Let us not sanction oppression of women in the name of islam. 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, successive British governments during the 1930s enacted a series of laws to satisfy their demands, enshrining into law theological values that remain intact in the 21st century. Over the years, these laws have been amended, starting with Ayub Khan’s Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 196 and legislation 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, these laws have only served to hinder the 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 to the constitution, it is, according to this document upon which our country is founded, unlawful. 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 denies women the rights they might otherwise expect to be guaranteed as citizens of a democracy.
From the inheritance laws, which provide a male heir with twice the share of a female recipient, to the marriage laws, which transfer the decision to divorce over 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 do the same? If the government refuses to discredit socio-cultural prejudices, society will continue to hold opinions which degrade women and maintain their lesser status. What many refuse to acknowledge is that the laws of the Shariat were written for a different place and time and that by enacting legislation conceived for a centuries old context, the government is compromising our modern civil society.
Unfortunately, the act will probably remain unchanged, due to fear of religious opposition. It is true that there exist numerous Islamic parties, some of which could be categorised ( and are, by external agencies ) as extremist 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 and pluralism and yet, these are the principles that are being eroded. Our forbears fought for the liberation of our nation, for the freedom of both men and women. Now, thirty years after liberation, women still face discrimination – second class citizens in their own homes. Oppression of the individual is a crime considered worse than murder in the Qur’an, so to use our religion which respects the mother, which forbids female infanticide and preaches equality, as a means of subjugating our women, could be seen not only as an act of cowardice but of blasphemy too.