Appropriating Wives’ Income: New Form of Dowry


A review of  Appropriation of Wives’ Income: a New Form of Dowry in Bangladesh, by Farah Deeba Chowdhury.

Farah Deeba Chowdhury’s dissertation investigates the interrelationship between law, culture, patriarchy, and Islam in the context of contemporary Bangladesh.  The dissertation has nine chapters.

Chowdhury has concentrated on the situation of Muslim married women in her dissertation. In the introduction, she argues that many practices in Bangladeshi society are based on misinterpretation of Islam and the main purpose of such manipulation is to seek control over wives’ income, financial resources and other assets. The author characterizes such practice as “appropriation of wives’ income as a new form of dowry” (p. 1). As the dowry system has been legally banned in Bangladesh, the income of working women is now considered as a source of earning for their husbands.  The author argues that the root of such practice lies in the norms of patriarchal society. Women are deprived as the patriarchal society never conveys their role to the broader society. Instead, the dominant fallacy is women are only obliged to perform duties towards their in-law’s family.

Western feminists emphasize achieving formal equality between men and women. According to them, laws and social practices must not discriminate against women. The author argues that western women, using the formal equality approach, have officially gained “legal” equality with men. Although this is a very crucial step to move forward, the author questions the applicability of such formal legal practice in family laws. The legal feminists thus stand for “substantive equality.” The shift to a substantive equality approach has led to theorizing about law with a focus on achieving equality that has a “real” positive impact for women. Some scholars even denied the effectiveness of the formal approach to demolish discrimination against women, pointing out a combination of equal rights as well as an acknowledgement of special rights.

Chowdhury opines that relationships between men and women are based on both formal and substantive equality in Islam. On one hand, Islamic law has the provision that women have full possession of their wealth; on the other hand, it recognizes physical and biological differences between men and women. It emphasizes the “complementary but equally important roles of men and women” (p. 19). Considering physical and biological differences, Islamic law imposes upon men the financial responsibility for the maintenance of their wives and children and does not make earning for women as obligatory, as it would put extra burden on them. The author argues that despite the fact that the Islamic revival movement is not significant in Bangladesh, Islam has a crucial role in social, economic and cultural practice of Bangladeshi society. She believes the reforms in law to eliminate discrimination against women should be “… done within an Islamic framework, then the people will accept it” (p. 23).

The author conducts a rigorous literature review in Chapter 2 on the gender issues and Islamic interpretation of these. Authors such as Shaheen Sarder Ali, Azizah al-Hibri, John L. Esposito, and Natana J. DeLong-Bas think the provision of Islam cannot be effective for achieving non-discriminatory status for women, since Islam is structurally patriarchal. Chowdhury disagrees with this perspective. She uses quotation from the holy Quran to create foundation of her view, “The Believers, men and women, are protectors, one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil” (The Quran: 9:71) (p. 30).

The author referenced the trend of ijtihad – the reinterpretation of Islam for addressing modern issues that started in 1980s and 1990s. The scholars have a common ground, accepting methodological interpretation of Islamic norms and values while rejecting blind devotion to past notions. Some scholars argue that reforms in Islamic law should be inside the framework of the universal human rights approach and practice. However, the author lights upon an unresolved basic question:  “How the Islamic authenticity of the law can be maintained if most of the Muslims do not accept this as an Islamic approach?” (p. 44). Chowdhury assumes that the initiative of such reforms may lead to the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim-dominant countries like Bangladesh.

In Bangladesh, feminist activities can broadly be divided into two groups – supporters for the introduction of a uniform family code, and advocates for reinterpretation of Islamic law from women’s perspectives. The first group demanded a uniform family law for Bangladesh in 1997. The author argues that their proposed changes overlook the unpaid work of women (e.g. child bearing, breast feeding, etc.). The Islamists and traditionalists of the second group are very active in resisting any change in traditional sharia laws in Bangladesh. Chowdhury argues scholars following this approach are confused about the method of applying reforms they propose.

In Chapter 3, the author presents a historical analysis of the birth and development of Bangladesh throughout the decades. She shows how Islam has been a key factor in politics and society in Bangladesh. The major political parties—Awami League (AL) and Bangladesh National Party (BNP)—have used religion to secure their power in government. AL as a party is known by its attempts to promote secularism in Bangladesh. However, the AL government, the author argues, has been imposing secularism by making changes in constitution, by promoting uni-track education policy, damaging the morale of the Army, and controlling the functions of major political opponents and their supporters. Interestingly but not surprisingly, AL also had to promise that “Laws repugnant to the Quran and Sunnah shall not be made” (p. 128).

In Chapter 4, Chowdhury opines that Bangladeshi society misinterprets Islam with a view toward making women inferior. Female children are not usually welcomed in traditional families. The patriarchal society hardly encourages women to develop and apply their logical reasoning capacity. Consequently, women have a lack of proper Islamic knowledge and their role in Islam. Instead of concentrating on main text, people of Bangladesh use and depend on a few popular books on Islam. Based on her review of some such books (Maksudul Momeneen, Maksudul Mumin, Bihishti Zewar), the author concludes that these books justify male supremacy and make women inferior in the society. She claims, “The Quran makes it clear that the sole basis for superiority of any person over another is piety and righteousness not gender, color, or nationality” (p. 139 quoting Badawi). Thus, the author emphasizes that women must acquire authentic Islamic knowledge in order to stand against the repression of them.

