Interview with Rabia Bhuiyan

The women’s rights lawyer on growing up in Bangladesh, meeting Mother Teresa and uniting against patriarchy 

April 12, 2018
Rabia Bhuiyan

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. She 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. Needy relatives used to stay with us and study at my father’s expense. Our lifestyle was very simple. 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 considerable 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 world-class 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 distance-learning law degree from the University of London.

Has your experience as a lawyer helped your role 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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