September 2nd, 2009 14:50 EST
No-Choice Marriage Unions in Bangladesh's
Dhaka (Women`s Feature Service) - Amena comes and sits opposite me with two mugs of steaming hot coffee in her hand. She hands me one and sits on her bed. I`m sitting in her fifth-floor apartment in Mohammadpur, which she shares with her husband and three-year-old daughter. She is clearly intrigued by the phone call I made earlier that day telling her that I would be interviewing her for a story I was writing. "I`m a boring college teacher with a wonderful husband and daughter," she says to me, "what `human rights` story could you possibly get out of me?"
Ignoring the sarcasm in her voice I check to see whether the kids in the house were overhearing us and ask whether her husband was at home. "You say you`re happily married," I say, "but it`s also true that four years ago your parents and relatives forced you to get married to Raihan, right?" "Ah!" she exclaims, "so this is what it`s all about."
Amena was 30 and anyone who knows the Bangla middle class society knows that at that age a woman is expected to be `happily` married, preferably with a child. Amena was in a relationship with a man whom she hoped to marry as soon as both were ready. Her relatives were unaware of this relationship. But they made it their business to constantly worry about her `future`` - which was marriage to the right man. Her relatives from the village were worried the most. One of them had even mentioned in passing that there was a curse on the women in Amena`s family. It had to be lifted. The wisest of them got together and consulted a `pir` (Muslim saint). She was flooded with amulets and given holy water.
Everyone had a theory about why she wasn`t getting a good marriage offer - too skinny, too dark and, at 30, too old. Finally, a well-meaning neighbour came with a proposal. A 34-year-old businessman was looking for a bride. Everyone agreed that there was no way to let go of this man. And by this time Amena, who was going through a rough patch with her boyfriend, was emotionally burnt out. Relatives and neighbours took it up as their responsibility to `convince` her until she had no choice but to agree to the nuptials.
There is nothing unusual about this story. It happens every day. From the moment a girl is born, jokes and conversations within family circles centre around her marriage prospects. Before she even learns to understand the social dynamics of a marriage, discussions around her delve into the finer details of whether she will make a good bride. Is she too stubborn? Does she talk back? Is she too dark? Does she have good lifelines on her palms?
By the time she`s four she gets infused with the thought that she has to get married at a certain age and everyone surrounding her has the right to decide implicitly who she is going to get married to. It is also culturally inculcated into a girl that she is not expected to discuss her sexuality, or marriage prospects openly. In Amena`s case she could not tell anyone that she was in a relationship. She eventually had to give in when she did not find a friendly ear.
Legally, a forced marriage is only recognised where people are coerced into a marriage against their will and under physical or emotional duress. Under those terms Amena`s marriage would not be called a `forced marriage`. She willingly signed the `kabin` (marriage certificate) papers. However, her story offers a springboard to looking at the wider issue of marriage - where coercion can be overt, but also subtle.
Rahnuma Ahmed and Milu Shamsunnahar write in their book `Brides and the Demand System in Bangladesh` (Centre for Social Studies, Dhaka, 1987): "A girl is socialised into believing that `only parents know what is best for her` and `lojja` (a sense of shame) as a value operates in such a way as to make it a very exceptional case when a girl does not agree to the marriage arranged by the parents or elders."
Section 366 of the Bangladesh Penal Code makes it a "criminal offence to kidnap or abduct any woman with the intention of compelling, or knowing it to be likely that she will be compelled to marry any person against her will." Unfortunately, even with that, there are rarely any cases of forced marriages recorded and reported. The police often refuse to acknowledge it when the parents of the girl are involved. It is socially accepted that the parents have the right to take a decision on their children`s behalf.
Dina M. Siddiqui writes in her essay `Of consent and contradiction: forced marriages in Bangladesh` (`Honour`: Crimes, Paradigms and Violence Against Women, 2005), "...hegemonic cultural forces and practices, reinforced by ideologies or `purity`, `honour` and `chastity`, make it difficult for individual women or girls to resist the `inevitability` of marriage, since it constitutes an integral part of the social identity of men and women. In such circumstances, both `consent` and `coercion` are notoriously slippery." She goes on to say that the boundaries between arranged and forced marriages are "frequently blurred" and it begs the question of how to draw the line between "different degrees of socially acceptable and unacceptable `force`."
The perception that forced marriage is a problem of the `uneducated` was challenged in a case that received wide media coverage last year. In December 2008, a case was brought to court by Dr. Humayra Abedin, 33, with the help of a human rights organisation, Ain-o-Salish Kendra (ASK). The case was against her own family for confining her against her will. She had come to Dhaka from London in August after being told that her mother was seriously ill. As soon as she arrived, her parents hid her passport and plane ticket and held her captive. She was allegedly forced to take mood stabilisers and anti-psychotic drugs until she confirmed that she would not be returning to the UK, and would give up her British job and disassociate herself from everybody she knew there. On November 14, she was forced to get married to someone against her will. After a fierce legal battle, and after the High Court in England also passed orders requesting the co-operation of the Bangladesh judiciary and the authorities, her parents finally allowed Humayra to go to the Bangladesh High Court. She was finally released and immediately returned to the UK later that month. The court also declared her marriage in Bangladesh annulled after she asserted that she signed the marriage certificate under duress.
The culture of exerting emotional pressure leads to many `forced marriages` that no law in Bangladesh is ready to acknowledge. Marriages without consent have led to suicides and honour killings on the one extreme. On the other, because of social expectations, many women live their lives without ever finding out how it would have been had they been able to make an independent choice.
There is a fine line between `consent` and `coercion` and all the actors involved in a marriage know exactly to what degree the coercion needs to be to generate the desired outcome. It will take a long time for a patriarchal society to let go of what they see as their `responsibility` of being in control of a woman`s life.
By: Hana Shams Ahmed
(Â© Women`s Feature Service)