Married to fate

January 24, 2008


‘She had told me so many times,’ mutters the woman in her early 60s. There is barely any expression of pain on Hazera’s face or in her voice. Often she repeats the same things about her daughter and at other times, she chants, ‘She had told me so many times: “Ma, he never looks at my face. Ever since we got married, he has never looked at me. It is as if I were a curse — as if I were wrong.” I just thought everything would be fine.’

   In 2001, when Hazera’s twenty-six year old daughter, Shahida Sultana Lovely was taken to the USA by her older sister, her mother had thought it would change their lives for good and also give her daughter a wealth of happiness —marriage with a green card holder, an apartment, a settled life in the US and financial support.

   ‘We had gone through so much. My husband is dead and my sons are all settled, I had put all my hopes on Shahida supporting me,’ says her mother. ‘She had told me, she was beaten up by her husband. She had told me that whenever she spoke of getting the citizenship papers signed, he would hit her and create chaos. I thought she would pull through and be fine. But I was wrong.’

   A few days before her murder, Shahida had called home for the last time. ‘Ma, I need to speak to you and you need to listen to me for once,’ she had said in low whispering voice.

   ‘It was Eid day,’ remembers Hazera. ‘I needed to pray; she promised she would call me back and tell me what was wrong, but she never did. And the next time I got a call from the US, it was tell me that my young daughter had died.’

   Almost a month after the brutal murder of her daughter by her husband Solaiman, Hazera Khatun is yet to find that the feelings of loss and guilt have sunk in. ‘I do not know why she was killed. I do not know why this happened.’

   On the morning of December 22, just a few days after that conversation with her mother, Shahida was stabbed to death by her husband, while she was asleep in her apartment at Queens’ Jamaica in New York, 10,000 miles away from her mother’s house in Rajshahi. Her four-year-old daughter, Tasnia Zenifar, now under the custody of her aunt, was found sleeping peacefully beside her.

   ‘Shahida was always ambitious and wanted to make it big,’ says her cousin Habibur Rahman. ‘She never mentioned any problem and the death was so sudden. The last time I spoke to her she was talking about finding a job as a nurse.’

   Shahida grew up in Jotgosai village in Godagari upazila, Rajshahi. After her father’s death, the family suffered financial problems. In 1996, her older sister Ferdousi Begum, moved to the USA with her husband and children.

   Meanwhile, Shahida had to look after her mother, and after completing a diploma in nursing, she worked for a while at the Islami Bank Hospital.

   ‘Her older sister took her to the US with a visit visa and Shahida was confident that she would get a job,’ says Habibur. It was her khalu (maternal aunt’s husband) who worked as a driver in New York who suggested that Shahida should get married to Solaiman, a green-card holder, originally from Chittagong. This meant Shahida would not only have a settled life, but also acquire American citizenship. ‘Khalu organised the wedding and we hoped she would be happy.’

   ‘We had no idea what he did,’ says Shahida’s mother. Even after six years of marriage, Shahida did not know her husband’s occupation. ‘As she told us that he never spoke or looked at her, we just assumed that he was the conservative and silent type,’ explains Habibur. ‘Besides, she never spoke of any serious problem other than the occasional row.’

   While her statements to her mother and reported comments by neighbours show that Shahida was unhappy throughout her marriage, what led to that incident that morning died with Shahida. Her husband, now in custody, admitted he had killed her but refused to give any reasons.

   Needless to say: Shahida’s case is not an isolated one. Her murder once again, indicates that women like her need desperate help. Since the mid 1960s and ‘70s a significant chunk of migrants have settled in countries such as the US, the UK and other parts of Europe.

   While migration is often presented as beneficial for South Asian individuals, it can pose specific problems for women, particularly uneducated women, struggling to learn a new language and adapt to a new environment. Over the years, forced marriage has become one of the most prevalent problems. Women, like Shahida, are being married off to men abroad and end up badly, isolated, tortured or dead.

   Apart from forced marriage cases, there are countless cases, most of which are unreported, of not just murder and domestic violence, but also cases where women find it increasingly difficult to cope with the new surroundings. That domestic violence and torture is prevalent in Bangladesh and all across the world, is a fact. But what makes it more difficult for women like Shahida, is the fact that they are miles away from home, in a completely foreign country.

