Sixty million infant and teen girls are “missing” from Southern Asia today. These helpless young girls and women are victims of a society built upon patriarchy and inadequate dowry payments, infanticide, abuse, and neglect. Because of these things, the subcontinent of India is undergoing a female gendercide. With this figure multiplying each day, people in countries like Bangladesh and India are making it their responsibility to end the disenfranchisement of women in their country. It’s no secret that women all around the globe are objectified or taken advantage of, but being a woman in rural Bangladesh and trying to get justice for the sexual or violent crimes committed against you is nearly impossible. To begin understanding this injustice, we must first examine the value of women in Southern Asia.
“In many nations, particularly India and China, the three most dangerous words heard at the birth of a child are: ‘it’s a girl,’” (independent.co.uk). It is believed in Indian culture that sons bring a family financial prosperity as well as protection, and in their society this is not entirely untrue. Due to the dowry practice still in place in many poor parts of South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, the families of brides-to-be owe some form of material goods or cash to either their future son-in-law or his family. The factors and reasons for this system vary by region. Usually, in northern India the dowry acts as a pre-mortem inheritance for the bride that is supposed to protect her financial status if her husband or parents die. However, if the bride’s parents don’t give an adequate dowry, many times grooms and their families will become violent. A common practice in Bangladesh involves throwing acid on women to cause disfigurement. Along with all of the physical and emotional abuse these women face, they experience pressure from their parents or the patriarchal society that forces them to endure the abuse and stay faithful to their husbands. While this practice was outlawed in certain states by India’s Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, the law is rarely enforced. A dowry is often expected by many parents in both India and Bangladesh. According to a study conducted by the World Bank Development Research Group, forty percent of Indian parents still expect some form of dowry payment. Due to high poverty rates, with 32% of Indians and 31.5% of all Bangladeshi people living below the poverty line, paying for rising dowry demands is difficult for many families. Due to this, many women in rural India and Bangladesh practice infanticide. The system of patriarchy in many rural South Asian communities believes that boys will grow up to work, and in general make more money than girls. The boys will in turn help their families financially through their jobs as well as the expensive dowry they’ll receive in the future. Infant girls are seen as draining of their family’s resources and if a family is already struggling to eat, having a girl who they’ll need to pay a high dowry for in the future is seen as a burden to many. By placing a higher value on a male’s life at birth, both men and women are conditioned to believe that women’s lives don’t matter and in turn, their societies systematically target and kill female children.
Usually when a woman is raped, she is blamed in one way or another. Women have become scapegoats for the very sexual crimes committed to them. However, many women are terrified to reveal the atrocities committed against them by these perpetrators. In many cases, the women are shamed by their communities and families into not revealing that they were raped, so as to uphold family honor. In several cases, these women know the men who raped them — of all the cases in India, 98% who reported knew their rapist. In the case of Raheema, a Bangladeshi woman who was the victim of a gang rape, her rapists were not even put on trial. She is marginalized by her community because of this incident. Gang rape in Bangladesh has become a severe issue. With gang rape becoming commonplace in Bangladeshi society, it is said that, “1.9% of all rural men in Bangladesh have committed multiple perpetrator rape (gang rape) of a woman who was not a partner,” (omicsgroup.org). However, local officials still fail to recognize rape as a serious issue. It is this system of denial and refusal to recognize the sheer amount of rape cases that allows these crimes to continue. By blaming it on the lack of a woman’s virtue, Bangladeshi society is trivializing rape and undermining the value of women’s lives.
Virtue is commonly tied to religion. Bangladesh holds the fourth largest Islamic population in the world, with 90.4 percent of Bangladeshi peoples practicing. Islam is a peaceful religion, and the very word Islam, which means “surrender” is related to the Arabic root word “Salaam” which means peace. As the Islamic doctrine states, Muhammad brought the teachings to the Arabic tribes who were warring in hopes of ending the fighting and bringing peace. However, as many religious leaders tend to do, they adjust the words in their holy text to justify their points of view. Local Imams have a great deal of influence over the men in Bangladeshi and Indian communities. Men go to them for guidance, and if this guidance happens to objectify women, they often twist passages in the Quran to support their treatment of women. However, the Quran states that men and women are equal, and that men must treat women with respect:
“O you who believe! You are forbidden to inherit women against their will. Nor should you treat them with harshness, that you may take away part of the dowry you have given them – except when they have become guilty of open lewdness. On the contrary live with them on a footing of kindness and equity.”
Furthermore, the idea that women must hide themselves so that men do not become tempted to violate them, is an idea conjured up by several Imams, when in reality the Quran says in 24:30:
“Tell the believing men that they shall subdue their eyes (and not stare at the women), and to maintain their chastity. This is purer for them. God is fully Cognizant of everything they do.”
and in Quran 24:31:
“And tell the believing women to subdue their eyes, and maintain their CHASTITY.”
How can a society that places minimal adherence or value to the lives of women bring them justice when they are sexually vandalized? The system of patriarchy completely undermines the lives and opinions of women. The dowry system places a material value on the immaterial souls and lives of millions of Indian and Bangladeshi women, and in turn allows men to take advantage of them because after all, they are merely objects in the eyes of their male counterparts. However, today women and men are advocating for real change. In India, Mitu Khurana has become a catalyst for change by transforming her story into a way to advocate for justice for women. For real change to come about, women and men must stand up, and abolish the vile dowry system that continually oppresses women today. Only then can they begin to rebuild a greater sense of value for a woman’s life.