Inequality in Inheritance for Muslim Women in Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, the inheritance law for the Muslim is maintained in accordance with Islamic Sharia which gives women half of what men get in inherited property. Any proposition to change this law has been met with serious unrest and opposition. Our research shows that it is not only men who oppose it, but women themselves also contribute to perpetuating this inequality in the name of religion and social norms.
Inheritance law for Muslims in Bangladesh says that a daughter will get half of the son from father’s ancestral property and wife or wives will get one-eighth with a child and one-fourth without a child. If anybody has all daughters, his brothers’ children will get half of the share. The government of Bangladesh has tried to formulate Women Development Policy for ensuring gender equality but surprisingly it bypasses the issue of equal rights in inherited property. This commentary tries to highlight the main obstacles to ensure women’s inheritance rights on property in different spheres such as the government, society, community and the family. Conducting a preliminary survey on 60 middle-aged women in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh we found that there is a complex range of factors—social, administrative, and ideological—underlying the persistent gap between women’s legal rights and their actual ownership of land and also between ownership and control. Moreover, the actors (especially the women) involved in this process reject universal standards of gender equality and justify unequal distribution of property through dominant cultural discourses.
State and Women: Case Bangladesh
Inspired by the declaration of the decade of women’s development by the United Nations, Bangladesh has taken different measures to increase the gender balance in society from the late 70s. Originally the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees equality of women and men and prohibits all kinds of discrimination based on sex, religion, caste and creed. In addition, the 2005 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) addresses gender issues in a number of key areas, ie “Promoting Employment” and “Agriculture and Rural Development.” However, the main rule seems to be program based responses to the needs of women rather than formulating equality based policies and laws. The poverty reduction projects/programs focusing women are largely safety net programs which provide immediate cash/material benefit. But for promoting employment or sustainable rural development, these safety net measures are not sufficient. Women need access to and control over landed property to enter in the market as well as agriculture and development activities in real terms. The PRSP and latest five-year plan for economic development remains strategically illusive about women’s rights to inherited property.
A number of policies have been formulated in the last couple of decades regarding women development. In 1997, the government of Bangladesh formulated a national policy for the advancement of women which committed to eliminate discrimination against women and girls in all spheres and promoting women’s equality in areas such as education and training, health and nutrition, housing and shelter, political empowerment and public administration and the economy. The policy had a proposal for equal share of daughters (ie, same as her brothers), but that has not well taken by the “Islamist group and activists.” Due to huge political and religious demonstrations, the policy never saw the light. In the 2004 revision of the policy some significant changes of language were made which, according to the promoters of equal gender rights, actually lessens the opportunity for development of women. For example, the new policy removed promises of equal rights of women to inherited and landed property. In 2008, the caretaker government proposed another version of women development policy to promote a level playing field for women. But this policy replaced the phrase “inherited” with “landed and liquid” properties in which women would have equal rights. It specifically stipulated that to ensure women’s equal control over properties gained through the “market system”, the state would formulate new laws. But some newspapers wrongly interpreted it and stated that women would have equal rights to property. This caused a similar kind of outcry from different religious-political groups. In response, the law and religious affairs adviser of the caretaker government eventually said that the Women Development Policy 2008 is not a legislation at all and its does not deal with inheritance laws. It is just a document for discussions on how to protect women from repression and deception and on how to improve their conditions socially. To control in the increasing unrest regarding the policy, the government established a committee of Muslim religious leaders well versed in Islamic texts who proposed the replacement of the phrase “equal rights” to “just rights” in property for women. It is interesting from a human rights perspective as it is the state and male religious leaders who get to decide the “just” proportion for women in inherited property. The 2011 policy for women’s advancement has brought back some of the promises of the 1997 policy. For example, in section 25 it says that women would be give “full control” over earnings, credit, land and inherited or purchased property. However, it is interesting to note that there is no mention of “equal rights” or “equal share” to be assured in the inherited property.
