Let us not sanction oppression of women in the name of Islam, argues Ainab Rahman
TAYEBA BEGUM LIPI
The Shariat Application Act of 1937, based on a rigid interpretation of Shariat, is part of the judicial legacy of colonial government. Under pressure from Islamic parties, the British government during the 1930s enacted a series of laws to satisfy them, instilling theological laws that have remained intact even in the 21st century.
Over the years, these laws have been amended, starting with Ayub Khan's Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961, and legislations such as the Child Marriage Restraint Act, the Dowry Prohibition Act, and the Oppression of Women and Children Act.
These acts, though encouraging the rightful practice of Islam, have ameliorated women's status from that of the Shariat Act -- however, in a democratic country, all of these laws have only served to hinder the true process of democratisation, especially regarding the equality of sexes, and with this, have also tarnished the egalitarian nature of Islam.
With its laws regarding marriage and inheritance rights, The Shariat Application Act is not only contradictory of the constitution, but is unlawful (according to this document upon which our country is founded). The constitution declares that every Bangladeshi citizen, regardless of sex, race or religion, has equal rights in all spheres of activity. The Shariat Application Act blatantly denies women the birthrights that they should be guaranteed as citizens of a democracy.
From the inheritance laws, which give a son double the share of a daughter, to the marriage laws, which designate the decision over the right to divorce to a woman's fiancé, the act is prejudiced against almost half of the country's 140 million people (it should be noted that a woman's right to divorce, khula, is guaranteed in Islam). It also severely hinders the development of women by not preaching equality in law. If the government cannot recognise women as equals, how can one expect the people to? If the government refuses to discredit socio-cultural prejudices, as they have done by not amending the act, society will continue to hold bigotries that degrade women and entrap them in an inferior status.
What many refuse to acknowledge is that the laws of the Shariat were written for a completely different place and time; they are not universally applicable. By employing laws that were set for Arabia centuries ago, the government restrains civilisation to that time period. Islam's revelation granted women more rights a higher societal position than was acknowledged in pre-Islamic Arabia and proselytised both equal rights for women and the rightful treatment of women. However, in modern times, religion is used as an excuse by many orthodox Muslims to degrade women and to keep them in their mediocre position, so as not to pose a threat to the gender-biased hierarchy institutionalised by the patriarchal system.
Unfortunately, the act will probably remain unchanged, due to a fear of religious opposition. It is true that there exist a multitude of Islamic parties, some of which are even extremist (as categorised by external agencies), but Bangladesh, despite having an 80% Islamic majority has never been a Muslim state; the very foundation of the nation was built upon the ideals of democracy, socialism, and pluralism, and yet, these are the principles that seem to be eroding.
Our forbearers courageously fought for the liberation of our nation, for the freedom of both our men and women from oppression. We knew then, as a nation, what it felt like to be subjugated and to have no will of our own; now, thirty years after Liberation, half of the country's population still faces a similar discrimination, still considered second-class citizens in their own home, which they, too, built with their own bodies, their own sweat, and their own blood.
Oppression is a crime considered worse than murder in the Qur'an. Yet it seems to be lawfully enforced under a banner of religious righteousness. To utilise Islam, a religion that above all, respects the mother, a religion that forbids female infanticide, a religion that preaches equality, as a means of continually oppressing our women, is not only an act of cowardice, but also one of blasphemy. Let us not condemn ourselves.
Ainab Rahman is a senior at the College of William and Mary.