KONG YEN LIN
When Hasron Idrishi was unable to afford the dowry her in-laws demanded after her marriage last year, her husband dowsed her with kerosene and set her on fire.
Hasron was rushed to Bir Hospital in Kathmandu overnight for treatment and survived, but the burns disfigured her, and she is still emotionally scarred. Not one to suffer in silence, she took the case to court and won. Her husband was sentenced to six months imprisonment, but Hasron says the sentence was too light.
Domestic violence has been endemic in the western Tarai. Rising female literacy, instead of decreasing these crimes, seem to be making it worse. As more and more young brides become more educated, they challenge the dominance of the husband-leading to increased violence. Muslim and gender activists are now calling for constitutional safeguards against domestic and gender violence.
"Not only should there be stricter enforcement of laws punishing perpetrators of spousal abuse, there should also be family law courts to cater to customary rights of Muslims, especially in the case of divorce," says Mohammad Shahid Reza, a counselor at the Nepalganj-based Fatima Foundation. The group recently held orientation lectures in 75 venues in 23 Banke VDCs to educate the women on their constitutional rights.
"Awareness of their situation is the first step towards reform and equal participation," says Fatima Foundation's Maimoona Siddiqui, "if their rights were to be codified in the new constitution, it would greatly empower them and help them progress."
Educators are also hoping for syllabus changes where madrasa and mainstream education are combined. "In that case Muslim students can learn about modern knowledge and languages like English and Nepali while staying
connected to their cultural roots," say Abdul Daffar Khan, a teacher at Ideal Public High School.
Nepal's Muslims, who make up one-tenth of the population and half of who live below the poverty line, see the new constitution as a landmark opportunity to improve their socio-political marginalisation. Only 17 of the 600 CA members are Muslim. Representation is equally dire in the army and police.
"Muslims are actually more vulnerable than Dalits in terms of problems like low life expectancy and poor access to education and employment opportunities," says Muslim CA member Mohammad Ishtiyak Rai, "the first thing on the agenda is to make sure that Muslims are represented at the decision-making level."
Says Mustaq Durai, of Rural Society Upliftment of Nepal: "If the government lends its support through the districts, we could better tackle Muslim problems at the grassroots."