In a country where almost everybody is married by the time they reach 25 (or in a lot of cases long before they reach 20), being over 25 and unmarried is highly irregular. Every day, at least once, I am asked questions in relation to my marital status. Together with questions relating to name, country of origin and educational attainment, this is one of the four most popular questions I get asked by everyone I meet. The following is an example of a conversation that occurs regularly with CNG-drivers and rickshaw-wallahs (or, rickshaw-pullers) who have a little English.
- CNG/RICKSHAW WALLAH: (Interestedly, after initial greetings, while calmly and expertly navigating his way through the demented streets of Dhaka.) Are you married?
- ME: (Cheerfully) No, no…I’m not married.
- CNG/RICKSHAW WALLAH: (Confused) Is your husband in Bangladesh?
- ME: (Patiently, slowly and very clearly.) N o, I’ m n o t m a r r i e d.
- CNG/RICKSHAW WALLAH: (Turning round to look at me in disbelief.) Is your husband in your country?
- ME: (Gesturing wildly to watch the road as we career to the right into the path of an oncoming bus.) NO, I’M NOT MARRIED!
- CNG/RICKSHAW WALLAH: (Shimmying to the left and avoiding the onrushing bus by just inches, now confounded & bewildered & glancing at me – through the mirror if in a CNG.) You’re NOT married?!
- ME: (Tolerantly and relieved, releasing my death-grip on the grille (if CNG) and exhaling.) No, I’m not married.
- CNG/RICKSHAW WALLAH: (Baffled and disappointed.) Ey je! (Or some such exclamation!)
I choose to accept this exchange in good humour. It can be funny at times to watch reactions, and there is no hint of hostility. I am of course conscious that my identity as an independent woman is being challenged. On the other hand, I can understand too that through the eyes of the wallah’s culture and traditions, I represent a complete negation of womanhood. I’m still grappling with trying to find my place in this new culture: on the one hand I don’t want to breach the boundaries of cultural sensitivity, and on the other I want to assert my identity in a positive way. Sometimes, I think that I should be speaking-out more and challenging perceptions, like this one, of women and their place in society. Or should I? In any case, without an adequate grasp of the language, this would not be easy. I hope to explore these ideas in more detail later. (For example, see post 44 on gender issues and post 33 re issues around ‘cultural sensitivity’.)
Here in Bangladesh the majority of marriages emanate from arranged matches. I have seen many seemingly happy marriages as a result of this tradition. It’s a subject on which I have had prolonged discussions with friends. I have to admit that I was sceptical about arranged marriage when I first arrived, but now that I understand it better I can see its advantages. People here are equally sceptical about what they call our ‘love marriages’. It seems to me that both have a more or less equal chance of success. However, marriage aside, I haven’t changed my personal opinion that falling haphazardly in love remains one of life’s great adventures. Vive l’amour!