Marriage is a very important event in a person's life in South Asia. People marry young as dating is frowned upon by most people. Weddings typically last at least three days as there are several traditions that need to be observed both on the groom's and bride's side. Many marriages are arranged or at least partially arranged and for most South Asians it will be the first time the bride and groom will really get to know each other. Therefore, wedding ceremonies are a big deal.
Marriages here are not just about two people tying the knot but it is the coming together of two families. So hundreds of people are usually invited, fed and entertained and this means huge expense, especially for the bride's family since they have to bear most of the cost and have to give a dowry. As parents pay most if not all of the wedding expenses they have a big say in how things are organized and conducted.
One of the most popular aspects of a Bengali wedding is the ritual exchange and smearing of turmeric paste on the bride, groom, and their families before the wedding. This is considered to be lucky as well as purifying and lightening the skin. Rich people usually hire professionals to come and grace the occasion with their songs and dances whereas those who are poorer just rely on cousins and friends to liven up the party until the early hours of the morning.
The most important part of a Muslim wedding is the signing of the contract or 'nikah' which sets how much the woman will receive in case of divorce or separation. This gives the bride and the groom the option to divorce whereas Hindu cultures do not technically have that option.
Soon after the wedding, newlyweds are invited to several feasts on both sides of the family to allow the wider family to be introduced to the couple. Many families have the newlyweds live with the in-laws or groom's parents in a joint family system; very few couples start their new life in their own place.
Noor Islam Pappu: falling in love and courting
It was November 2003 when I first met Beli. Her friend Ruby wanted us to meet again as she thought she had seen some spark between us and so she organized an outing about a month later. In those days I used to work as a mechanic and we had no breaks or holidays. Fortunately, on the day she had invited me for the outing a prominent cloth merchant of Geneva camp was getting married and we were all invited and so I had taken half a day off.
Beli, her friend Ruby, Ruby's boyfriend and I met up at a bus stop and we went to Mirpur. Then I had to go to the cloth merchant's wedding lunch. We had decided to meet up again at the Mirpur zoo cum botanical garden after lunch. But it was a Bihari wedding and the groom arrived so late that by the time we were served lunch and I had finished eating it was 5pm and I didn't think they would still be waiting for me so I headed back to the mechanic shop.
In the evening, Beli's friend made a sign from afar telling me to come out of the shop. But I was shy so I didn't go. Then a while later Ruby's boyfriend came over with a bouquet for me from Beli. I treasured it in the shop for weeks. But Beli was annoyed with me and thought I was cold.
Our second meeting was 1 January 2004 at an IT fair. She was accompanied again by Ruby and her boyfriend. We wandered around the IT fair at Agargaon and talked a lot and since then we've been friends. We used to meet up - just the four of us - around Samsad Bhavan or Dhanmondi Lake. We couldn't have gone just the two of us because people would have spoken badly about us.
During the first two weeks of January we met a lot and I liked her so much that I proposed to her. There's a walkway near Samsad Bhavan and there I blurted out that I wanted to marry her and kept waiting. On Valentine's Day she gave me a rose, a symbol of love, but didn't say anything. Slowly the relationship became easier, we shared our family histories and background and after a couple a years, in 2006, she finally voiced her feelings for me.
Before this, I was very tense and it was tough for me. I was somebody who didn't joke with girls and didn't want my friends to joke about the fact that I was now in love.
After this at each birthday a red rose is a compulsory component of my birthday – whether anyone in my family or amongst my friends remembers my birthday or not – I always receive a red rose from her. We finally married in December 2008 and I did not take any dowry from her mother who is very poor and who has two other daughters.
Usman chacha – the marriage broker
Usman works as a plumber and in his spare time he tends his goats. As we talk I find out that he also 'arranges' marriages between two families. He happily says he's arranged at least 10 of them.
I know everybody around here and people trust me as I go to visit houses and know peoples' statuses and feuds and histories, their degrees and jobs and loves.
His tiny shop is about 10 metres from the entrance of the camp and so he knows who comes in with who and at what time and whether they're on drugs or are drunk. He also tells me he likes to arrange marriages, even if it is a risk (people might blame him if things don't work out), because anyone who can arrange to make seven happily married couples will go to heaven when they die.
Laili Begum: arranged marriage with the paying guest
About 65, Laila Begum is a Maldoiya land-owner's wife. She lives in Shahapara of Mukundapur, not too far from the Kantaji temple. Her family is part of those families who settled on Adivasi land (the whole of Mukundapur belonged to the Adivasis).
My husband's elder brother used to live at our place and study here. When after he got a job he left Kushtia my father invited his younger brother to come live at our place. As he liked him he eventually arranged his marriage with me.
Reena/Shahida: the 'mixed' Adivasi-Bengali marriage
Shahida is in her late thirties. She lives next to the main road, near the bazaar – because she and her husband were not allowed to live within the village itself.