   For one, most often their husbands are not supportive or are completely different than they had expected and secondly, once they are subject to any kind of abuse or are frustrated, they have no where to go or do not know how to deal with it.

   ‘Most Asian men marry from back home, because they need a maid or because their parents want them to,’ writes Nazia Saman, a student of law at SOAS in England.

   Most reported cases, show few significant reasons- most Bangladeshi and Asian women do not know the language well and as a result, they cannot speak up or communicate in any way and seek help or even support from others. Secondly, most often, such marriages are arranged by parents, rather than the couples themselves.

   ‘My husband married me because his parents wanted him to,’ says twenty-six year old Tasmin Mahnaz (name changed) ruefully. ‘He also needed a maid- someone who could keep his house clean and entertain him when his white girl-friend was away.’

   At twenty-two, Tasmin had dropped out of university in Dhaka and married. Her in-laws had assured her that she could complete her education abroad. ‘I had met my husband twice before marriage and he seemed to be willing to work on a marriage and be understanding and all of that was so deceiving.’

   Even though Tasmin was well-educated and had good command over her English and was well aware that she cannot take the torture, it took her three years to walk out of that marriage. ‘I had always stood up against abuse and all sorts of torture inflicted upon those around me, but when it came upon me— I did not know what to do,’ she says fighting back tears. ‘He had the scariest temper and when I spoke back, he would hit me and torture me in all sorts of ways. When I wanted to walk out of the marriage, he would promise me, he would never repeat it, so that I gave him another chance.’

   ‘I waited for the longest time for him to change,’ says Tasnim, who left Canada a year ago and came back to Dhaka. ‘I also wanted to make sure my parents do not suffer because of me. My father is a heart patient and my mother has been ill —the last thing I wanted to do, is see them hurt and suffer. And more than anything else, I did not want a broken marriage.’

   Despite such cases, there are increasing numbers of people going abroad each year and a high number of women are married off, in the hope of a good future. ‘For some reason or the other, the whole idea of getting your daughter married to a man who lives in Bidesh is the dream of every mother in Asia,’ adds Nazia.

   It is no wonder that in about 100 years America’s population will climb to 600 million and the white (European Caucasian) people will be a minority. A significant number of Bangladeshis, in fact, have been migrating to Britain since the early ‘60s. According to the 2001 census there are around 282,000 Bangladeshis in Britain. Of these, 46 per cent were born in Britain and half of these migrants live in London, but there are many in the West Midlands and north-west of England. Almost 40 per cent are under 16.

   There have been countless women’s campaigns, many of which have enjoyed great prominence, especially in the UK. Monica Ali’s best-selling novel, Brick Lane, which was recently adapted for the screen, is among the few attempts to show the lives of such women.

   According to researchers and experts, much of this problem lies in the social structure and beliefs in countries like Bangladesh. ‘Being able to marry off a daughter to a man who has foreign citizenship and a settled life is a blessing,’ says Promila Rahman, a mother of two young girls. ‘Most often proposals such as these are hard to get and who wants to miss an opportunity like that? Going abroad and being settled is not an easy thing, is it?’

   ‘Points of view such as these within the social framework has been damaging,’ explains Sara Hossain, a lawyer with Dr Kamal Hossain and Associates. ‘The quality of a woman’s existence is not taken into consideration. The problem lies in the fact that there is so much control over the rights and choices of a woman. We are not against the concept of arranged marriage, but the marriage needs to take place on the basis of mutual agreement and respect. Moreover, the woman must be able to adapt herself to the new environment and for that she needs to be old enough and also facilities need to be provided for her, so that the transition is as smooth as possible.’ Sara cites international Human Rights law where ‘the Individual’s Right to Decide If, When and Whom to Marry’ is clearly stated. ‘This is not reflected in countless marriages in Bangladesh,’ she laments.

   In 2006, a 22-year-old Bangladeshi girl, Musammat Mumtahana, hanged herself, 5,000 miles away in her husband’s house in Birmingham in the UK. Her final act before taking her own life was to kill her own sons — Reheem, aged two, and Nahim, aged one. According to reports, neighbours had heard her crying and screaming after rows with her husband, who often did not return home after work until the early hours of the morning. She spoke little English and seemed to have difficulty in coping with her surroundings. Her death left the British-Bangladeshi community in shock.

   ‘But we wanted her to live in happiness and peace, to never be poor again,’ said her mother, Mahmuda, to the Guardian newspaper, days after her death. ‘London is the kingdom of dreams —how could we know she would not find peace there?’

