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Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ's hartal – Concluding Part


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By rahnuma ahmed

It was only Muslim communities in the urban centres of Punjab characterised by a market or money economy, who followed the Sharia precepts of property and inheritance. Since Muslims in India are overwhelmingly Sunnis, this meant adherence to the Hanafi school of Islamic law.
But the overwhelming majority of Punjabi Muslims (rural, peasants), prior to the British annexation of Punjab, led lives fundamentally similar to that led by non-Muslims, with the exception of rites performed at birth, marriage, and death: a call for azan whispered to a new-born Muslim child. Kolma instead of shaat-paak ghora signified Muslim marriages. Corpses were buried instead of being cremated.
Muslims and non-Muslims led similar lives, what does this mean? It meant that during Sikh rule in the Punjab, the members of the joint family were bound together by a common interest and a common right. They conducted their affairs within defined conditions, in accordance with certain rules. The individual, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, could not alienate land because it was not his alone to alienate. He could not enter into individual contractual relations with others because he had nothing of his own to pledge or offer, as Asad notes in his highly perceptive study of the changes wrought by British colonisation in the Punjabi Muslim family structure (1961). Individual obligations therefore did not arise. Daughters did not normally have a share in the inheritance because strictly speaking there was no inheritance which devolved, there were only statuses of closely-related adult men (based on blood ties, baap, chacha) to which adult males succeeded.
What was life like in the villages? How was social life organised? Rights to landed property, says Asad, were distributed in accordance with definite principles within a precise kin-group. It was, in a certain sense, “owned” by the lineage, but held and worked by the joint family (equivalent to Bengali notion of joutho poribar). It was the joint family, as a whole, that comprised the work and consumption unit. The head of the local descent group (goshti) was the undisputed controller : all members together formed a single economic and legal unit. The oldest male member was its head. If relations between sisters-in-law grew strained, a separate hearth might be set up, the wife would then prepare meals for her husband and children separately, but food rations would still be taken from the common stock (joutho bhandar). It did not change the manner in which farm work was organised as male members continued to till the land together. Marriage was an affair that involved the entire joint families of bride and groom. It did not mean the setting up of a separate hearth, on the contrary, the daughter-in-law was inducted into the joint household. Bride-price (the Bengali correlate is pon) was given by the groom’s family to the bride’s; with its transfer, the wife belonged to the husband’s joint family. A widow, whether chaste or co-habiting with her deceased husband’s brother (debor) or a patrilineal cousin was entitled to life-long maintenance, losing this right only if she were to re-marry outside the descent group (I have written about this in one of my earlier pieces albeit not in the context of property, see `The familial order, not easily undone,’ New Age, September 22, 2008).?

Reflections on Women Development Policy and IOJ's hartal – PART IV


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By, rahnuma ahmed

I had ended last week’s column (Part III, April 9, 2011) with these lines, What I find striking is how few women?s organisations, human rights and cultural activists are willing to publicly condemn the war on terror zealots, as they do the religious zealots. I had raised the question, is it odd to ask, what holds them back?
An unstated reasoning, seemingly, is that any condemnation of the `war on terror’ will further embolden those characterised as religious zealots, but this, to say the least,? is problematic. It is unethical. It makes our silence complicitous in international war crimes, in a context where people of conscience the world over have been demanding the trial?not assassination Abottabad-style?of George Bush Jr., Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair, aka `Bliar,’ for nearly a decade. In present Bangladesh, as various political and social forces align and re-align themselves in their efforts to re-fashion a secular order, one notices two different streams, one, more prominent than the other due to the power structures in which it is embedded, which through its silence on WOT may be regarded as friendly towards imperialist forces, the other, more fragmentary, articulated by left parties and left-leaning intellectuals, which is critical of imperial invasion and occupation. The latter includes parties such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Workers Party (electoral allies of the ruling Awami League), Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal, and intellectual-activists, such as, Badruddin Umar, Farhad Mazhar, Anu Muhammad, Salimullah Khan, Nurul Kabir.
One would have liked to see leaders and activists belonging to the women’s movement taking a principled stand too. To see them express their solidarity with the sufferings of women in US `occupied territories’ (Afghanistan, Iraq), and in Palestine. It should have come forth easily because of our experience of 1971, particularly, because of the women’s movement’s acute awareness of the gender-specific impact of war, summed up beautifully in the words, narir ekattur. It is the name given to an edited collection of oral histories recounted by women who survived 1971, a collection markedly pluralistic through its inclusion of Bengali and adibashi/indigenous women, and women of diverse religious backgrounds, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists etc. (researched and published by Ain o Salish Kendra, 2001). `Women’s 1971′ thus is more than a mere book title, it encapsulates a perspective instead, from within which Bangladeshi women/feminist authors, researchers, artists and film-makers have developed critiques of masculinist accounts which glorify the 9 month long liberation struggle, the sacrifices made (only) by Bengalis. War impinges on all women’s lives. But despite our tales of suffering being distressingly similar to those of women living under US occupation now? ?deaths, of husband, children, other family members, economic ruin, sexual assault, rape, fleeing from home, becoming refugees overnight, turning to prostitution to survive, to support children, to feed maimed male family members?expressions of solidarity with women elsewhere, are yet to occur.