It can be inferred that in Bangladesh religion has been used as an excuse for the skeptical stand of state regarding the issue of equal inheritance irrespective of gender. The protest against gender discrimination in terms of inheritance of property is rarely visible in any part of society except ones arranged by some Non-government Organizations who worked for human rights and gender equality. The policies and the resulting demonstration of political parties along with the strategic stance of the ruling political parties clearly indicate that the Muslim inheritance law will not be changed in near future. Such a demonstration and political unrest cannot by judged only by blaming religious dogmatism. Rather we should see this in relation to a traditionally patriarchal state, society and mindset.
Inheritance Laws and Practices
Inheritance practices are crucially important in regulating rights to property in a society in which the “competition for scarce resources” is fierce. For a significant majority of rural households, arable land is the single most important source of economic security against poverty in Bangladesh. The social status and political power in the rural settings are defined by the land (Agarwal 2002; Toufique and Turton eds, 2002). Moreover, it shapes the intra- and inter-household relationships. Cultural and traditional practices in Bangladesh continue to perpetuate the patrilineal mode of inheritance that excludes women from the inheritance rights. There is a cultural resistance towards women getting a share in the parental property (Rahman and van Shendel 1997; Mathew, 2010). Wives and daughters are sidelined from the formal ownership of land resources, while the husbands get rural land through inheritance and hence are wealthier in terms of disposable assets. Our survey shows that majority of women from all income groups, do not formally own property of their own and rarely inherit from the natal or affine families. Often women decline from asserting their inheritance rights, due to the fear of losing family ties, or acquiring the social stigma of being grasping and greedy and for the fear of losing the love of the natal family. Women value their relationship with their brothers to a great extent which would be threatened if they demand their share in property. As a result women usually do not risk the life-time guarantee of social support from their kin, which is especially useful at the time of economic or social crisis such as divorce or widowhood, for share in landed property.
In our survey, we found that social legitimacy is the crucial factor to ensure women’s share in property. Even when women get a share of property, they are not the real beneficiaries to utilize it—it is controlled by a male member of the family. Many women accept this arrangement as the norm of society and consider themselves to be too weak to handle things as property. Moreover, the male dominated public sphere in Bangladesh such as the district courts, local administrator’s office, and village panchayet or governing body, make it difficult for women to claim their inheritance rights. The first obstacle in this case is to overcome the sociocultural barriers on physical movement of women in public spaces. Then the lack of information sources and indefinite timeline for solving court cases makes it economically unprofitable to legally demand shares in property. Only when the price of property is really very high and the women are backed by their socioeconomic standing that they find it worth it to challenge their brothers in the court. This is the last and the most extreme measure any woman would take. But getting the judgement takes huge time. Barakat and Roy (2004) show that the existing cases on the court need an average time of 9.5 years for settlement. The lengthy process of getting court judgement played impediment to go to the court.
Many of the women studied opined that the sons of the family take care of older parents and the ancestral land should therefore be given to them. Most of the female respondents said that the Islamic law, though unequal, is a religious stipulation which should be strictly followed.
The question remains whether the ambiguous stand of the government of Bangladesh in respect of the issue of equal distribution of inherited property is solely in response to wider sociopolitical, cultural and religious demands or is it supported by an inherent economic agenda of the dominant group, ie the males to hold monopoly over the means of production. If women cannot exercise their ownership over property even when the distribution is unequal, it is difficult to foresee how they would be able to gain their share when they would demand equal division. This process needs to be supported by the state machinery which is apparently not women friendly and the dominant ideology of the country is clearly against the proposition. Moreover, without taking into account the public opinion and social attitude towards women’s access to and control over property, no policy to establish equal rights can be implemented successfully. In addition the state has to overcome its inherent patriarchal nature and concentrate on steps to ensure that women at least get the benefit of the existing inheritance law. A national level campaigning through media should take place to sensitize people about the rights of women in property. Overall increase in the indicators of welling of women would enable them to exercise more control over their possessions.
ATM Shaifullah Mehedi is a researcher in Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, since 2008 after completion his graduation in anthropology from Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. His academic interests include food security, migration and human rights South Asia.
Nehraz Mahmud is currently pursuing her PhD in anthropology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. She is a researcher in Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. Her areas of her special interests include women’s rights, economic anthropology, South Asian studies and human agency in the context of social discrimination.