   ‘One of the major problems is the parents’ lack of awareness,’ points out Ayesha Khanam, general secretary of Mohila Parishad. ‘There are various factors that have led to such incidents —poverty, the need for security, a lack of literacy and, of course, the ownership of a woman’s decision.’

   Mohila Parishad, a women’s rights organisation has about 500 legal aid cells across the country. ‘At the moment, we are focusing on increasing public awareness to change attitudes of parents and young people,’ explains Ayesha.

   For centuries, arranged marriages have been a social norm in Asia especially in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Research suggests that the trend of marrying off daughters to men living abroad, despite the dangers, is on the rise.

   ‘It is a transnational issue,’ says Sara. ‘As soon as a woman moves abroad for marriage or otherwise, there are two states involved. It is here that we come across important issues such as language, rights extended to this person and also the question of who’s responsibility it is to ensure protection and support.’

   Indeed, one of the major problems that is yet to be addressed is that of language, in cases like that Mumtahana’s, where proficiency in language or some form of assistance in communication may have helped her to solve her problems. ‘It is the responsibility of that state to ensure that translation facilities are provided, so that when such problems occur, they can speak up and also know where to go to find respite, instead of living with it or ending it right there.’

   Britain’s Race Relations Act, for example, simply says that every member of the community is entitled to access the public services. The Human Rights Act only requires translation if someone is arrested or charged with a criminal offence. ‘So, what does a woman do, if she is isolated or experiencing domestic abuse? How does she communicate?’ writes Fareeha Khan, a UK resident and student of Sociology.

   ‘We need to not only look at marriages that are being approved but also make sure the embassies play a role in the protection of these women,’ points out Sara Hossain. ‘The British government’s policies are in line with the assistance of such women; other countries need to follow suit. Often, when a woman needs assistance, because she does not have legal citizenship, she needs the signature of her husband, in order to file a case. Policies must be such that the woman knows that this is not the end and that she can find a way out.’

   The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s recently formed Forced-Marriage Unit has indeed been a significant step. According to the FCO website, over 1,250 British nationals have been victims of forced marriage since 2000 and on average the FCO’s Consular staffs abroad help, rescue and repatriate around 200 people a year. The Forced Marriage Unit reportedly handled 90 immigration-related forced-marriage cases in 2006 alone. The Consular staffs of the British High Commission in Bangladesh are informed of and intervene in around one case per week of a forced marriage of a British national in Bangladesh.

   Evidence suggests that these cases are also prevalent in middle-class and upper-middle-class families. More recent cases of educated women being tortured or killed by their husbands throw further light on the fact that the issue is more widespread than thought to be. ‘There are extraordinary characters, who have fought through and some who have managed to step out of the marriage, and regain their existence,’ says Sara.

   Over the years, campaigns for the protection of women have gained significant momentum. Organisations such as the London-based South Hall Black Sisters have invariably stood tall and made themselves heard. Meanwhile communities in the UK struggle to ensure that they work together to prevent such issues. ‘Inside the community, more and more Bangladeshis are working on welcoming newcomers and their wives. Although most often, when there are rows or evident problems among the couple, it is normal not to get involved as it is deemed to be a ‘personal matter’. However, there are families who come forward to help resolve such issues,’ writes Aftab Hossain in an email to New Age, a student of journalism at Greenwich University, who has lived in central London for over nine years.

   ‘We need more visible campaigns and adverts,’ suggests Sara. There needs to be posters and adverts that brief women on what to do when such incidents occur and also how to help themselves.’

   In all, the social view that a marriage abroad brings happiness is not necessarily a wise step, especially when the woman concerned has little or no idea as to how she will end up. The control over women’s decision of marriage hence needs to be reduced, if not prevented. ‘It could be that Hazera’s daughter could have been happier with someone living here but someone not all that well off. Her parent needed to look at her happiness and more than anything else, her security,’ adds Sara.

   While, the issue needs to be addressed nationally and awareness needs to be widespread, there is also a need to have some form of transnational agreement, upon which, a woman or a man who migrates abroad, can expect support, protection and security, from the foreign state. So, the next time an Asian woman seeks help, she is not asked to leave the country or get her husband’s signature, as she is not a citizen. So that, the next time, another woman, does not die a lonely death.

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