Why can't women be marriage registrars in Bangladesh?

Image by Dhilruba Akter Surovi from Pixabay

Image by Dhilruba Akter Surovi from Pixabay used under a Pixabay license.

A January 10 court ruling in Bangladesh, which stated that women cannot be marriage registrars, also known as Qazi in Islamic law, has become the talk of the country as women and human rights activists have questioned the basis of the judgement.

A Dhaka High Court bench, that included a male and a female judge, issued the controversial ruling based on the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Registration Act (1974), enumerating a number of alleged physical, social and practical obstacles to women being appointed to the position. 

The initial case was brought to the court by Ayesha Siddiqua, a woman from the Phulbari municipality in Dinajpur district in North Bangladesh. In 2012, she applied for the position of marriage registrar in her municipality. After her interview, the results were sent to the law ministry for approval but she was later refused the position on the ground that she is a woman.

Siddiqua vowed to challenge the decision. She filed a writ petition in the High Court (HC) in June 2014, challenging the government's decision to not employ her based on her gender.

More than six years later, she was issued a final verdict on January 10, 2021, in which the Bangladesh High Court commented that women experience a physical disqualification at a certain time of the month, in an obvious reference to menstruation, which  doesn't allow them to enter mosques and other religious institutions. The court added that “since marriage is a religious function, given this reality, it is not possible to perform the duty of marriage registrar with women in Bangladesh.”

Heated debate in social media

The verdict has since sparked numerous protests on social media, especially since menstruation was cited as ground for disqualification, among other things.

Writer and poet Mujib Mehdy wrote on Facebook:

আমার মায়ের মাসিক হয়েছিল বলেই আমার জন্ম সম্ভব হয়েছে; অথচ এই আমিই কিনা মায়ের প্রতি অকৃতজ্ঞতাবশত তাঁর নিকাহ্ রেজিস্ট্রার বা কাজি হবার অধিকারকে খর্ব করলাম স্রেফ মাসিকের দোহাই দিয়ে!

Because my mother had menstruation, my birth was possible. Whereas, I am now denying her the right to be a Nikah (traditional Muslim marriage) registrar citing menstruation as a disqualification.

A user commenting on the Facebook page of Meye [Woman], a network of feminists, lashed at the verdict:

ঘোষণাটিতে পিরিয়ডকে শারীরিক অক্ষমতা বলা হয়েছে, দেখেই বমি পেয়েছিলো। এই যুক্তিতে তাহলে সকল নারী যারা ঘরে থাকেন বা বাইরে কাজ করেন তাদের সবাইকে পিরিয়ড চলাকালীন সময়ে তাদের কাজগুলো থেকে অব্যাহতি দেয়া হবে কারণ তারা শারীরিকভাবে অক্ষম? এই প্রথা তো আগে প্রচলিত ছিলো, এমনকি পিরিয়ডের সময় বাড়ির বাইরে স্থান হতো মেয়েদের। তাহলে কি আমরা পেছনের দিকে হাঁটছিনা?

I almost vomited reading the verdict, which called the menstruation cycle as a physical disqualification. According to this argument, should women who work at home or outside will be exempted from their jobs during the menstruation cycle, because they are physically disabled? This sort of argument was prevalent in the middle ages, however, even during those times, women were allowed outside the house. So aren't we walking backwards?

Screenshot from the Facebook page Earki

Screenshot from the Facebook page Earki

The verdict also prompted several memes being shared on social media. Popular satire page Earki (joke) shared:

নারীজীবনে পিরিয়ড একটি স্বাভাবিক জৈবিক প্রক্রিয়া। পিরিয়ড হওয়া কোনো অস্বাভাবিকতা নয়, বরং না হওয়াটাই অস্বাভাবিক। এই স্বাভাবিকতাকে সাথে নিয়েই নারীরা এগিয়ে যান নিজ নিজ কর্মক্ষেত্রে, অর্জন করেন আকাশচুম্বী সাফল্য, কিংবা টিকে থাকার সংগ্রাম করে চলেন নিরন্তর।

Menstruations or Periods are a normal biological process in a woman's life. This is not an abnormality, but very natural. Women move forward in their respective fields of work carrying this natural uniqueness, they succeed, or continue to struggle for survival.

