Child Marriage debate: The Freedom of (not) being married in Bangladesh

Nasrin Siraj[i]

IT HAS been almost 24 years that I am conducting research as a student of anthropology. All these years, I have been working mainly with the fluid and dynamic peasant society of Bangladesh. I write today drawing from this long term engagement. I will particularly draw from my recent research experience focusing on the contrast between young people’s desire and realities regarding marriage.

Thoughts put together here came to my mind in the context of recent debate on child marriage. I want to contest the way our demagogue state leaders have tried to justify the enactment of child marriage with special provision.

According to a press statement from the Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, prime minister Sheikh Hasina defended the special marriage provision in the parliament on December 7, 2016. She blasted the NGOs and individuals who critiqued it saying, ‘They are far away from reality. The law has been framed taking the reality of our society into consideration.’ She further added, ‘A law can never be rigid, there must have an alternative in special cases, particularly in case of unexpected pregnancy of any girl under 18. Otherwise, it may be disastrous for the society.’ Then, she moved on to describing the opportunities her government has created, ‘Girls are being given scholarship for higher studies to lessen the burden of education on their guardians so that the girls and their guardians do not become worried for their marriage at early age.’ It is the ‘reality’ she has emphasized in her speech that I want to examine here.

Illustrating on lived experiences of women and the way they have encountered state and society from the margin, I ask, in the name of ‘reality-check,’ what structural realities that our decision makers trying to mask? And, what real cries and needs of working class young women they chose to ignore?

On the occasion of Independence Day 2017, it would not be inappropriate to ask, are the structural conditions in place for a young woman to fearlessly access the free education that prime minister is boasting about? What freedom do young women enjoy in independent Bangladesh?sports photo

A reality of distrust and failure of state agencies

MY FIRST story comes from a Bengali-Muslim landless poor household living in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. During 1980s, they were brought here as part of a state scheme to make claims into the Jumma lands and to change the prevailing demographic character of the region in which local ethnic minorities were majority. The state promises of a better future that allured landless Bengalis to migrate to the Hills remained unmet. Occasionally, they become main perpetrator of ethnic violence, participated in massacres against the minorities. Inequality however followed them to the hills. They faced socio-cultural exclusion and violence from the locals.

In this harsh state-project, my friend Jamila could not even gain access to primary school. However, in her teens, she joined a centre to learn tailoring with the hope that this would change her economic situation and social status. She could not continue. It was not because she was unwilling. It was also not because of economic hardship, the course was free. It was because, and I describe her obstacles as she related to me:

I did not even reach the age of menstruation. I used to wear frocks and half-pants. But somehow, I’ve attracted the attention of Masud (now, her husband). He was also young like me. He came from Mymensingh to visit one of his aunties living in my neighbourhood. He started to routinely follow me to the centre. One day, he stopped me and grabbed me by my arms to say that he loves me and wants to marry me. If I disagree, he would commit suicide. I cried to Allah. I did not know what to do. In our neighbourhood, gradually everybody came to know about his ‘affection’ towards me. I started wearing full-pants and scarf so that nobody would blame me for making him fall for me. But, you know the people of our neighbourhood. You will not find any good and sensible person here. So, one day, he stopped me and forced me to get on a rickshaw with him and covered us under the hood. He had some friends with him. They were making sure that no passerby could intervene. In the rickshaw, I was dying in shame. What if someone from our neighbourhood see us like this. Nobody will believe me that this intimate meeting was against my will. Even if someone understands, the shame will be all mine. I cried to Allah again. I thought, Allah is the only protector of my dignity. If he has written my fate like this, then who am I to go against it. Then I told him, ‘you want to marry me, huh? Let’s go to a Kazi office [marriage registry office] then and get it done.’

The story of Jamila and Masud is not extraordinary in the context of Bangladesh. Most probably in social terms this situation would be categorised as marriage by eloping (paliye biye kora). When I first listened to Jamila, I asked to myself, ‘Is Jamila married to her stalker or lover?’ But I didn’t dare to ask that question.

No matter from what class a Bangladeshi woman comes from she is subject to gender and sexual division, discrimination and violence. Gender and sexual oppression within family and conjugal relationship is common. In fact, the belief that women are inferior to men turn out to be so natural in Bangladesh, challenging it appears foreign and western, even regarded as expression of insanity, madness (‘pagal naki!’). I continued to visit Jamila to find answer to my question.

Many times, I have noted that media, NGOs and the state agencies chose to interpret these forms of lived experiences as people’s blind faith to Islam. Instead of going to a police station, Jamila had chosen to submit to Allah’s decision (bichar). At a distance, it would definitely appear that Jamila is an unaware/unconscious citizen, even superstitious. And, for decades, mainstream politician has been relying on this interpretation in order to defuse and deny the real demands of women in the margin. Clearly, Jamila did not trust her society or the state machinery to protect her. I wonder, when our prime minister referred to ‘the reality’ did it include cases like Jamila. Perhaps, not.

