Women's journey to resilience and liberation

In the rich cultural tapestry of Bangladesh, marriage holds great significance as it brings families and communities together in joyful celebrations. Beyond being a personal matter, it's a legal and social institution with expectations and responsibilities. The process often involves elaborate ceremonies that unite families. Love marriages and other forms of marriage are also existing in the society. However, it's important to recognize that marriage can pose challenges and dilemmas, especially in arranged marriages, where individual preferences may not always align. It's crucial to understand that not all marriages succeed, and divorce can be emotionally and financially difficult, particularly for women who face stigmatisation.

Marital issues can arise from various factors, including communication problems, financial stress, cultural differences, personal conflicts, extramarital affairs, and gaslighting, among others. Both men and women can contribute to relationship problems.

In marriages shaped by cultural norms and gender expectations, both men and women may encounter difficulties. It is unfair to suggest that only women experience challenges leading to divorce, as men can also face issues that shouldn't be ignored.

However, in patriarchal societies, men often wield more power, leading to significant challenges for women. Women may face expectations as wives and mothers, which limit their choices and opportunities. Due to societal structures, men may enjoy privileges and decision-making power, while women may bear an unreasonable burden of domestic responsibilities and face inequality in various aspects of life. Recognising these imbalances is crucial in dismantling patriarchal structures and fostering a more equitable and respectful environment for both genders.

In the tale of divorced, single mothers, and widowed women, challenges abound after losing a partner or ending a marriage. They grapple with grief, solitude, and raising children alone. In traditional societies, these brave women find themselves isolated, denied their rightful inheritance, and blocked from remarriage. Single mothers, from divorce or widowhood, face economic struggles and limited job opportunities, particularly in conservative places like Bangladesh, where they are unjustly stigmatized and discriminated against.

Lack of support makes their journey tough. Obtaining legal and financial aid is another hurdle, vital for safeguarding their rights. The absence of resources makes them vulnerable and hinders progress. Child custody becomes complex, with dower money used to manipulate them. Unequal treatment in remarriage persists, with women risking losing custody rights if they remarry, unlike men.

In Section 128 of the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 (MFLO), it states that the mother is the natural guardian of her minor child up to the age of seven years in the case of a male child, and up to the age of puberty in the case of a female child. The same law also states in Section 127 that, "Where a mother remarries, she shall, save as otherwise provided in this section, cease to be the guardian of her children, but the court may, if it is satisfied that it is for the welfare of the children, order that she shall continue to be the guardian of such children."

Also we need to understand that, there is an issue that is collaborated with the remarriage of a women; Mahram and non-mahram. According to the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 (MFLO), a mahram is someone who is not seen as a person with whom a mother or child could have a sexual relationship. Mahram include close relatives like fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, and certain other family members like the mother's husband and the father's wife. On the other hand, a non-mahram is someone who could potentially have a sexual relationship with the mother or child. This includes anyone who is not considered a mahram. If a mother marries someone who is a non-mahram, she might lose her automatic right to have custody of her children. This is because the court is usually hesitant to allow children to live in a household where they might not be considered mahram to their stepfather. For example, the MFLO states that a mother who remarries a non-mahram will lose her automatic right to custody of her children. However, the national laws state that the court should always consider the best interests of the child, and this may include granting custody to the mother even if she remarries a non-mahram. These instruments are though a mere way to prolong the order regarding custody and setting a woman free, in maximum cases, these brutal instruments are used to deprive women’s right of their dower money as well as to conduct an unfair negotiation for the women.

The Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 (MFLO) did not automatically deprive a mother of her right to custody of her child if she remarried a non-mahram. The court held that the MFLO should be interpreted in a way that is in the best interests of the child
High Court ruling in favor of Zohra Begum

To protect the rights of mothers, the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (MFLO), along with other state laws, plays a crucial role in ensuring justice in their favor. The MFLO encompasses various provisions to safeguard women's interests in family matters, including child custody. Under the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890, courts are empowered to appoint guardians for children, considering the child's best interests. In most cases, the court appoints the mother as the guardian, unless there are compelling reasons to decide otherwise. Furthermore, the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act, 2000, serves as a crucial shield against violence and abuse, offering protection to women and children. This law can be utilized to safeguard mothers from harm caused by husbands or other family members and to secure their access to their children.

Case law has played a pivotal role in shaping the rights of mothers concerning child custody. Notably, the landmark case of Mst. Zohra Begum v. Md. Abdul Baten set a significant precedent in Bangladesh. The High Court's ruling established that a mother can be the sole legal guardian of her child, even if the father is alive, irrespective of her remarriage to a non-mahram (Mst. Zohra Begum v. Md. Abdul Baten, 2019 BLD (HCD) 387). The court emphasized prioritizing the child's welfare and the mother's role as the primary caregiver. The High Court ruled in favor of Zohra Begum, stating-

“The Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 (MFLO) did not automatically deprive a mother of her right to custody of her child if she remarried a non-mahram. The court held that the MFLO should be interpreted in a way that is in the best interests of the child, and that this may include granting custody to the mother even if she remarries a non-mahram.”