In this area, I'm the only one who has married someone from another religion. These things are not common around here. I've heard of another story in Doshmile [a place about 10 kilometres away].
In our family we're four children, an elder brother and sister, me and then a younger sister. We were neighbours. I was already married to a guy from Dinajpur. I used to visit my parents. I couldn't have children and people used to pester me so I'd come to my parents' place very often. I used to work in their fields, I was beautiful and tall and because I lived in Dinajpur wore better clothes than those worn here.
He noticed me. He started following me and after some time he'd get angry if I spoke to other men. I asked him, 'Why me? I can't have children.' He'd say, 'I don't want anything but you.' Then he asked me not to return to my husband's place. He said, 'Don't go back there, stay here, work and be happy. You don't need to go through all that harassment.' My husband came to pick me up and he followed behind and dropped a letter as he was passing me.
He had written all of what he had been telling me. It was very lyrical. My husband didn't notice but my mother-in-law one day came across this letter and started beating me saying, 'Who is this brother of yours?'
My first husband was a Christian, I used to be too. They used to be constantly discriminating against me because I couldn't have children and kept saying nasty things. Then my suitor asked if I would convert and asked me to vow to him that I'd marry him. He asked me to take an oath on a piece of earth. He was completely crazy for me. One woman had offered him a bike, another, I heard, even offered a jeep [as a dowry] but he refused them all, he wanted only me.
I refused him saying I had to look after my mother as by then my father had died; besides, I didn't want anyone to speak ill of me. I told him, 'In your religion you're allowed to marry more than once, what if you tire of me? You'll want another wife to have children.' He promised he'd look after my mother and would give her ten kathas [of land] and take care of her until her dying days. He also said he would never remarry, even if we never had children.
All lies. All utter lies. My mother never got any land. After our marriage we had a daughter but she died in infancy. Then a boy was born years later. We had two boys - one is nine, the other four. But a year and a half ago, he remarried. Our marriage was false, hollow. I didn't allow it but he kept bothering me so much that I finally gave in. His excuse was that he was a 'full' man when he had married me but that because I was previously married I wasn't a 'full' woman and that as I had remarried he should be allowed to remarry too. She now lives next door.
Now, I'm full of sadness. If I had told you the full story without leaving out anything you wouldn't have been able to stop crying, sister. He has now kept me as a worker in his house. A worker with no rights.
Ahmed Ilias: love marriage, arranged marriage and family
We come from a family of migrants. My grandfather was from Munger in Bihar. The reason why he ran away was because he fell in love with a Hindu girl. The couple eloped to flee the communal riots that were sparked off in the village after their union. My grandfather lost contact with his family as he went to work in Burma.
The rest of the family settled in Jamshedpur. The family met again when my elder brother got married. By some stroke of fate his wife-to-be happened to be the grand-daughter of my grandfather's brother. So the family was reunited again 50 years after having fled the village.
… My mother was first married to my paternal uncle. He died without leaving any children so it was decided that she, a young widow, should marry my father, the second in line after my dead uncle. A son was born, then a daughter, then three sons [the last three died in childbirth] and then I. As my mother died giving birth to me I was raised by the neighbors, a childless couple.
My wife was born in Bihar [Moratalao] and she migrated with her family to East Pakistan. Her [step-] father was the head-clerk of the school I was studying in. We were married in 1959. We have a son [two other sons died] and six daughters. Of my six daughters, five are married, the youngest is unmarried and doing a hospital management course. My eldest daughter married a boy from Kolkata, but they both live here in Dhaka. My second daughter is married to a Bengali boy from Faridpur. My third and fourth daughters are married to two Benali businessmen from Noakhali. My fifth daughter is married to a Bengali, also from Noakhali, and they are both settled in Canada. Their children will remember me as a foreigner to their country.
…You know, my eldest daughter is married to the son of a woman I was in love with. The boy came to my house one day all the way from Calcutta saying his mother had sent him (she was also his cousin). So at the wedding of my daughter and her son I saw her again after all these years. And in a weird quirk of fate I had to stay in the same room as her.
We had been in love with each other for a very long time. Our marriage had been fixed but just as the maulvi was going to solemnize it my step-mother had stepped in and had stopped the wedding saying that this marriage couldn't go on without the presence of my father. I was so heart-broken that I left the house for East Pakistan.
Bengali migration to Britain followed very specific migration patterns: the first migrants were mainly young and male, and families were reunited much later than with other Asian communities. Because of this there have been, over the generations, very dramatic changes in how families were formed and in marriage patterns amongst Bangladeshi communities in the UK. In the early years of migration, most migrants were single men, and while most married 'back home', their wives and children didn't start to join them in large numbers until the late 1970s and early 1980s. Some Bengali men married English women and had families in both countries. By the 1990s, most families had been reunited, although many Bengali men and women still looked to Bangladesh for wives and husbands, and the arrival of brides, in particular, accounts for a significant part of current migration from Bangladesh. Grooms are also a feature of current migration, and they have been an important source of labour for the restaurant trade (see Work). According to the Foreign Office, in 2005, for example, 1,530 grooms and 2,133 brides from Bangladesh were allowed to settle in the UK. However, because the British government is restricting immigration through marriage, more and more and because many British Bangladeshi young people are increasingly against marrying 'back home', there is evidence that this practice is now happening less, as is 'cousin-marriage', which used to be common.