(translation from the memes)

During their menstruation cycle, Bangladeshi women can:

* serve in the armed forces and fight during wars
* be doctors and perform operations
* conquer mountains
* cook and feed others
* serve as a day labourer
* fly an aeroplane
* be a bodybuilder or other professional athlete
* can be in leading positions in the country – like the Prime-Minister, leader of the opposition, Speaker of the parliament, a minister or a judge.

But they cannot be a Qazi/marriage registrar.

Marriage law in Bangladesh

Marriage laws in Bangladesh – which is a secular state according to its Constitution – are based on a combination of old religious and civil laws. Religious communities such as Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians follow different systems of practices and laws for their marriage, but they have to obtain a marriage registration certificate under the state laws to validate their union.

For Muslims, the Qazi operates as “Nikah Registrar”, and is appointed by the government to register marriages under the Muslim Marriages and Divorces (Registration) Act, 1974, and the Muslim Marriages and Divorces (Rules), 1975.

Mohammed Badrul Islam, a Bangladeshi freethinker, questions the government's ban on women being Qazi in one of his tweets:

Performing the marriage ceremony and registering the marriage are two different tasks. Each marriage is performed by a religious leader or elders using the respective religious laws, but the registration is done as per the state laws. Both the bride and groom have to fill out a form and sign to register the marriage. How can menstruation impede this?

It is also important to distinguish the specific meaning and function of Qazi in the context of Bangladesh, as the term can have different meaning across the Muslim world. In Islam, the term Qazi usually means a magistrate or judge in a Sharia court with vast judicial power. However, in Bangladesh, a Qazi is merely a registrar, who does not perform other judicial functions as per the old Islamic laws.

Iftekhar Jamil, a Muslim religious scholar, sheds some light on the popular belief that women cannot be Qazi in Bangladesh according to Muslim religious schools of thoughts, quoting examples of Muslim traditions that indeed allow women to serve as Qazi: 

নারীরা কি কাজি হতে পারেন? হানাফি মাজহাব মতে হুদুদ-কিসাস বা ফৌজদারি অংশ ছাড়া বাকি বিভাগে হতে পারেন। ইমাম তবারির মতে সব বিভাগেই হতে পারেন।

রেজিস্ট্রির লেখক বা রাষ্ট্রীয় এজেন্ট যাই বলেন না কেন, একজন মহিলার এই দায়িত্ব পালন করতে কোন বাঁধা দেখি না। নারীরা এসব দায়িত্ব পালন করলে পর্দা রক্ষা করতে হবে, সেটা তো সবাই জানেন। পাশাপাশি পিরিয়ড থাকুক বা না থাকুক মসজিদের বাইরে থেকেই দায়িত্ব পালন করতে পারেন।

Can a woman be a Qazi? According to the Hanafi school of Islam [the majority of Bangladeshis are Sunni and they follow the Hanafi Islamic jurisprudence], a woman can be a Qazi except for being a judge in criminal proceedings. According to Imam Al-Tabari, women can also perform as Qazi for criminal proceedings.

Whatever you call a Qazi in Bangladesh – a ‘marriage registrar’ or a ‘state agent’, I see no obstacle for a woman to perform this duty. It is a given that a woman has to be modest and follow Purdah if they perform these duties. Even during the period of menstruation, they can perform their duties outside a mosque [given that as per Islamic regulations, women having their periods are not allowed inside mosque].

Meanwhile, Ayesha Siddiqua has filed an appeal against the High Court verdict and has vowed to keep fighting against the ruling that deprives her of accomplishing her dream.

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