As our time wore on in Bangaldesh, the women opened up more and more in the interviews. We learned much about what life is like for them.
They were all cheerful when we first met them. Behind the smiles, however, are often tales of frustration, fear, and tragedy. Our worst story was from a woman who had come into her marriage with a substantial amount of property–amounting to about $3,700–but whose husband, a lazy and self-absorbed man, spent her fortune, reducing her to making crude handicrafts to try and feed her children. This family regularly goes without food, but the husband goes to his parents’ home to eat and does not include his wife and children. He also beats his wife every two days, just to show her who is in charge.
Lazy husbands who beat their wives can be found in any country, of course. But some of the cultural practices here conspire against the women. We were struck, as have been others who have studied communities in south Asia, with the plight of the daughters-in-law, especially those who were young and whose husbands were working abroad.
As mentioned in an earlier blog, a large proportion this random sample had husbands living and working in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, or Singapore. I was shocked to find that some of the men had been gone 15 to 20 years or more. The males abroad still call and send money (and sometimes shampoo and other toiletries), but in several cases, it had been many years since they had visited home. Twice, when I asked the respondent how long it had been since her husband had visited, she had difficulty remembering. So, I asked, looking at a child in her lap or leaning against her, “Is he the father of this child?” Of course, he was. “How old is the child?” In one case, four; in the other case, seven. And that conception was the last time she saw him.
The absence of the husband is problematic for many reasons. Of particular concern for us was that the faraway husband could not advocate on behalf of the wife or children with relatives. In several cases, we heard of teen-age daughters whose education was about to be terminated because of the wishes of in-laws. Usually, the birth parents of the girl both wished her to continue the education, but because the husband was absent, he could do little and a daughter-in-law is a person of no standing in a family.
In fact, it was a clear pattern that the young women who were left behind in the homes of their in-laws, often by husbands to whom they had been married only a short time, became, in essence, hostages. The husband nearly always sent the remittance to his parents, leaving the wife to beg for every tiny need. The father- and mother-in-law made all decisions regarding both the wife and her children, and usually set strict limits on their mobility, their education, their clothing, and every detail of life. The young wife all too often became a Bangladeshi Cinderella, cooped up and made to do never-ending housework.
The mothers-in-law were, in fact, so controlling that we had trouble getting privacy to talk to the respondents. The older women simply would not leave the room. We would politely ask them to leave, only to have them re-enter the room minutes later. Eventually, we arrived on a diversionary tactic: we interviewed the mothers-in-law at the same time. Engaging our Jita friends to conduct a faux interview in the front yard–where all the extended family and neighbors could watch and participate–allowed us to have quiet and privacy with the main respondent.
But it also taught us something about these relationships. Our Jita friends had four questions to ask while they stalled to give us time. Two of them were:
What differences are there in what young women can do now that they couldn’t do before?
What can you do that young women today can’t do?
We learned a lot from the consensus around these two questions. First, young women today can move around more freely than their mothers could. But, by acclaim, they are lazy, while the older generation is very hard-working. (Sound familiar?) Importantly, all the respondents mentioned the education gap between these generations: while it was common for the young women to have gone as far as five years in school, the older women often could only write their names and could read nothing.
Perhaps this helps to explain the frequency with which we heard stories about mothers-in-law putting a stop to the education of the young women their husbands married. The usual excuse was that the young woman might run away or “meet someone.” (Another way of saying she is truly a hostage.) But you could also see that if the mother-in-law were threatened by the greater education of her son’s wife, one defensive move would be to simply slam on the school brakes.
There was so much tension between them that I began to wonder why these families encourage their sons to marry. After all, if the young man is going to leave and send them money anyway, they might do better just to let him remain single. But the culture operates on a dowry system. So, the bride’s family actually gives the groom’s family money to take their daughter. Big infusion of cash right at the start. Then, if the groom immediately left for Dubai, which was very often the case, it gave his parents a steady income stream if the daughter-in-law stayed with them and the husband sent them the money. The groom’s parents then can manage their profit by not honoring the wife’s worldly needs or those of her children. This is not to mention they get free maid service.
