Saturday, July 14, 2007

WAY awesome Bangladeshi kids (OR: Community Power and the Domestic Sphere, if that's more your style)

Utterly swamped with work over the past couple days, I hate that I left whatever readership the fledgling blog (can I call it a blogling?) has acquired at this point on a bit of a hiatus. But someone's got to make sure that crazy people don't become the Surgeon General. All the worse, I left y'all on a down note with the post on domestic violence. But fear not, I'm back and I have good news.

In an incontrovertible display of badassery, local Bangladeshi children intervened to stop one of their classmates from being forced into marriage by her father.

Classmates of a 13-year-old Bangladeshi school girl due to enter a forced marriage have united to stop the ceremony going ahead, police say.

Around 50 pupils in the town of Satkhira took to the streets to demand that Habiba Sultana's wedding be called off, they say.

Pupils even submitted a petition to police urging them to take action.

Apparently, the police actually acted on the demands of the children. After summoning the father and ordering him to cancel the marriage, they forced him to sign a bond in which he agreed not to wed his daughter while she was still a child. Child marriages are illegal in Bangladesh.

Though I certainly don't want to be read as saying that arranged marriages are morally equivalent to domestic abuse, I think there are grounds for comparison between what went right in this instance and what so frequently goes wrong in addressing domestic violence through the courts in the United States (see the post below for more on that).

In both instances, a powerful male is enabled by familial power dynamics to exert nearly uninterrupted power within the home. The article about Sultana notes that she did not resist the marriage herself because she was too afraid. Fear of violent reprisal from the abuser is a frequently cited reason for not resisting domestic violence - and a good one: women who attempt to fight with or flee from their abuser are more likely to be seriously injured or killed.

What makes all the difference in countering male power in the domestic sphere is the existence of a community power structure that women and children can access. The United States' divorce and custody courts, as the past article showed, are all too frequently not part of such a power structure. When they decide not to investigate claims of abuse, they cut off women and children from the possibility of intervention and leave the abusers power unchallenged. What went right in Bangladesh was that the police were willing to do just the opposite (although under considerable pressure - 50 of anyone at your local police station, even 13-year-old children would be difficult to ignore). But that also goes to show the importance of informal community power dynamics in protecting victims of mistreatment within the home. Because Sultana could relay her fear about her father and the marriage to her classmates, they could intervene on her behalf. Ultimately, what made the community power structure a benefit to Sultana, rather than the hindrance that community and state power structures so frequently are, is that there was synergy between Sultana's immediate social network and the state agency, which made the police susceptible to the demands of the community.

I think the moral of this story may well be the (not terribly surprising) revelation that democratic community power structures can alleviate domestic violence by permitting women and children to seek interventions which balance out the inegalitarian power relationships of the domestic sphere. Letting bureaucrats and judges make top-down decisions without any accountability simply doesn't give women and children the stake in the system that they need. So democratization all the way down, all around. (Though all said I'm not entirely thrilled by imagining a world where you can get your abuse claims promptly investigated but only provided you can marshal a batallion of angry women to kick ass at the courthouse). So that's the moral if your a theory hack anyway. A less academic lesson is simply that those kids are made of 100% awesome, and its always uplifting to see young people organizing to give power to the powerless. I hope their parents are proud.

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