I assume, prime minister too has resorted to the dominant interpretation of our society which regards Bangladesh and its people as ‘dhormopraan (passionately religious).’ As if only poor, religious people (and not modernist people or as if modernity precludes religiosity) allow their daughter to be married at an early age or domestic violence and rape.  I have also noted that molested and raped women were married off to their perpetrators through shalish (negotiation by local leaders). In these cases too rhetoric are not about ensuring safety for women or seeking justice for her, it is about justifying social prejudices against women as in, ‘this is suitable for our sociality which is very religious, traditional.’ Similarly, when our prime minister is referring to ‘society’ and ‘reality’ to justify child marriage with special provision, she is in fact trying to distract public attention from the government failure’s to ensure a socio economic situation in which young women could thrive, excel and avail free primary education or skill development courses.

In this context of state failure, it makes perfect sense to me why Jamila chose to ‘elope’ with her stalker than sought help from her society or state agencies. In my interpretation, her submission to god is not a simple instance of hopeless peoples’ obedience to forces beyond our actual reach. On the contrary, it depicts a concrete rationality, which has to do with the feeling of complete distrust of Bangladesh’s law enforcing agencies and local leaders to ensure security of women citizens.

In order to provide more evidence to my claim, I will continue with more stories of Jamila and her neighbours. Stories about their individual experience of raising children, the dreams they have for their children and obstacles they face from the state and society that compel them to abandon those dreams.

The contrasting dream and reality

IN 2013, I started visiting Jamila and her neighbours. I still visit them occasionally. Jamila and her husband Masud are in their 30s now. Their household is temporarily based on a 4 decimal bashat vita (homestead). Masud normally works as a daily labourer or overseer mainly in construction sites. Jamila works as a household help for middle class families. They have two children.

As I developed a trustworthy relationship with this family, I asked Masud what would he do if her daughter (she was 14 then) elope the way Jamila did in her young age. Masud responded, ‘No boy even dares to stare at my daughter.’ He attempted to convince me, since he was known in his neighbourhood as a leader of the ruling party, his daughter was protected from stalkers. Few days later, however, I came to know the daughter is skipping school. When I asked Jamila what was the matter, Jamila told me, a young boy is following her daughter on her way to school. Even their patron-client relationship with the ruling party could not protect her daughter. With much frustration, she continued,

I want to leave this area. Can you take me with you? My children are not going to thrive here (ora manush hobe na). I always keep an eye on her, hide my mobile phone [so that she cannot speak to her ‘admirers’], but the men around me are all inhuman (omanush). They either roam around to pollute (molest or rape) or to elope young girls. This boy’s mother even convinced a local AL leader, so that I agree to marry off my daughter with that boy. My daughter is still young. I want to make her a lawyer.

Like any other ordinary mother, Jamila dreams a different and better future for her daughter. When I shared Jamila’s parental wish to make her daughter a lawyer, many people, particularly educators, expressed their optimism. For example, one professor from Jahangirnagar University shared similar experience from his research with me. He observed that recently no matter how poor the peasants and labourers are, they send their children to school. I do agree with my professor, but after a longer observation with marginal peasants in different parts of Bangladesh, I found the reality is more complex.

One day accidentally, I found out Jamila’s eighth grader daughter could not even spell simple words in English. She was trying to save my phone number in her mother’s mobile. I asked Jamila, ‘what about schools here, do you like those?’ This is what she said,

In the school, there is no encouragement or practice of studying. The Apas (women school teachers) of the school come, take classes and then the students are free. What do you expect the children would do? They play, fight and waste the whole day. But you look at our madarasa. There is always a hujur from dawn to dusk to keep the young ones stay close to their books. Not only Arabic, they also teach English language, mathematics, and Bangla. In the school there are many extra costs in each month. And the Apas, they demand gift from students. I buy pen for my son’s teacher almost every month. I don’t have much money. I am poor. Still I send my children even to private tutors.

Many times my research participants have spontaneously shared their despair and frustration with regards to the primary school system. They chose to talk about this topic, even when I was not probing. Their eagerness to talk about this particular problem is because of the predominant assumption that institutional education will eventually open up opportunities and improve the socio-economic condition of a family. The discussion took this direction also because of my presence. I think Jamila, Masud and others interlocutors I have met during my different research engagement interpreted my relatively higher social mobility — earning higher wages, travelling distant places, sharing diverse ideas — as a consequence of my greater access to education.

In my last visit to Jamila, I came to know that her daughter is now married to the boy who was stalking her. I was not surprised. Rather, in my view the marriage of Jamila’s minor daughter is an obvious consequence of the structural inequality and patriarchy that is continually reproduced in Bangladesh since 1971. We did not fight the war of independence for this day to come. On the contrary, we fought against Pakistan’s oppressive regime because we wanted to claim our equal and sovereign citizenship rights. Today, only the ruling elite enjoy the state protection and services. The public, particularly women are fighting discrimination every day.

In light of these stories, the recurrence of child-marriage in Bangladesh is the consequence of structure inequality. More specifically, it is the outcome of complex social situation in which state agencies have failed young women in poverty. It seems, the prime minister prefers to create special provision in which marrying a stalker at a young age or as she says, marrying a rapist to give legitimacy to the rape child will continue to be a reality than taking up the challenge of undoing the structural condition of inequality and violence. Probably, this new provision for child-marriage is just a step to ‘shaak diye maach dhaka,’ a trick to mask the failure of the state to provide an emancipatory environment for women in the margin to live and excel in life.

 [i] I like to thank Saydia Gulrukh for editing the piece thoroughly and making it readable. The piece was first published in the Daily New Age on 28 march, 2017.


Categories: বাংলাদেশে নারীবাদ

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