An older woman I interviewed in the context of these groups gave further insight. In this compound, the “top dog” was a woman about 80 years old. She had had five sons. All the daughters-in-law lived in the compound. One of the sons, however, had been dead for ten years. His wife, who had been married to him for 20 years before he died, is now about 60. She works cleaning roads during the day to provide for her four daughters. As it was explained to me, since this woman had had no sons, she had to work to support herself. Never mind that she had been scullery maid to this lot for twenty years before the husband died–they apparently felt no obligation to help support her or her children. I was told that some women in this situation are sent back to their birth parents. This woman was lucky in that she was at least allowed to stay in the house where she had lived with her husband.
So you can see that being married provides little or no security. Only having a son does. Thus, nearly all of them reported having felt pressure to have a son. And, in this culture, it is still widely believed to be the woman’s fault if no children, or no son, is born. We were struck by the level of infertility problems in the village (though, with all the men gone all the time, you have to wonder).
And you can then understand further the tension between the mother and the wife of the same man. They are both utterly economically dependent on the same person. Competition for his favor and support, as well as efforts to control him, would necessarily be intense.
And what about the daughters? Why would they enter into this situation? Well, there is the occasional love match, I am sure. But for the most part, these were arranged marriages. The daughter, however, is not given a say-so in who she marries, nor is her mother usually consulted. Even one of the apparently best relationships we observed, the one in which the man trusted the woman to run the household in his absence, had a sad record on this score. He had agreed to marry his lovely young daughter, still in school at 16, to a man whose family lived nearby. She doesn’t like the new husband, but at least he had the good grace to leave for the Middle East shortly after the nuptials. But the in-laws, who imposed severe limits on her freedoms compared to when she was at home, also wanted her to quit school. The girl’s father, her mother, and her husband, as well as the girl herself, wanted her to continue in school. But the in-laws were implacable. And it was, in the practice of this culture, their call.
We heard stories like that over and over. Girls forced to leave school to pacify more traditional in-laws, in order to be in marriages that, in truth, offer them very little security and present substantial constraints on their freedom.
And what happens to these girls if they resist? Well, that’s where the violence comes in. The week we were in the field, one horrible news story from Afghanistan told about a girl being beheaded by a spurned suitor for marriage. A very early blog on this site told of the state of Iran giving a woman blinded by a would-be husband the right to blind him back. These stories surface occasionally in the press when they are particularly brutal or pose an unusual legal precedent, but, sad to say, on the ground they are more common.
One of these reluctant brides was the most cheerful little thing you ever saw. She would wait out on the road to greet us when we came to visit her house. You would never suspect that she had been forced to marry a man she disliked, was kept like a hostage by her in-laws, and been withdrawn from school after having reaching the equivalent of high school–all an arrangement she had no say in entering.
Does this count as forced marriage? Does it count as slavery?
A cheerful face makes it easier to say this was an “arranged,” rather than a “forced” marriage. But force is the right descriptor if the woman was not asked and was given no choice but face violence. An economic arrangement where the person is not getting compensated for their labor, is not free to leave, and is held in place by violence or the threat of it–these are the conditions that constitute the official definition of slavery. How does this practice diverge from that definition?
To be sure, there were marriages in our sample that seemed to be happy. And couples who shared decisions and seemed to treat each other with respect. But these were all the more poignant because they were rare.
So what would you do? Run away before they married you off? Well, actually, that is what hundreds and thousands of Bangladeshi girls do. I spoke to my friend Asif Ahmed, of the economic development unit at CARE Bangladesh, a long-time partner who has worked with the young women in the factories for years. He says a substantial proportion of them are runaways.
Just like the girls sleeping in the doorways in Accra. Just like the girls who joined the factories in 19th Century America. There are so many parallel threads in our stories.