Inheritance is the process by means of which property, assets and obligations are passed from one individual to another upon the former’s death. It involves the distribution of the deceased person’s wealth according to legal rules or personal wishes, often outlined in a will. In many religious traditions, including Islam and Hinduism, principles of inheritance are deeply rooted in religious texts and customs.

In Bangladesh, personal legal matters, like inheritance, are governed by religion-based laws. This means Muslims, Hindus or Christians will have different set of laws guiding inheritance. Since Bangladesh is overwhelmingly Muslim, with Muslims making up nearly 90% of its population, inheritance issues among the Muslim community are uppermost in the discourse.

For the majority of Bangladeshis, then, inheritance is influenced by Islamic law. This typically dictates that male heirs receive a larger share of the inheritance than female heirs. This can lead to the economic marginalisation of women by limiting their control over property ownership.

In Bangladesh, a Muslim’s personal issues (like marriage, divorce and inheritance) are governed by two core legal instruments: the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 and the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961. These archaic laws were introduced before Bangladesh’s independence from colonialism.[1] Both still shape the landscape of Muslim personal law in Bangladesh.

Globally, there are ongoing efforts to reform inheritance laws. The aim is to promote gender equality and economic parity. These reforms face challenges because of deeply entrenched socio-religious beliefs.

In a traditional Bengali wedding ritual, a father applies turmeric paste on a daughter’s forehead in the Gaye Holud (or turmeric-spice celebration), Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2 October, 2013 | Photo by Jubair Bin Iqbal.

Women’s property in Islam

According to Islamic law, women are entitled to inherit property from their parents, husbands and children. The share of a woman is entitlement depends on her relationship to the deceased and the presence of other heirs. For example, a daughter is entitled to half the share of a son. If there is no son, the daughters together inherit two-thirds of the estate.

A wife gets one-eighth of her husband’s property if she has children. She gets one-fourth if she does not have any children. A Muslim marriage is essentially a contract. A woman is also entitled to a marriage gift (commonly known as mahr) from her husband, which becomes her exclusive property. The amount of the gift is agreed at the time of marriage. It is a critical aspect of the Muslim marriage contract because it gives the wife financial security.

The laws in Bangladesh are designed to protect the rights of Muslim women to inherit property. However, their enforcement is inconsistent, and women often struggle to claim their rightful share owing to societal norms.

De jure, based on Islamic law, women have the right to inherit property, but de facto the situation plays out differently. In reality, women are frequently denied their lawful inheritance rights.

De jure, based on Islamic law, women have the right to inherit property, but de facto the situation plays out differently in Bangladesh.

A global perspective

Women’s land ownership and the challenges Bangladeshi Muslim women face are part of a global story. The debate regrading women’s land ownership transcends national boundaries. This is a crisis of inequality.

With less than 20% of landholders worldwide being women, the disparity in land ownership indicates a pervasive gender gap. The reasons behind less land ownership among women include discriminatory laws, cultural norms and economic impediments.

Yet evidence suggests that, when women own land, it benefits their families and communities. The community sees improved nutrition, health and education outcomes. In the heart of South Asia, a movement is underway, challenging centuries-old norms related to land ownership by women.

South Asian women face systemic barriers to owning land, a fundamental asset that ensures economic stability. Despite their significant contributions to the economy, women’s land ownership remains alarmingly low. This disparity is a profound violation of human rights.

The gender divide in land ownership is a global challenge as a result of similar legal and socioeconomic barriers. Empirical evidence shows that, when women own land, social inequality reduces.

Why must women own land?

Land ownership is crucial for women’s empowerment. Being a landlady means a woman’s voice is valued in household and community decisions. It also acts as her safety net against poverty. In fact, women’s land ownership is a national development issue.

Bangladeshi Muslim women, like their counterparts elsewhere, face challenges in owning land. Some of the challenges are:

Societal stigma: There is a deep-rooted societal belief in male stewardship of family assets. This is underpinned by the assumption that men are the primary providers for the family. This belief system influences the distribution of inheritance.

