Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Population

BANGLADESH-CULTURE: Marriage is a Family Decision

Tabibul Islam

JAMALPUR, Bangladesh, Jan 12 1997 (IPS) - Hakim Ali is an unlikely- looking Cupid but, at the age of 70, he is still busy as a matchmaker – bringing young men and women together in marriage in this rural district, 200 kms from Dhaka.

Parents turn to him for help in arranging the marriage of their sons and daughters. He advises them on the most suitable brides and grooms, and assists in the delicate negotiations over dowry.

Bangladeshis are still very traditional when it comes to marriage. Young men and women, particularly in the villages, have no say in who they will marry – often seeing each other for the first time only on the night of the marriage.

Matrimony is a family decision taken by the family elders with assistance from matchmakers like Hakim Ali who travel from village to village finding the perfect match.

Jamalpur has many matchmakers, but “Hakim bhai”, as he is better known appears to be the best known. Villagers say his success stems from his “good behaviour and impressive manner of speaking” thatb gives him the edge over others. Also, a reputation for “taking whatever his clients give him” in the way of a fee has boosted his stocks.

The job takes up all Hakim bhai’s time. “It is actually very tough,” he admits. “It involves a lot of travelling, talking to parents and close relatives on both sides.”

What he gets paid is his only source of income. Payments, he explains, varies according to the client’s ability to pay. He earns between 100 takas and 500 takas, which is roughly 12 dollars, for each case, he says.

There was more work in the old days, he reminisces, saying that he has been a matchmaker since the 1920s. “Then everyone depended on us. … Now families have broken up, people have migrated to towns.”

Traditional matchmakers have also been affected by competition from “marriage bureaus”, a still mainly urban phenomenon. They are offices, where parents can select a bride or groom from catalogues. Though expensive, they are very popular. Dhaka alone, for instance, has 12 marriage bureaus where parents can also check out details of the family history for fees which vary between 150 and 500 dollars.

But in the villages of Bangladesh, matchmakers still play a role in fixing up marriages. Hakim bhai is still called upon by anxious parents on the lookout for “suitable” brides and grooms.

The matchmaker also has a role in sorting out disputes over dowry, which is the price paid by the parents of the bride to the groom. Until the early part of this century, dowry was unheard of amongst Muslims in this part of the Indian subcontinent. Now it is widespread in Bangladesh, even though it is banned under Bangladeshi laws.

But the ban has not stopped the practice, and parents are prepared to go to any extent to fulfill even unaffordable demands because to have an unmarried daughter in the house is a worse social stigma.

Now wealthy Bangladeshi families expect a girl’s parents to pay for their son’s education abroad if necessary as part of the dowry. Demands for a new house or a car are common.

The most eligible men in Bangladesh are either doctors, engineers or professionals with jobs abroad, whose parents insist prospective brides must be “fair complexioned, competent home- makers”.

Marriage Bureaus say they find it most difficult to find a match for working women, because most men do not want to marry a woman who is better qualified. Even women who are working, let their parents decide their partner. Almost no one has challenged the practice of dowry either.

Among the working class, families ask for large sums of money, gold jewellery or a bicycle as dowry, which has been found to be one of the main reasons for indebtedness among the rural and urban poor.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in a report has identified dowry as “increasing the economic hardship of the rural poor”. It has emerged as one of the main causes for indebtedness among the rural and urban poor and one of the main reasons for divorce. Several studies here and in India, where it is widely prevalent, have established this link.

It is also the cause of deep mental anguish in women, whose parents have not been able to meet the dowry demands made by their husband and in-laws after the marriage. Women’s groups say there are instances of women committing suicide because of harassment over dowry, though most cases go unreported.

An activist in Dhaka, Rashida A. Amin, said countless numbers of women endure “inhuman physical and mental torture for failure to meet dowry demands”. The poor, particularly, are unable to seek the assistance of law enforcing agencies, she added.

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