A friend confessed to me yesterday that he was having a rough day; he was confused and wanted some help. The story is one that I have heard too many times here, and it is one to challenge cultural practices around the world. The Marriage Dilemma.
Marriages are a strange proposition here in Bangladesh. My friend's sister got married just before Christmas 2007 to a guy she had only met once. This may seem strange to a North American or European audience, but here in Bangladesh and India this is the norm.
The process starts:
- A girl's mother and father decide their daughter is of a proper age for marriage (this age depends on many factors including education, trust, financial stability, and more).
- A boy's mother and father decide their son is of a proper age for marriage (all the same factors are involved)
- The girl's parents find a trusted friend or relative to look for a suitable partner for their daughter.
- The boy's parents find a trusted friend or relative to look for a suitable partner for their son.
- Those friends or relatives searching for a marriage partner then begin the search, they listen to gossip about those who may or may not be near ready to get married, they listen to stories from people who have been to other villages for news of someone wanting to marry.
- Finally those searching friends or relatives find each other and they start talking. Discussed are matters such as finances, gifts, ages and family expectations.
- Once everything is fixed, the wedding proceeds within a few months.
And there is the process. This cultural process is followed consistently by Muslims, Christians and Hindus. This method of choosing marriage partners is a good way to keep families happy (most of the time), and to keep the community happy. And everyone knows, happy communities make for happy families. Of course, it doesn't always work.
The idea of a "love marriage" here in Bangladesh, is one of communal shame and sadness. It is a choice a young person makes to marry because they truly love as opposed to marrying to maintain their position and their family's name. Marriage here is not based on two people's choice to spend their lives together, it is based on the community.
Back to my friend's story. His sister got married to a man she had only met once before. That was 7 months ago. Now come the problems. The gifts were not given in full, and the families begin to quarrel. Another girl (a Muslim no less) comes on the scene. And the problems begin.
Now here is the dilemma. There is a girl who this boy thinks he likes. She is nice and they get along well, but they can't really learn about each other because in this society that is taboo. Now this boy is married, but married to a girl he still doesn't know, married because his family told him so. What must be going through his head? What do you do when there is someone you were told to learn to love? What if that love never materializes? These are the questions of marriage. Why should he remain faithful to someone he never loved, and married not of his own volition? The flip-side. He is married. There is a woman who, pressured or not, he married. In this society she is very much dependent on him and what he does. What morality would he have to be unfaithful to his new wife? How much damage would he do to him and her by being unfaithful? What to do?
The other side of the dilemma. There is a girl whose reputation will be ruined if her husband leaves her or is found to be cheating. How can she be loved? How can she maintain her reputation with a man who she doesn't love and never loved her? What must be going through her head? Why does she slave for this man in the kitchen? Why should she raise his children when he just goes from woman to woman? Why should she remain with this man who she never loved, and married not of her own volition? What to do?
The community. The people who in effect caused the dilemma and will never be affected by it. The people who will gossip and spread rumours about husband and wife, often blaming the wife if something goes wrong. The wind to spread the flames of doubt and hurt, the community is a force that inhibits and makes its will known. The community is the powerful force keeping the system in place.
There is the marriage dilemma. Two young souls, joined in "love" sanctioned by the community. Two young people, with their lives ahead of them but one of life's biggest choices made for them. Two young lives, changed forever by their familes. My friend asked me what he should do, and I don't know. The dilemma is a dilemma for a reason. The answers have their benefits, they have their downfalls, and two young lives are at stake. The Marriage Dilemma.
Peace and Wisdom.