Lack of awareness and legal support: Many women in Bangladesh are not fully aware of their legal rights. They also do not have the legal tools to deal with infringements of these rights. Legal battles regarding land issues can be lengthy, costly and emotionally taxing, deterring women from pursuing their rightful inheritance.

Economic dependence: A vicious cycle deprives women of their inheritance. By denying women their rightful inheritance, they are effectively deprived of access to assets that could provide them with economic independence.

Traditional customs and practices: Women’s rights to property are often undermined by traditional customs that favour male heirs. Women face pressures to relinquish their inheritance rights in favour of their brothers or male relatives. This is a mediation processes forcing women to prioritise family unity over individual rights.

What is the next step?

The inheritance problem is deeply entrenched in Bangladesh. To bring change, the country first needs an honest dialogue on the issue. Addressing the oppressive aspects of Bangladeshi inheritance law requires an all-of-the-above effort, covering legal advocacy, legal reform and normative change. Here are some strategies that could initiate a national dialogue.

Education and awareness: Bangladesh should raise awareness among women about their legal claims. The strategy should entail education campaigns, community workshops and legal aid services.

Legal reform and enforcement: Bangladesh should reform existing laws to ensure they are applied equitably. The reform provisions should push for stronger enforcement mechanisms in the inheritance regime. Moreover, stakeholders like judges, lawyers and law enforcers need training on the importance of equal inheritance.

Bangladesh should reform existing inheritance laws to ensure they are applied equitably.

Community engagement: Bangladesh cannot counter inheritance discrimination without engaging community leaders, religious figures and social influencers. This perception-change needs dialogue and media engagement.

Economic literacy programmes: In a resource-constrained society like Bangladesh, comfortably living with inheritance is as important as claiming inheritance. This can be done through women-focused financial literacy programmes, investment opportunities and entrepreneurship incentives.

Is a woman worth half a man?

In inheritance, the daughter’s share is equal to half of the son’s share. By this logic, a woman is worth half a man. In Bangladesh, inheritance laws derived from traditional interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence are coming under scrutiny for their gender-biased provisions. The story is similar across all personal law regimes.

In Bangladesh, inheritance laws derived from traditional interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence are coming under scrutiny for their gender-biased provisions.

For example, in the Bangladeshi Hindu inheritance regime, not all daughters of a man are equally eligible to inherit. Moreover, issues like chastity and remarriage regulate women’s right to husbands’ property. The Buddhist community follows Hindu law for personal matters.

The personal law in Hindu and Buddhist women’s cases also infringes on equal rights. It reinforces how patriarchal legal systems fuel economic dependency for women across the board. This oppressive legal framework needs to be reformed urgently. Bangladesh must revise laws to ensure equal inheritance rights for women of all belief systems. The law is for the people; the people are not for the law. Therefore, these laws need to be amended.

A call for action

The women’s quest for land ownership is an equality issue that is currently receiving only lip service. This is a reminder of the ongoing struggle for real gender equality. Removing the barriers to women’s land ownership is a foundational step towards empowering women. In Bangladesh, policy-makers, civil society and international partners must champion the equal rights of women to own land. This is crucial to sustain the country’s development. For Bangladesh, women’s equal land ownership is more than a legal issue. In this quest for equality, work lies ahead for activists and policy-makers alike.

 

[1] The Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act of 1937 was introduced during British rule and the Muslim Family Laws Ordinance of 1961 during Pakistani rule.

 

Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu

Miti Sanjana is Founding Partner of the Legal Counsel. She is a lawyer. She is an Advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, a board member of the Bangladesh–India Business Council of Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry and Associate Director of the Institute of Conflict, Law and Development Studies. She pursued her undergraduate studies at the University of London and was called to the Bar of England from Lincoln’s Inn.