THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - El­lie Both­well

Rabia Bhuiyan is a lawyer and an ad­vo­cate for women’s rights in Bangladesh. She was the coun­try’s first prac­tis­ing fe­male lawyer and first fe­male bar­ris­ter and served as min­is­ter of so­cial wel­fare and women’s af­fairs from 1985 to 1987, dur­ing which time she in­tro­duced a law to help poor women in the coun­try re­ceive main­te­nance and dower money at a low cost. In 1989 she co-founded the Bhuiyan Academy, which of­fers dis­tance learn­ing law pro­grammes from the Univer­sity of Lon­don. She is au­thor of the 2010 book Gen­der and Tra­di­tion in Mar­riage and Di­vorce: An Anal­y­sis of Per­sonal Laws of Mus­lim and Hindu Women in Bangladesh. Dr Bhuiyan was awarded an hon­orary de­gree by the Univer­sity of Lon­don last month

● Where and when were you born?

I was born in the beau­ti­ful and his­toric city of Dhaka, British In­dia – now Bangladesh – on 1 March 1944.

● How has this shaped you?

In my fam­ily, ed­u­ca­tion was of para­mount im­por­tance. As my fa­ther was an in­spec­tor of schools, I had ac­cess to the school li­braries at an early age. I read many of Shake­speare’s plays, Tol­stoy’s sto­ries and mytholo­gies that had valu­able mo­ral lessons. My fa­ther used to tell us sto­ries about fa­mous peo­ple who worked for so­cial jus­tice and the ben­e­fit of mankind, which in­flu­enced me and shaped my life and vi­sion.

● Why did you de­cide to fo­cus your work on im­prov­ing lives for women in Bangladesh?

I grew up in a fam­ily where there was no dis­tinc­tion be­tween a girl and a boy, which was not found in most fam­i­lies at that time. While I was in class seven [around nine years old], I wit­nessed my favourite teacher be­ing mer­ci­lessly beaten by her hus­band, but she could not seek a di­vorce be­cause of so­cial stigma. Again, one of my close rel­a­tives, mar­ried at an early age, was tor­tured by her un­faith­ful hus­band, yet she could not di­vorce him. I was shocked and de­cided to do some­thing for the help­less women of Bangladesh.

● How well do you think women’s rights have pro­gressed across the world?

Vi­o­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion are present across all cul­tures and in ev­ery so­ci­ety. From the mid-1970s on­ward, the elim­i­na­tion of vi­o­lence and equal­ity and devel­op­ment of women came into dis­cus­sion at the United Na­tions. The Con­ven­tion on the Elim­i­na­tion of All Forms of Dis­crim­i­na­tion Against Women (Cedaw) was adopted to end vi­o­lence and world con­fer­ences were held. Mea­sures and strate­gies have been taken by states, women’s or­gan­i­sa­tions and NGOs, bring­ing progress. But still we find vi­o­lence, sex­ual abuse, and sell­ing women as slaves even in the most de­vel­oped coun­tries. So a spe­cial ef­fort is needed in ed­u­cat­ing women and men. Women must raise their united voice against the dom­i­na­tion of pa­tri­archy.

● What can uni­ver­si­ties do to help im­prove op­por­tu­ni­ties and work­ing con­di­tions for women?

Univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion en­hances the knowl­edge, abil­ity and mo­ral strength of women to find suit­able jobs or start an in­de­pen­dent pro­fes­sion. There is al­ways a great de­mand for grad­u­ates of world­class uni­ver­si­ties. But fe­male grad­u­ates can­not al­ways take ad­van­tage of those op­por­tu­ni­ties. Uni­ver­si­ties can help by ar­rang­ing job fairs and invit­ing dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies and pro­fes­sional bod­ies to at­tend. Uni­ver­si­ties can also con­duct sur­veys on work­ing con­di­tions, fa­cil­i­ties, pro­tec­tion from ha­rass­ment and whether or not there is any wage dis­crim­i­na­tion ex­pe­ri­enced by their grad­u­ates.

● Why did you cre­ate the Bhuiyan Academy and what kind of grad­u­ates do you hope the in­sti­tu­tion will cre­ate?

When my hus­band and I re­turned to Bangladesh from the UK in the 1970s there was no other fe­male prac­tis­ing bar­ris­ter ex­cept me for more than a decade, be­cause it was dif­fi­cult for many stu­dents – es­pe­cially fe­males – to pur­sue le­gal ed­u­ca­tion in the UK by spend­ing money and stay­ing for a long time. I wanted to cre­ate a path that would en­able women in

our coun­try to be­come aware of their rights and cre­ate their own des­tiny, so that they could also help oth­ers to cre­ate their own. So we de­cided to open Bhuiyan Academy to pro­vide a dis­tance­learn­ing law de­gree from the Univer­sity of Lon­don.

Univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion en­hances the knowl­edge, abil­ity and mo­ral strength of women

● Has your ex­pe­ri­ence as a lawyer helped you as an ed­u­ca­tion leader?

My roles as a lawyer and as an ed­u­ca­tor are in­ter­re­lated and some­times over­lap. When I pre­pare and present a case be­fore the court, I have to an­a­lyse law, ev­i­dence and le­gal prece­dents. When I teach my stu­dents, I do the same thing. When I talk to men and women in the vil­lage, I ex­plain to them about var­i­ous laws, women’s rights and in case of vi­o­la­tions, how to take le­gal pro­tec­tion. In my pro­fes­sion, I never take a case that has no merit. I ex­plain to the client about the laws and merit – and I never charge for such a con­sul­ta­tion.

● Tell us about some­one you’ve al­ways ad­mired.

Mother Teresa, whom I have al­ways ad­mired and loved so much. Once dur­ing her visit to Bangladesh, as min­is­ter for so­cial wel­fare and women’s af­fairs, I was sup­posed to re­ceive her at the air­port, but I was too ill to go. Hear­ing this, she came to my res­i­dence with her whole en­tourage, in­clud­ing an arch­bishop and sis­ters. She sat with my fam­ily mem­bers and prayed for me. She told me: “Pray to­gether, eat to­gether” with fam­ily, which I al­ways re­mem­ber. Her sim­plic­ity and ex­tra­or­di­nary ded­i­ca­tion and care for aban­doned and lep­rosy-af­fected chil­dren is un­for­get­table.

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