Bangladeshi brides will no longer be questioned about their virginity for marriage certificates

A Bangladeshi bride in a wedding dress. Image via Flickr by MD. Hasibul Haque Sakib. CC BY NC 2.0

On 25 August 2019, a High Court in Bangladesh ordered the country's government to replace the word kumari’(virgin) with obibahito (unmarried) on marriage certificates. The verdict came after a five-year-long legal battle, and have been hailed a landmark victory for the equal rights campaigners.

In the South Asian country, the solemnization of Muslim couples in a ceremony of Nikah (meaning Muslim marriages) are performed by government-assigned Marriage Registrars keeping in accordance with the Muslim Marriages and Divorces (Registration) Act, 1974. Apart from a few amendments made to the Act, the rituals have been carried out in a similar the same manner over the years.

In 2014, three civil rights organizations — Bangladesh Legal Aids and Services Trust (BLAST), Naripokkho and Bangladesh Mohila Parishad — filed a writ petition that challenged clause no. 5 of the prescribed marriage registration form, also known as Kabin-nama. The Kabin-nama is a written document that is signed by two Muslim partners that, under the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance 1961, is legal evidence of their civil union and lays out the rights and obligations of the bride and groom. Clause no. 5 of the form requires a bride to specify whether she is kumari, widowed or divorced. The groom is not required to make a similar statement. In the writ submitted to the High Court, the campaigners stated that the clause “perpetuates discrimination between women and men and results in violation of Articles 27, 28, 31 and 32 of the Constitution.”

They further proposed the replacement of kumari with the term obibahito. In the old Bangla language, kumari signifies the state of being unmarried; however, it also connotes the alternate meaning of being a virgin. The commonly used ‘obibahito’ is a very specific term meaning unmarried. On 14 September 2014, the High Court bench of Justice Naima Haider and Justice Md. Jahangir Hossain made an official inquiry to the government in order to ask why the use of kumari should not be deemed discriminatory against women, and the amendments mentioned in the petition be implemented. After holding the hearing, the verdict was given by the High Court on 25th of August 2019.

The verdict is hailed as a landmark victory for the organizations that campaigned for the deliverance of the lawsuit. On the authority of the new law, the groom also has to state if he is unmarried, widowed or divorced.

After the verdict, Aynun Nahar Siddiqua of Bangladesh Legal Aids and Services Trust (BLAST) spoke with the Daily Start about how there were no changes brought about to the Kabin-nama (which was designed during the Pakistan regime in the 1960s) even after the independence of Bangladesh in 1971.

In another interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, she said, “It's a ruling that gives us the belief that we can fight and create more changes for women in the future.”

Netizens took to social media to comment on this latest decision. Rahat Mustafiz at Women Chapter blog writes about the common desire of some Bangladeshi men to marry virgins:

বর্তমানে কিছুটা শিক্ষার আলো পাওয়া বাঙালি মুসলমান এখন সাদা কাপড় বিছিয়ে রক্তের পরীক্ষা নিতে শরম পায়, কিন্তু মনে মনে আশা করে অল্প বয়সী কুমারী, যার যোনি পর্দা নিশ্ছিদ্র ও অটুট আছে। এবং যে তরুণীর ভেতর আর কোনো পুরুষ প্রবেশ করেনি। মূলত এই টাইপের চরম আধিপত্যবাদী পুরুষতান্ত্রিক রাজনৈতিক সেন্স ও কনশাসনেস থেকে আমাদের মেলশোভিনিস্ট আইনপ্রণেতারা “কুমারী” শব্দটা কাবিননামায় অপরিহার্য করে তুলেছিলেন।

Now a days educated Bengali Muslim men do not dare to test brides (like old days) whether she is a virgin using a white cloth, but they secretly desire his bride to be a young virgin whose hymen is still intact. Mainly out of this male chauvinistic sense and consciousness our patriarchal lawmakers made the word “kumari” essential in Kabin-Nama.

Samina Anwar gives the examples of Prophet Muhammad on Facebook:

(in those days) Prophet Muhammad (SAW) did not go after “virgins”. He was after rescuing (widowed) women and taking care of them. This was how broad-minded Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was.

How many Muslim men these days would marry a widow or a divorcee? If one is to follow the real sunnah – are men not supposed to follow what Prophet Muhammad (SAW) practised?

Some people raised the question of whether it was necessary since kumari generally only held the old meaning of being unmarried in the Kabin-nama.

Mohammad Ali Akbar Sarker, a Muslim marriage registrar from Dhaka, told the media:

I have conducted many marriages in Dhaka and I have often been asked why men have the liberty to not disclose their status but women don't. I always told them this wasn't in my hands. I guess I won't be asked that question anymore.

The changes are due to come in effect starting mid-October.

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