce, it is still very difficult and cumbersome for Muslim women to initiate a divorce. In many cases, they fail to receive the mahr and right to custody of their children. For Hindu women, religious laws don’t allow women to get divorced at all. The sad truth is that there has been no amendment to these laws except for one back in 1961, where Muslim women were finally granted the right to divorce; even then it was still a delegated right by the husband and not an inherent right.”
As specified by the advocate, women’s freedom is still an elusive forte in our country even seventeen years into the new millennium. Women like her who have worked hard to build the groundwork for improvement in this field are themselves strong examples of the final goal they strive for. Sultana states, “globally Bangladesh has created a niche for itself by having emancipated women regardless of its state as a developing country or its lack of resources. A few changes in the society’s mindset and equality for all irrespective of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth entailing reforms in some of our discriminatory laws are just what we need to achieve a liberating life for our women.”
One With the Law
By Natasha Rahman
We are a nation that has fought to be where we are today. How much progress have women made in terms of personal and professional freedom?
I think we have made enormous progress, especially in the last 5 years. Due to a combination of important initiatives taken by the government in the last 5 years, we have seen a significant growth when it comes to prioritising women’s development over this period. For example we have seen real change in the number of women entering education, and joining professions that used to be only male-dominated. We see many more women visible in varied professions, whether its law or technology, public government positions and civil service. It is safe to say that there has been progress, but there are still areas where lies many barriers. The important thing is that we fought to be where we are today so we should keep fighting for that and continue to pursue our dreams.
We see many more women visible in varied professions, whether its law or technology, public government positions and civil service. It is safe to say that there has been progress, but there are still areas where lies many barriers
Gender biases are affecting women’s identity in the country. How do you think we can move away from these biases to have a more equal society?
I think we need to focus a lot more on identifying the kind of biases that occur and the places that it occurs in. To illustrate with an example, in Bangladesh, we see huge gender biases within a family just from being a girl and the kind of limited opportunities she has. On the brighter side, we also see girls break through these conventions. Playing outdoor sports such as cricket and volleyball are recent developments. However, we still see in many places that girls don’t get a chance to play sports for a longer period of time on a national level. There are biases that assume that girls have to behave in particular ways, and they can’t express their desires or choices particularly, in cases of marriage and sexuality and those also hold us back from having an equal society. Women’s right to own property for example or to have control over their own finances is again another case of limitation which comes from these biases. First and foremost, we need to find out where these ideas occur and how, and we need to identify the consequences of these biases. We need to eradicate these notions through the law but in many cases changing just the law isn’t enough. In some cases, the law is the cause of the bias. For example rights within the family or right to hold property through inheritance, and family laws based on religion are a major source of the bias. But, in many cases it’s the practices, behaviour and attitude that need to be changed.
“Women need protection, not freedom” – what is your stance on this?
I agree with this completely. One attitude that is holding us back is the attitude that women need to be protected; that women are weak and vulnerable and somehow having some stronger gender protecting us against things that we don’t know are even endangering us will improve the situation. I think that concept itself is problematic and we have seen too many instances where in the name of protection, women’s rights are taken away. To give you one previous example which has changed now- we used to have a practice where, women, who were victims of violence, rape or trafficking, would be put into what was called safe custody for their own protection and be held in jails. It was incredibly abusive. One of the first cases that I ever dealt with was a woman who was kept chained and handcuffed in a jail hospital on the grounds that she was a victim and she needed protection. Hence cases like this make you really think about the idea of freedom. So the first issue that should be raised is to ask a women what she wants and then ensure that that is possible, rather than deciding for her what she might need and providing protection based on your own assumptions. Of course, protection in the sense of security is important but the security to be free is as essential as well. However, that doesn’t mean securing a woman against her choices, or limiting her; it means ensuring that there are general conditions in society for example lighting on the street, or ensuring that men who harass/stalk women on the street get stopped. I think for us to move forward this is very much the right approach for Bangladesh.
Two Steps towards Progression
By Mehrin Mubdi Chowdhury
Photograph by Kazi Mukul
Khushi Kabir is one name that embodies the very spirit of socioeconomic empowerment amongst women in all spheres of life. From being actively involved with women in the rural community to challenging anti-people policies, the iron lady has done it all.
According to Khushi, much has changed in Bangladesh, especially after our country became an independent nation. The inclusion of women in the workforce goes to show that not only is Bangladesh heading towards progression, but it is also open to gender-equality. “Back in the early 80s and even in the 90s, we didn’t get to see many women outside their homes; but after the millennium, things have taken a rapid turn; mobility for women has increased significantly.
“For things to change women need to have their wishes and dreams fulfilled. They need to have a strong support system that looks at them as individuals deserving freedom like any other”
In the past, women were considered bad luck, had they walked barefoot through crop fields, but today there are so many women serving in agriculture alongside men,” observes Khushi. But Khushi says that, this progress is just a thin veil over a grim issue that is still prevalent in Bangladesh. The subject of women’s safety is still an arguable debate in our country. Not only are women still viewed as a burden for their families, but the idea of marriage is still considered a primary goal in a woman’s life.
It has almost become a part of the psyche, but the saddest part is there’s no security – in marriage, either. “For things to change women need to have their wishes and dreams fulfilled. They need to have a strong support system that looks at them as individuals deserving freedom like any other,” she stresses.
Khushi believes that it’s the state’s duty to ensure safety and protection for women. They need freedom and there is just no conditionality to this term. “In order to change this mindset, we need to begin discussions with men first. The process needs to begin early in our lives especially inside our homes, at our schools and in the workplace. Women also have a huge role to play here, they need to get out of their comfort zones and voice their troubles. Change cannot be made, if we are not ready to help ourselves.”
Over the years, our society has witnessed women bearing the brunt of unhappy marriages and spousal abuse just due to lack of support from loved ones. Another law that creates a stark difference between men and women is the one on inheritance laws.
“Until and unless we have a uniform family code, women will always feel neglected! Countries which are predominantly Muslim, have already adopted the uniform family laws to ensure safety and equality to their women. In a world where we have yet been unable to free ourselves from intersectional dilemma, the existing patriarchy in our society will continue to bring women down,” with it, Khushi ends her monologue.