IT WAS WHEN Nasrin Khaleque got a job that she realised her marriage “was not normal”. None of her female colleagues seemed to have husbands who checked to see what they were up to ten times a day, or who objected if they went out for coffee after work. She told her husband she wanted a divorce. “I realised I didn’t have to put up with it,” she says.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, the number of applications for divorce has increased by 34% in the past seven years. More and more are filed by women, especially in cities. Not long ago, women could not initiate divorces. During marriage ceremonies, the presiding registrar would ask the husband and his family if they wanted to give the bride the right to seek a divorce, says Fawzia Karim Firoze, president of the Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers’ Association. “Of course many, if not most, families said ‘no’.” A legal change means women now enjoy the right as a matter of course. But they still have to give a reason for wanting a divorce, such as infidelity. Men do not.
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For the poorest and the richest, says Mrs Firoze, divorce was never that unusual. Among the poor, marriages are seldom official, allowing men to abandon one wife for another easily. As for the rich, “Wealth buys certain freedoms.” But among the middle classes, divorce has been rare: “They face the most stigma. What will my family say? What will other people say?”
That is changing. The rate of divorce is increasing across the board, but particularly among the middle classes, according to Tania Haque of Dhaka University. Internet access and social media mean women are more easily able to communicate with friends and to lead lives outside their marriage. “This makes the prospect of divorce seem less daunting.”
With greater access to a world outside the home come changing expectations. Ms Haque believes that popular Indian soap operas have helped to propagate a more liberated world view. For both men and women, she adds, social media have also made it easier to have affairs. Sabrina Saba Mumu, who left her husband after he had an affair, says that her mother’s generation would have tolerated their husbands’ infidelities. She and her friends are less accepting. “We want marriages that are equal partnerships,” she adds, “not a relationship where the man is the boss.” That means sharing housework and child care, too.
Most importantly, more and more women have jobs. In 1974 women were just 4% of the labour force. In 2016 they were 36% of it. Much of this is down to the booming garment industry, which employs mostly women. Earning a salary makes leaving a bad marriage financially possible.
Many men are unhappy about these changes. Ms Saba Mumu says her husband wanted her to look after him the way his mother did, but, as a successful research scientist, she “didn’t have time to cook all his meals and do everything else he asked”. Miss Khaleque’s husband thought that because she came from a small town she “wouldn’t be so ambitious”. He forced her to wear a headscarf to work and forbade her from talking to male colleagues. After she had their daughter, he tried to stop her working altogether, saying that she belonged at home.
Religious groups are also troubled. One of the most prominent, Hefazat-e-Islam (“Protectors of Islam”), formed in 2010 partly in response to plans to change inheritance laws to make them more favourable to women. When Hefazat supporters later marched on the capital calling for stringent segregation of the sexes, that was widely perceived as a call for women to stay at home, especially by the city’s many female garment-workers. Hefazat also rails against adultery and “shamelessness”.
Hefazat’s hectoring has not stopped the divorce rate from rising. But the social stigma for men and, especially, women who seek divorce remains strong. “In hindsight leaving was the easy part,” says Miss Khaleque. “My family’s judgment since has been harder to take.”