This decision is a significant step towards gender equality in Bangladesh and will likely serve as a precedent in future cases. So, we have the laws and all other resources to ensure the equal justice for divorced and widowed women, than why this is still a huge concern for the mothers?

The reason why equal justice for divorced and widowed women is still a significant concern for mothers in Bangladesh is due to the way the Muslim Family Law Ordinance, 1961 (MFLO) is interpreted and applied in court. According to the MFLO, the father has the automatic right to custody of his children, and if a mother remarries someone who is not a mahram, she loses her automatic right to custody. This means that if a mother wants custody after remarriage, she must go to court, and the father will likely argue that her remarriage is not in the best interests of the children, seeking sole custody. In these legal battles, lawyers for both parties can manipulate certain factors to restrain a mother from remarrying. They might exploit the ambiguity in the MFLO's interpretation to argue against the mother's custody claim. Additionally, determining what is in the best interests of the children can be subjective, leading to further disputes. Moreover, there is still social stigma surrounding divorce and remarriage for women, making some mothers hesitant to fight for custody due to fear of judgment.

In the aftermath of divorce, women face a multitude of challenges that can further worsen due to discriminatory practices. Pressure from both their former spouses and their own families might compel them to return to toxic households they had left. Societal expectations and pressures also influence their decisions, with communities sometimes pushing them back into harmful or abusive marriages. This entrapment makes it difficult for women to break free from damaging relationships. In patriarchal societies, women continuously battle for their rights and equal treatment. Discrimination persists in various aspects of life, such as education, employment, and social status, limiting their opportunities for personal and professional growth. Seeking justice in cases of gender-based discrimination becomes a slow and arduous process, with delays in the legal system hindering the justice they rightfully deserve. It's important to note that patriarchy isn't solely perpetuated by men; women may also play a role in upholding gender inequalities, further complicating the struggle for gender equality.

Now, let's look into the statistics surrounding divorce in Bangladesh:

 In Bangladesh, 70% of divorced women cited domestic abuse as the reason for their marriages ending (BNWLA, 2018). Extramarital affairs contributed to 20% of divorces (BBS, 2019), and 15% were due to dowry-related issues (BWHC, 2017). Surprisingly, 75% of divorces were filed by women themselves (Bangladesh Supreme Court, 2020). These statistics reveal the challenges women face during divorce. Obtaining full dower money can take 7 years or longer, causing immense hardship (BNWLA, 2018). Only 30% of fathers received guardianship, leaving women to raise children without adequate support (BNWLA, 2018). Such challenges impact their lives, making it tough to provide for their children and move forward.

Facts and numbers give us a general idea of the challenges women face. But to really get it, we need to understand their experiences deeply. In countries where most people follow Islam, they often try to save marriages, no matter the reasons for divorce. I vividly recall what a close friend of mine shared with me. Even after her divorce, her ex-husband wanted to get back together, but she stood her ground and spoke honestly, impressing us all with her courage.

Divorced and widowed women are treated like burdens in their families, experiencing differential treatment at work, and enduring harassment in society

"You want to restore this marriage in the name of our society values and serving religion, but our religion also speaks of punishing infidels by stoning. He caused me immense pain with his affairs for last seven years. Hold him accountable, if you truly uphold our beliefs, and I'll start afresh with him!

This brave woman's words reveal the depth of women's struggles beyond statistics. Her narrative emphasizes the need for justice, validation, and recognition of their pain. We must listen to and empower women, acknowledging their strength and resilience. In patriarchal societies like Bangladesh, divorced or widowed women face distressing experiences in social media, with offensive and threatening messages in their inboxes.

In this messed-up reality, these women are viewed as easy targets for strangers to satisfy their sexual desires. The unwanted advances and disgusting offers only make their emotional and mental battles worse, feeding into the cruel dynamics of a society that treats them as objects for exploitation. And it's not just online; they face the same nasty stuff even in real life. These women become vulnerable prey to creeps who see them as easy and desperate for intimacy.

In this eye-opening reality, divorced and widowed women are treated like burdens in their families, experiencing differential treatment at work, and enduring harassment in society. These distressing scenarios highlight the urgent need for a more equitable and compassionate society.

To support these women, we must raise awareness about their rights and struggles, implement legal reforms, and provide counselling and financial aid. In workplaces, fostering inclusivity and conducting sensitization programs are crucial. Empowering them through education and skill-building is vital for self-sufficiency. Creating safe public spaces and engaging families as allies are also essential for their well-being. Challenging patriarchal mindsets and promoting gender equality is necessary for real change. Positive media representation can further depict women's strength and agency. Together, let's embrace kindness and compassion, paving the way for these women to rise and thrive. With love and understanding, we can reshape their lives and create a better world, one step at a time.

* Md. Mohiuddin Abir is a Grants, Compliance, and Strategic Development Professional

He can be reached at [email protected] and LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/mohiuddin-abir/