DHAKA, Bangladesh — It’s wedding season in Dhaka. The invitations have gone out — thick, gilded envelopes inviting people to functions at fancy hotels. Apartment buildings, sometimes even entire city streets, are festooned with fairy lights.
A school friend of mine (I can’t use her name) married when we were both in our 20s. It was, by all accounts, a thoroughly modern love match. She had known the groom since high school; they had both attended college on the East Coast of the United States, and returned to Dhaka after completing their degrees.
It was a fancy wedding, with imported flowers, D.J.s, matching outfits for the entire wedding party, a hotel reception, a three-tiered wedding cake and a honeymoon in Bali. As wedding gifts, they received a car and a furnished apartment.
A few weeks after the wedding, my friend told me a story I’ve never forgotten. She said she had gone to her in-laws’ house for lunch and that her mother-in-law had cooked shrimp curry, a favorite of the newlywed couple. As the dishes were served, her husband’s mother announced: “Make sure you give the biggest shrimp to my son.”
This surprised my friend, but she smiled obediently, as one is supposed to do in these situations, and served up the biggest shrimp to her husband. A week later, they were invited to lunch at her parents’ house. Shrimp curry was again on the menu. This time, it was her own mother who said, “Give the biggest shrimp to your husband.” In my view, this was the beginning of the end of my friend’s claim to equality. Perhaps that sounds petty — what’s a couple of shrimp? — but the story hints at a greater injustice.
When my friend went to her in-laws’ house, she was asked to make a show of serving her husband when he was perfectly capable of serving himself, in a house where, technically, she was the guest and he the host. And then, even in her own home, her status was reduced. Equality, it seems, ends at the wedding gate.
You couldn’t call her match an “early marriage” — that term is reserved for women who marry below the legal age of 18 (as a majority here do, some as young as 12) — but I believe she married too young. She was educated, chose her own husband, and went on to have a successful career. Yet there is a subtle form of hegemony masked by the pomp of a lavish wedding and a pretense of equality. And it dictates that a daughter-in-law is someone to be scrutinized and a son-in-law to be exalted.
A recent study by the development organization Plan Bangladesh and the nonprofit International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh, showed that 64 percent of women aged 20-24 were married before the age of 18. Early marriage and early motherhood are the cause of a host of social and health problems, from a greater incidence of domestic violence to an increased risk of child and maternal mortality. Young brides stop going to school (according to Unicef, 5.6 million Bangladeshi children have dropped out of education early because of marriage) and thus have fewer opportunities for employment, and, crucially, little knowledge of their rights within marriage.
To the dismay of Bangladeshi NGOs, health workers and activists, the government’s response to this study has been a proposal to lower the legal age of marriage to 16. The minister for women and children’s affairs, Meher Afroz Chumki, commented: “In our country, girls become matured by the age of 14. This may become a burden for many families. If the country allows the parents to marry their daughters off at young age, many social problems may cease to exist as well.”
The minister for health and family affairs, Zahid Maleque, confused matters further by insisting that the problem was elopement, claiming that “rural adolescent girls run away from home to get married.” What united the two officials was the idea of an adolescent girl whose sexual maturity is a danger to her family, and of marriage as a way to control female sexual behavior. This, rather than a system that limits choices for young women, was the problem in their view.
Bangladesh is credited with having made great strides in gender equality through an emphasis on girls’ education and better access to health care. The government is also expanding a system of stipends aimed at keeping girls enrolled through secondary school.
But these programs can’t succeed until marriage stops being a prized rite that a woman must undergo at a young age, forfeiting her independence, her educational attainment and, in many cases, her emotional and physical well-being.
For a girl in a remote village, the reasons for marrying early are largely economic. Families often marry off their daughters to avoid hefty dowry payments since the younger a bride is, the less her parents have to pay.
My friend who had a big-city wedding seems far removed from the village girl whose parents force her to marry in her teens, but they are part of the same system. The glorification of marriage, in which parents spend a huge slice of their income on a wedding, means that their children can’t withstand the social pressure to marry young.
The responsibility of our elected officials should be to protect young women from regressive customs that limit their potential, not change the rules to massage government statistics. Despite the politicians’ inadequate response, the future looks promising: Studies show that the rate of early marriage is declining. But we have a long way to go to reverse the age-old assumption that an adolescent girl is a problem to which the solution is marriage.