Law that cries out for change
She has severed all ties with her husband and lived separately for more than four years now. But legally her marriage is not over yet.
Aged 35, Mita Rani has been trying to come to terms with this reality since she discovered to her shock, at the end of a two-year legal battle, that the country's law does not recognise Hindu women's right to divorce.
The court, where she appealed for dissolution of her marriage, in its judgment said it considered the complainant ineligible for divorce since both she and her defendant husband belonged to Hinduism. The Hindu personal law that deals with the familial issues of the minority community in Bangladesh does not permit wives to break away from marriage, it added.
Marriage is a religious duty for one's eternal life and so there is no question of its dissolution however strained the relationship might be, according to the country's Hindu law that dates back to the British period.
Unlike in India and Nepal where the Hindus comprise the majority, the only law applicable to aggrieved Hindu married women in Bangladesh is Hindu Married Women's Right to Separate Residence and Maintenance Act 1946. That means a woman can appeal to court for her separate maintenance by the husband but will not be granted exemption from marital obligation on any grounds and legal permission to remarry.
To this, Mita, a resident of Nakhalpara in the capital, says, “It's ridiculous that I cannot divorce my husband even after he got engaged in an extramarital affair and abused me mentally and physically.”
Though her status is unchangeable, her husband, who has been living with his second wife for one and a half years now in the capital, is allowed by the existing law of Bangladesh to marry as many times as his heart desires without facing any legal action.
India, however, has revised its old law and rules into the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955, which sees marriage as a civil contract rather than eternal bonding and so allows both the parties to break the agreement on specific grounds.
Nepal grants women additional grounds than men -- if she is raped and if the husband is impotent -- for divorce, according to websites of Nepalese law firms that deal with divorce cases.
LEGAL BARRIER TO WOMEN'S REMARRIAGE
Meanwhile, Mita, without children, seems to live a life of an unmarried and self-dependent woman, except for the fact that her national ID card still mentions the name of her husband.
Once she tried to get a new ID card with the husband's name replaced by her father's, but the authorities informed her that to do so she needed to submit a divorce paper.
Her ordeal began in 2008, seven years after her marriage, when she started to suspect that her husband was having an illicit relationship. But every time she demanded a direct answer from him, the man used to label her as a psycho, who, “without any evidence, was doubting his loyalty and in turn making it difficult for him to focus on work”.
As time passed by, verbal abuse turned physical.
“I spent many nights crying and groaning in pain from the physical torture by my husband and thinking how I could unmask him before my in-laws, parents and brother,” Mita said.
From the beginning of 2009, her husband, who was employed outside Dhaka at the time, stopped sending her money. He was, however, coming to Dhaka once or twice a month.
Whenever he was home, he was busy talking on phone all through the night and sleeping throughout the morning.
“From the phone conversations, I could guess it was her,” said Mita, referring to the woman her husband had been going out with.
“Now there was no more hiding. But what else I could do other than watch,” she sighed.
Then one day when he was away, she got her hands on a CD that had photos of the other woman and her husband and video footage of their moments of intimacy.
That is when she decided to part from her husband.
Jhumur Rani Deb, an employee of Bangladesh Krishi Bank in Ajmeriganj of Habiganj, however, has not yet made up her mind as to how she will untie herself from the broken marriage.
Her husband has been maintaining a separate world of him in Dhaka from just two years after their marriage in 2006. Their eight-year-old son hardly knows his father and refuses to talk to him on phone even on the rare occasions when he calls, Jhumur says.
On October 16, she spent all day at the Sonali Bank branch in the capital, where her husband works, to talk about the issues between them, but he quickly sneaked out asking her to wait with her son.
Jhumur says she wants the money and ornaments back, which her family gave her husband, and end the relationship through divorce.
“Every time I demand those things back, he asks me to present proof but we [Hindus] don't keep records [of the things given during and after marriage]….”
Against the backdrop of prevalent repression of Hindu women in the absence of a marriage act in Bangladesh, human rights organisations -- Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Mahila Parishad and Banchte Shekha -- carried out countrywide campaigns to raise awareness of the need for a comprehensive marriage act that would provide for compulsory registration of Hindu marriages and divorce rights to both men and women.
They also proposed a draft law in 2011, in response to which the government passed in parliament Hindu Marriage Registration Act, 2012, first of its kind, said Banasree Mitra Neogi of the MJF.
But the law does not bind Hindu couples to register their marriages, let alone keeping a provision of divorce.
Campaigns for compulsory marriage registration and divorce rights faced strong opposition from influential Hindu men and eventually failed, said MJF Executive Director Shaheen Anam.
They say such legal provisions will encourage divorce among Hindu couples, she added.
Last year, Bangladesh Human Rights Foundation's chief executive Alena Khan and aggrieved Aapita Das, 26, filed a writ petition with the High Court for enforcement of her fundamental rights.
The court instructed the defendant, Aapita's husband, not to impose marital obligation on her until the hearing on the writ is held, Alena Khan said.
The constitutional provision ensuring everyone's equal right to life, irrespective of religion, cast, gender, class etc, contradicts the Hindus' personal law that denies right to divorce without forbidding men from indulging in polygamy.
HINDU LEADERS THROTTLE MOVES TO REFORM
Asked what the hindrance to reform is, Meghna Guhathakurta, executive director of the Research Initiatives in Bangladesh (RIB), said Hindu hardliners consider any initiative for change to the family law as a threat to their existence and interference in the affairs of the minority community.
“But that was found baseless in our survey [conducted by the MJF and the RIB],” she said.
The survey of 936 people shed light on the fact that both men, 26.7%, and women, 29.2%, of the community want legal window to withdraw their marital vows.
Even 10.6 percent of the 180 responding men said their marriages had broken down to a level that they wanted to divorce their wives but couldn't due to the absence of such legal provision.
“The government is listening only to those in the Hindu leadership. It thinks they will bring votes for the ruling party,” Meghna said. And so, the stories of women's suffering remain untold and unheard.
Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad's General Secretary Tapash Kumar Pal said the socio-political structure in Bangladesh put them in a defensive position against any reform.
He, however, added that time has come for changes to be made in phases.
“There should be a uniform family law for all -- Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Buddhist,” Tapash says.
The rights organisations, meanwhile, are again mobilising support for a complete Hindu marriage act, said Banasree of the MJF.
They will revise the 2011 draft law, plugging loopholes, if there was any, and then submit a fresh proposal to the law ministry, maybe by December, she added.
The strength Mita had gathered to start life afresh faltered when she faced the reality that she had no legal remedy.
“Is this what I deserve just because I was born into a Hindu family? Why do I have to live as his wife forever after all that I have been through?” she says.
Mita does not wear the white bangles, symbol of married Hindu women, anymore because, she says, those bear no meaning to her now.
Seeing her, many ask “Are you married?”, “Have you got divorced?”
“Things are complex,” she used to say but quickly found out that the answer led to the stretching of her harassment by more questions. So, she decided to limit her social interactions to only those who knew her story and could understand her plight.