As a teacher of students including girls at the University level, I am aware of some of the personal problems they face. These problems are usually challenging and help them grow up. But sometimes they can be destructive too. A lot of it has to do with social changes and history as it changes rapidly and many are left behind as others move forward. One such problem is that of marrying the daughter off even as they are looking to make their way in the world.
The older generation has changed less over time and feels bewildered at these transitions. They look at a more secure world which may or may not have existed. And in clinging to past behaviour patterns they are looking for assurance and safety in today’s insecure world.
This insecure society- from physical to the social- exerts enormous pressure on all. For many of the older generation, giving their daughters in marriage, often against their will, is a sign that they can’t handle the pressure of contemporary life. But this trend is now creating conflicts in many cases.
Two cases: Amena and Salma
These girl students have grown up in a world which is fundamentally different from that of their parents in many ways. In other cases, they remain the same. But in many cases the transition has been very quick and both are out of breadth. The girl students are having to cope with pressures coming from male led single income households. But they themselves are not going to be able to live in such households in their own life.
These girls would like a number of identities including professional ones. They want to do well in exams and also get prepared for a professional life. Many are doing very positively despite many pressures and difficulties. With all the hassles that they are handling, they are also gaining confidence and becoming ready to make a mark. In some ways, they are the most emerging powerful group in society, reframing what the new middle class looks like.
Amena is from the middle class with outside Dhaka roots. She has stayed in an informal hostel/mess with three other girls and passed her exams. She did an internship for few months, qualified for an entry level job in an NGO and soon found a much better one with a career path attached to it. Yet what almost drove her to look for something part time even, as she was studying was her incessant parental pressure to get married. Why?
Because if she doesn’t get married now no one will be around and so who will look after her? The would be “boy/groom” didn’t matter – good or bad- but the marriage did which basically meant her being taken care of. So it became a major issue for the parents and one in which the girl was almost desperate to flee. Luckily, her job gave her the freedom to make some choices. “When I marry and if I marry, it will be because I want to and not because I have to.”
Salma is also from a comfortable upper middle class family. They have economically done well but socially and psychologically remain located in their more stable mofussil environment which they left behind years back to make it in Dhaka. The values they have now are the same they had when they moved. As times changed the family was actually cleaved by transition.
The older daughters have gone the traditional route and settled into a life where they lead a socially conservative life that revolves around the will of the husband. For them it has worked at least on the surface but it has also meant accepting whatever the husband says even if that’s unfair and selfish. They weep in secret but accept it.
Salma is very different because she went to the University- the only MA in the family- and grew up with a much more determined attitude towards life. She has no intention of depending on the husband and listening to all his wishes like her sisters. Not only has she got job but has now formed a group with her friends and doing freelance work that has made her at least for the immediate future financially independent.
Her parents want her to get married because “everyone has to get married” attitude. The girl knows the absurdity of her situation because she leads am externally conservative life but is already “liberated”. Unlike the old fashioned “feminist” liberation followers of the earlier time, her lifestyle is moderate but her work style is not.
She has moved up rapidly in the new economic opportunities offered by the changing world. To her, marriage is an unknown world which may threaten her career, her life’s ambitions and objectives. She also finds little to approve in the boys her parents refer to her. Compared to her she fids they are boorish, unsophisticated and as she realizes, less articulate. She neither wishes to make anyone feel small nor wishes to give up the opportunities she has earned for herself.
Marriage yes but.
Salma also has a point of view which many don’t share which is that marriage is not the only source or space to find fulfillment in life. She finds most marriages are not happy unions and would rather not marry. At home, things are bad with fights every day and family insisting that she marry or else. Point is she can actually move out and be on her own. She knows that but her parents don’t and that is creating the situation more difficult to bear as emotional issues are becoming bigger every day.
This is not about blaming or accusing anyone but hoping that people realize how times have changed and girls in particular have made immense strides. The two girls are not of the same kind. One is more outgoing while the other is a hijabi. One is more adventurous, the other focused on a risk free journey. But both are responsible and looking to build a world of their own making. And it is in this intention that the conflict has arisen. That conflict is with history and not really their family.
Parents represent the past living in the present and the children are at present building the future. Both are behaving as history chooses them to. That will not change but the parents need to recognize that in today’s history, for both boys and girls, marriage is only a part of bigger reality, not the only one. It wasn’t so once, now it is.
The bottom line is simple: if the girls want to marry, fine. If they don’t want to marry, fine. But it’s not the end all in life. The country, society, family and the individual are defined by a life greater than a social practice and custom. Some will deviate, some negatively, some positively so let it be. Let the girls flourish in whichever ways they choose to.