House of Cards

Shahana Siddiqui.

Published in Forum on 5 April 2011.

questions the social pressures which keep people bound to unhappy relationships.

Only a few years ago, we would hear about the distant relative or family friend going through a divorce in hushed voices and by-the-way-have-you-heard tones. Mothers and aunts would share the little details they gathered from their extensive networks that even put Facebook to shame! And of course, there were those horrible stories of the fathers snatching the children away or the mother fleeing the country in the middle of the night.

And then, among the less fortunate women, all of us have a story of Dulal’er Maa who was abandoned by the horrible torturing husband and had nowhere to go and found shelter in our homes. Dulal grew up with us and his mother was our ever faithful house-help. But we also viewed divorces/separations as a norm within “their” class structure — bhabi, oder modhe toh amader moto atoh maya nai.

And so the gossip would continue for hours on the analogue telephones.

The analogue phones are gone, so is the hushed gossiping. Now our mothers and aunts are on their cell phones, vivaciously managing pick ups and drop offs of their grandchildren — offspring of their own recently divorced children. Mothers and aunts are no longer talking about some distant cousin or Dulal’er Maa, but rather exchanging divorce lawyers’ contacts, details of how the “bitch got away with everything” or “that loser never gave the den mohor”. These ladies are now somehow or the other, decently or dirtily, too busy trying to mend their own children’s broken hearts and homes.

And as for the Dulal’er Maa-s, they have now graduated to becoming Guitar or Russell’er Maa, and there are just one too many of them in the country to provide shelter to. And in any case, they prefer their own place in the urban slums, work at the garments factories or beauty parlours and completely confuse all middle-class romanticisation of the poor. Divorced women with multiple partners!

Bhabi, oder toh amader moto nay — niti bolte kichhu nai.

Divorces have gone up at phenomenal rates. Correction, divorces were always there but we all presumed they happened to Dulal’er Maa-s, not to us. Statistics are unavailable, not because the cases cannot be counted, but rather we do not want to put a number to our social fabric falling apart. The larger society, both urban and rural, is still unwilling to talk about the big bad “D” word!

Separations are taking place across socio-economic classes, religious and ethnic groups, initiated by men and women alike. While only a few years ago, voluntary exodus from a bad marriage with a child/children was practically unheard of, today, several mothers (and fathers) make the difficult decisions to go separate ways even after having children. Suddenly, it’s all too real, too close to home.

Majority of divorces are still happening due to violence against women, and the severity of domestic violence should never be undermined or underplayed. Daughters are taught to take the abuse, because jamai’rah ektu erokom korei. But at least women who get out of abusive marriages receive some sympathy. Those who leave their marriages out of personal “unhappiness” are gossiped about, judged, dehumanised.

The generational gaps in terms of choices, both materialistic and spiritual, were manageable between our grandparents’ and parents. Few of our parents who had love marriages, were each others’ only sweethearts. While in the majority arranged marriages, especially with our mothers, they never set eyes on any man other than their grooms on their wedding nights. Women especially upheld the famous Shabana dialogue laal saree pore baaper baari chherechhi, shada saree pore phirbo. Because women in one way or the other are made to believe, (yes another Shabana dialogue!) shaami’r paayer niche stree’r behesth! Divorce was blasphemous for them. Even leaving the husband’s home for a few days was hardly an option.

Marriage was always viewed as a social and economic gathering of two families in the South Asian cultural context. To separate would mean to cause disruption in social norms, destroying good relations and destabilising the society in general. It is not to say love and respect were not there, but that they would come later.

So our parents stayed together — for more than one reason. The lucky ones found love in their long paths of being together. The not so lucky ones “stayed on for the sake of the children”.

And then suddenly, everything changed. Globalisation, media, consumerism, mobile phones and SMS, Facebook, foreign education, private universities, international competition, push for modernity and its resistance — the list goes on. We turned into a culture of blatant contradictions. We are willing to watch Indian actresses shake their paatli komar in skimpy clothes, but insist that our daughters maintain purdah and propriety. We are willing to pursue co-ed education but allow romantic relationships only if it is going straight into a marriage! We will send our daughters abroad to the best universities but all they are supposed to bring back home are the degrees, not ideas. To our sons the advice is always: You can date firingees baba, but please don’t marry one!

The current 25-45 year olds in Bangladesh, irrespective of socio-economic status or urban-rural divide are in many ways a transitional, experimenting, guinea pig, stuck in the middle of nowhere yet everywhere generation. There are so many choices, but no one is helping us make the right ones. Families and values as we once knew are changing yet instead of addressing the issues, we hide, fabricate, keep pretending all is well, all is halal.

Mothers who themselves were helpless against their in-laws, instead of breaking the shoshur bari nijer bari philosophy, teach their daughters conniving ways to get around in-laws’ pressures and expectations. Fathers want their sons to be men, but do not teach them how to be gentlemen. Urbanites are allowed to date quite openly, but within six months into a relationship, especially the girls, are expected to set a date for engagement and marriage.

While it is apparent from the 150 million population that we are a highly sexually active nation, to speak about intercourse is blasphemous! Thirty-year-olds are still trying to find a friend’s empty house or a dodgy hotel to perform what is a basic humanly function. All hushed, all quiet. To live together before marriage is a sin of the highest order and a guaranteed expulsion from the good society as we know it!

For the urbanites, somehow we are to know each other, love each other, build a home with one another based on a few constrained dates and interactions, emails and text messages. This is not to say that relationships in Western cultures where these free flowing interactions and domestic partnerships are allowed have worked better, but there is a respect for the individual and individualism which prevents divorces from turning into the entire family’s Greek tragedy! Here, we even have to think about strategic separations and divorces based on grandmothers’ health situation!

Why even go as far as a divorce? The kabin-nama, the pre-nuptial agreement for Muslims can be utilised for the women’s advantage — yet, how many families use this document to safeguard their daughters? No matter how educated or financially sound, the bride’s side is always coy and servile to the groom’s demands. Women are not even taught to claim their den mohor at the point of the ceremony (as it should be) or at any point in the marriage or divorce, because it isn’t the polite thing to do!

For a few years I kept hearing that divorces are happening among the educated, too much Westernised, (my favourite) “loose” girls and boys! But alas! Such great observations have been challenged fiercely with middle class, devout Muslim girls (and boys) who have done everything by the book, leaving the husbands (wives) because of “irreversible differences”. Meanwhile, poor women who took the beating, the violence day in day out are learning to survive when the good for nothing husbands finally leave them.

Why only women? Men are no longer happy being married to the good girl their families chose for them or the women they once fell head over heels in love with.

While we pride our Bengali-ness/South Asian-ness on the importance of family and community and especially family values, we are now questioning what is the relevance of these values when families fall apart and communities abandon us. For the first time, as a society we are viewing each other as individuals and hence, learning to put our personal happiness before societal directives.

Personal happiness and choices are finally being recognised, though not without taboo and stigma. The legal system in particular remains highly prejudiced against mothers and especially their rights over their children. While progressive laws may be emerging, the process of acquiring those rights and services remain difficult for those without power and money.

Maybe it is time for us to stop being bashful and embarrassed and openly talk about love, sex, marriage, relationships and what it all means for evolving Bangladeshis. Maybe it is finally time to look at these “lokjon” of loke ki bolbe — where are they when our homes fall apart, hearts get broken and children are taken away?

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