In Chapter 5, the author reviews different schools of Islamic Jurisprudence on different aspects such as dowry, maintenance, divorce etc. The culture of Bangladesh forces women to waive the amount of dowry on the night of marriage. Although there is a clear provision in law, the majority of divorced women cannot get their entitled maintenance due to a critical and lengthy judicial procedure. The author points out the difference in de jure and de facto—“In Islam women have no financial obligation to support their husbands and children, and they have the right to independent control over their personal assets. Although the constitution of Bangladesh allows every citizen to ‘have the right to acquire, hold, transfer or dispose of property’ in most cases women do not receive of their legal share of their inherited property” (p. 189).  In this regard, the author emphasizes enhancing the ability to control resources owned by women in order to achieve women’s empowerment.

The author opines that specific but not major reforms in legislation are required for the functioning of Islamic family law that would not discriminate against women. In addition, the effectiveness of such reform within the Islamic framework depends on its acceptance by the Bangladeshi people.

Chapter 6 deals with Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Islam, and Women in Bangladesh. Chowdhury lights upon the conflicting statements of CEDAW in their assumption of equal responsibility of men and women. She argues that due to biological difference, men and women cannot share all types of responsibilities. The convention hardly recognizes oppression of women inside the family, and it is mostly dominated by western philosophy.  Moreover, in the context of Bangladesh, women’s preference of jobs is limited and varies with the social structure in urban and rural areas. So, the obligation of paid work is not even enough to demolish the trend of discrimination.  According to the author, CEDAW adopts a transitional approach to attain substantive equality, and if CEDAW is implemented, it will deprive Muslim women of maintenance, dowry, and other rights and thus are some provisions of CEDAW contradict with Islamic law.

In Chapter 7, the author describes how dowry system works in South Asia. She views dowry as a way to establish and maintain “patriarchal norms of superiority” (p. 275).  The author expresses the opinion that with the expansion of capital accumulation by men, the practice of dowry has increased. The most common motives for taking dowry are the increasing trend of consumerism, a materialistic worldview, status-seeking behavior, the expectation for a luxurious life style, and greed for wealth. The author concludes that there are anti-dowry laws, but the victims hardly receive justice because of difficulties and expenses related to the legal process.

In Chapter 8, the author explores a significant change in attitudes regarding dowry when it comes to working women. They are valued more as potential brides in both urban and rural societies. This new trend posits several important questions – “Can men marry working women to withdraw from their financial responsibilities and accumulate wealth and enhance their own living standards? Should husbands expect financial contributions from their wives for day-to-day expenses and save their own money to increase their assets? Is it right that husbands threaten their wives that they will not allow them to continue their jobs if they do not pay day-to-day expenses? Should women have to maintain their husbands’ families and sever all relationships with their own parental families? Is it fair that women cannot contribute to their own parental families? Can women not give to charity by their own will? Can they not buy even a sari with their own income without the permission of their husband? Do women not deserve even Eid gifts from their husband because of their earning capacity?” (pp. 306 – 307). According to the author, Islam clearly prohibits the appropriation or control of a wife’s income by her husband or in-law’s family. She strongly suggests that this should be reflected in the legal system of Bangladesh as a new form of dowry and such practice should be treated as criminal behavior.

The increased employment of women, according to the author, has not empowered women to escape from dowry system. Even now, “many girls from rural areas are sent out to urban industries to earn their own dowry” (p. 311). In chapter 9, the conclusion, the author explores various strategies used by husbands and in-laws to appropriate women’s income. The husbands withdraw financial support that wives deserve and often directly take control of their earning. They save their own income while expecting their wives will spend their earnings on family expenditures. Husbands often threaten wives with the revocation of permission to earn their own money if they do not spend their earnings on the family. Moreover, they take loans to buy property (e.g. land, a flat) in their own names and repay loans with their wives’ earnings, pressuring their wives to spend for the family. The earnings of women are used as a source of investment in business and even to maintain the paternal family of the husband. Working women even cannot pay money for zakat according to their will and do not receive Eid gifts from their husbands.

Based on both formal and substantive model of equality within Islam, the author argues that “Muslim women have the right to control what they earn and possess” (p. 315) and “wives’ ability to earn does not absolve the husband from his duty to maintain her” (p. 315). She strongly states that only when women have proper knowledge of Islam about their roles, rights and responsibilities, will they be empowered to resist exploitation of them. To stop income appropriation of women by husbands and in-laws, the author suggests amendments to the Dowry Prohibition Act 1980 such as—the recognition of such behavior as dowry, discretionary power given to women for using their income, the prohibition of direct or indirect influence by the husband to use the wife’s income for family expenditures, the recognition of dowry takers as criminals, the recognition of psychological pressure for dowry as criminal behavior, and so forth.

The dissertation sheds light upon both the western and southern cultures of women’s rights over their income. The author explains Islamic laws and values regarding women’s status and role are better than those commonly believed and practiced. The loopholes in understanding Islam as explored by the author are very much relevant for contemporary Bangladesh. The informative presentation of this statement, the arguments as well as the critical analysis, will posit the dissertation as a resource for both future academicians and practitioners.

Ferdous Jahan
Department of Public Administration
University of Dhaka, Bangladesh

Primary Sources

Jurisprudence from the Supreme Court of Bangladesh
Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Legislative and Parliamentary Affairs Division, Laws of Bangladesh, includin The Dowry Prohibition Act 1980, Act No. XXXV of 1980
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) [adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly]
Multiple newspapers and magazines, including Amar Desh (2010, 2011); Nayadigonto (2009-2010); New Age (2006-2012); The Daily Ittefaq (1991, 2011); The Daily Star (1998-2010).

Dissertation Information

York University, Canada. 2012. 368 pp. Primary Advisor: Shelley Gavigan.

Image: 5 Taka, obverse. Wikimedia Commons.

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