"Keeping a wife at the end of a stick" : law and wife abuse in Bangladesh
This thesis is concerned with wife abuse in Bangladesh and examines the legal position of women in relation to such abuse. However, the thesis also evaluates the socio-economic-cultural and religious aspects because these have an important impact on Bangladeshi women's lives and their relation to the law. To achieve my goal I carried out an empirical study in Bangladesh which consisted of interviews with abused women and the professionals, for example, lawyers, police officers, agency officers and doctors dealing with wife abuse. Marriage being the centrality of women's existence in Bangladesh, women are in a complex situation in upholding this institution in the face of abuse. The thesis shows that in Bangladesh the constitutional provisions granting equal rights, enactments of special legislation to protect women, and women's movements have helped in some degree to liberate women in theory. However, in reality all these efforts are influenced by patriarchy and thus women are accorded an inferior position to that of men in society and are still abused. Therefore, the thesis shows how this male domination cuts across the social boundaries of class and religion thereby resulting in all kinds of exploitation and discriminatory practices. The murders of young wives on account of dowry, wives committing suicides to escape the humiliation and abuse from husbands and/or in-laws are instances of such exploitation and abuse. Wife abuse has become a common practice in a patriarchal society like Bangladesh. The majority of Bangladeshi women who play the role of a faithful wife and a selfeffacing mother are forced to live a passive, powerless life because women are taught to be tolerant of abuse. The social and religious taboos also sanction wife beating. Women believe that wife-hood and mother-hood are the two main reasons for their existence and that they have to be dependent on men. Therefore women also accept the abuse. Nevertheless, the thesis shows that in some cases (especially lower-class) women are now beginning to resist this abuse in their own ways, although their number may be tiny compared with the magnitude of the problem. However, the thesis also argues that wife abuse is condoned by the public/private dichotomy which is also a product of patriarchal ideology. The exploitation takes place at home for women are usually abused behind closed doors. Even when women are ready to break the tradition, they are restrained by this dichotomy which is apparent in the handling of wife abuse cases by the professionals (for example, lawyers, police, agency officers and doctors). Thus women are again restricted by the norms of privacy and social pressures which confine wives to an almost invisible status. The isolation of women observing `purdah' is an instance of such restrictions. The law therefore cannot serve these women. However, the thesis argues that law is an important site of struggle for women, although it is also restrained by patriarchy. The uneven development of law in family issues shows the limitations of law in dealing adequately with wife abuse in Bangladesh. Therefore, suffering the double vulnerability of being both women and mostly illiterate and often unaware of their legal rights and also unable to defend their economic interests, women in Bangladesh become victims of invisible violence from their partners at home. Women are trapped within this vicious circle of abuse and social pressure and their dependent attitude. The law which is also within this circle of patriarchy fails to deal with such violence, thus keeping the issue invisible. Therefore the thesis argues that unless wife abuse is given due recognition in the way that serious dowry violence has been recognised and made a specific offence the character of such abuse will ever remain invisible and obscured. The thesis also argues that there must be a change of attitude of all towards wife abuse and women should be the first to be educated.