Up until August 27th, marriage forms in Bangladesh required women to state whether or not they were “kumari,” the Bengali word for “virgin.” But after five years of legal battles by women’s rights groups, the High Court has finally replaced the word “virgin” with “unmarried.”
Women’s rights groups in Bangladesh have been fighting the form’s word choice since 2014. They’ve described it as “humiliating and discriminatory,” and have long considered it an invasion of privacy. Requiring women, but not men, to disclose their sexual history reinforces the idea that a woman’s value is determined by her sexuality.
Ainun Nahar Siddiqua was one of two lawyers supporting women’s advocacy groups throughout the legal battle. Shem like many other advocates for women’s rights, believes that the form violated a right to privacy.
Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority country, is a nation whose culture is deeply inspired by ancient traditions. These traditions assert women’s inferiority and prohibit them from living autonomously. Women are historically mistreated and continue to be targets of gender-based violence. Recent incidents include a young girl being set on fire after reporting her sexual assault, and a man disfiguring his wife for wanting to puruse higher education.
Determining a woman’s value with her sexuality directly contributes to the high rates of child marriage that exist in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries. Data from the International Center for Research on Women revealed that in Bangladesh, 65% of married women in their 20s were married as children.
In similar cultures across the world, older men prefer to marry young girls, as they are presumed to be virgins. Virginity in a daughter is synonymous with high honor in her family, so the protection of a young girl’s virginity ensures the security of her family’s honor. This stifles a young girl’s individuality and hinders her from growing into an independent, self-ruling woman.
That’s why changing the form was so important for women’s rights groups in Bangladesh. The ruling not only positively impacts today’s women, but it sparks hope for the next generation. Women’s rights groups consider this a first step in expanding women’s rights in Bangladesh.
“It’s a ruling that gives us the belief that we can fight and create more changes for women in the future,” said Siddiqua.