There has been resistance to equal property rights for women every time the topic of the amendment has been brought up
Shirin, who lost his father last month to a heart attack, is now afraid that her journey as a scholar has come to an abrupt end. Thanks to the support and encouragement of her father, she was able to enrol into a university last year and showed promise – much to the chagrin of her brothers and mother, who wanted her to be married off instead of continuing her studies. Since her father’s death, Shirin hoped that her share of the inheritance would provide her with enough support to ensure she could finance her own studies, even if her family did not. But as she just found out, that could not be the case. She is being deprived of inheritance, and her brothers are taking everything their father left for his children – including Shirin’s share.
There are countless Shirins like her all around us who are being subjected to such discrimination and injustice. Even though Bangladesh is being lauded and celebrated for its advancement in ensuring women’s rights, there has been almost zero progress in the property and inheritance related rights of women. All across Bangladesh, countless women are being excluded from the fair share of inheritance and are being forced to endure financial hardship because of it.
As a nation on the rise that has put much emphasis on making gender equality a prime focus for socio-economic development, Bangladesh is lagging far behind the developed nations in terms of property rights for women and has failed, again and again, to improve the status quo.
Bangladesh is a democratic country that is governed by a constitution. Yet, there is no uniform “inheritance law” to speak of – it is usually the person’s religion that governs the distribution of inheritance property. This creates a dire situation for women as there is absolutely no existence of an equal property share clause in the existing religious laws – and that has been going on since before the country’s inception. According to many social reformers, the religious laws are heavily biased toward males, and a daughter, sister, or mother may receive as little as one-eighth of the inheritance or none at all.
The most prevailing religious inheritance law in Bangladesh is the Muslim inheritance law. It is regarded by many as a comprehensive inheritance law, and just and fair for women. While it is true that the Muslim inheritance laws do indeed assign more rights to women for property inheritance, it does not ensure equal distribution.
In fact, according to “Al-Faraid,” the law of inheritance in Islam, a widow will only receive one-fourth of her deceased husband’s property if there are no children. So a question may arise: “If a childless widow receives only 25% of the property as inheritance, what happens to the rest?” Well, that is where it becomes complicated. While the brothers, sisters and parents of the deceased will inherit the rest of the 75% of the property, it is the brother or brothers who will receive the lion’s share of that property, with the parents and sister or sisters receiving small portions which can be about one-sixth of the total.
Furthermore, as per the Muslim inheritance law, a daughter can only inherit property equal to half of a son, meaning, if the deceased leaves behind a son and a daughter, the son will receive 50% of the property while the daughter gets 25%. And if there is only one daughter and no son, the daughter may only inherit only half of the property and not more.
For Hindu women, the situation is even more dire as there are rampant biases among women regarding who can and cannot inherit property, as the traditional Hindu law states that not all daughters are equally eligible for inheritance. A daughter who is yet to marry, or has married and has sons, is eligible for a portion of the inheritance while a widowed daughter or a son-less daughter is not. And if a Hindu woman indeed inherits property, there are still many complications regarding inheritance in the form of “life interest” as well as calculating the amount inherited.
Aside from the religious inheritance laws themselves, things become much more complicated when it comes to actual practice and application – more so in rural areas. There is a great lack of knowledge about the property and inheritance rights among women. Most communities even disregard the conventional religious laws in favour of more biased or skewed inheritance laws that greatly favour men over women.
The absence of “legal” laws and a lack of proper knowledge about religious laws create a medley of unethical and unjust practices that marginalize women at every turn. Many a time, male relatives of a single-daughter family take advantage of this lack of awareness to seize properties. Some, though very few, counter this by creating legal wills of their possessions which can be used to ensure the individual's daughters, sisters or families receive their fair share. But a lack of awareness regarding the legal aspects of inheritance prevent people from taking that route.
The discriminations do not end there. Despite there being major differences between Hindu, Christian and Buddhist ideologies and inheritance laws, instances of women from one religion being subjugated to another religion’s inheritance laws are not unheard of – resulting in unfavourable outcomes for the women involved.
Now, one would expect that, Bangladesh being a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all kinds of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) would mean the government taking steps to eliminate gender discrimination in property rights and ensuring that women receive their fair share of the inheritance. But that has not been the case. There has been resistance to equal property rights for women every time the topic of the amendment has been brought up. The vast majority of this resistance was spearheaded by religion-based political parties and conservatives who refuse to provide women their equal inheritance rights – which is viewed as blasphemous to them. Any advancements toward property rights equality have been continuously crushed by these people.
The draft of the 2011 National Women Development Policy saw a crushing defeat for social reforms at the hands of these right-wing individuals, who viewed the policy for better women’s rights regarding inheritance as “anti-Quran” and against the Shariah law, even though the policy was a great step back from the one proposed in 1997. That was probably the best opportunity for the government to make any significant stride in property and inheritance equality when a clause was drafted that included equal property inheritance rights for women. However, despite there being no major resistance from religious groups, the government did not follow through, and such a golden opportunity never arose again.
But the draft of the 2011 policy created an immediate and widespread backlash that resulted in massive riots and property damage. Since then, there has hardly been any step to rectify or amend the prevailing unequal property laws.
So, while the dream of achieving equal rights for women may be getting closer to reality – even if by just a little – in Bangladesh, the same cannot be said about their real estate nor inheritance rights. Until there is a unified national policy, the plight of and discrimination against women will not stop. And even though women and social reformers continue to fight for a just and fair policy, the future still looks bleak.