Korimunnessa Begum (Shaw): two families
Korimunnessa came to Britain in 1975 to join her first husband. She told us that her husband's father had arrived in Britain early and although he already had a wife and family in Bangladesh, he married an English woman. She explained that this was common:
My father-in-law married an English woman; my father-in-law's brother married an English woman, two of my uncles-inlaw married English women. Almost all the men who came to this country by ship did this… Some said they planned to stay and some said they married because their lives were not organised. They were single, they had to cook for themselves, life was difficult.
Her father-in-law's first (Bengali) wife later joined her husband and his relationship with the English wife continued, with the birth of three children. Korimunnessa said that the English wife had even helped bring the Bengali wife over to Britain. Korimunnessa told us she had met her father-in-law’s English wife and their three children at family events:
When we were in Hull, she would come with her two sons and daughter. They used to come to our house, say, if there was a party, birthday; they would come to celebrate eid. Their father would bring them and he told me to treat them well when they were here… They would eat if I served them food.
Ishtiaq Ahmed (Newham): changing attitudes to family migration
Ishtiaq Ahmed arrived in Britain in the mid 1960s. Married with four children, he didn't bring his wife to Britain until the 1980s. He spoke of the change in attitudes towards bringing wives:
When I came in 1965, I didn't see any Asian women. I saw some, but it was rare. I did not see any Bengali ladies… Bengali women started coming after ’71, from ’72, ’73…. Earlier Bengalis would go home to marry, but they do not bring their wives and children with them. They would not bring their wives and daughters because of the fear that they will be influenced by English culture. We are following Islamic culture. There was a fear this culture would be affected.
In the 1970s, the attitude changed:
Maybe the local mentality was changed… I do not know the reason. One reason might be the complaints by the wives. If their husbands come home after two or three years, they might complain they felt lonely during their husband's absence, so they wanted to come with their husbands. At first one or two wives convinced their husbands and then other wives convinced their husbands… Nowadays nobody keeps his wife in Bangladesh. The mentality has been changed; the culture has been changed.
Mehjabin Islam (Newham): marrying for the sake of the family
Mehjabin Islam is in her mid 30s and is divorced, with four children. She lives in East London. She came to the UK in 1989 to join her father, who had arrived in the 1960s. She told us of the family pressures she and her family faced to marry a relative so that he could migrate to the UK:
The family arranged the marriage… They suggested it when I was 14 but we fought for nine years about marrying him. My father said, 'No, there will be no marriage with a relative.' One of my uncles lives in Britain. He told my father, 'If she gets married in Bangladesh one of our families will benefit. Their son will be able to come to this country.' My father did not agree easily, but after so much pressure from the family, he said, 'OK, do whatever you want to do.' By this time my grandmother had also got involved and the marriage was arranged.
Mehjabin felt she could not oppose the marriage, and also saw some advantages. However, after the wedding she realised there were many differences between herself and her husband:
I had to marry someone so I thought it would be better to marry someone known rather than a stranger, although I did not know him so well because they were living in Chittagong, but they used to come to Sylhet every year. However, as he was my aunt's son, I thought it would be better to marry him. I did not think our mentality would be so different, like sky and earth. Anyway, that was my fate.
Mobarak Hossain (Tower Hamlets): marrying to please parents
Mobarak Hossain arrived in 1983 with his family and was married in 1992 to a bride in Bangladesh. Although he had no desire to get married, he agreed to the wedding to please his father who was ill.
It was an arranged marriage. I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't even seen her picture… It is a nice story. I was 22 when I was married. I was working; I had no reason to marry. Suddenly my father became seriously ill – he had a heart problem. He thought about the fact that his father had died before seeing his daughter-in-law, so my father thought he might also not live to see his daughter-in-law… So he arranged the marriage. I thought at that stage that I couldn't say no to my parents. Even if I saw her and didn't like her, I couldn't tell my parents, so it was better not to see the girl – what was written in my fate would automatically come to me… When I saw her, it was OK… I think she is better looking than me.
The marriage was arranged by relatives:
They worked as middlemen. Both sides saw that the middlemen were reliable – there was no problem in exchanging information, checking information… Everybody was laughing. They said it was a marriage like in the olden days.
Morium Chowdhury (Newham): families reunited
Morium Chowdhury is a widow in her 60s. She arrived in Britain in 1989, towards the end of the process of reuniting families, to join her husband. Morium's marriage was arranged by her father and grandfather when she was 14 to a community worker who was settled in Britain. She told us:
He did not bring me over immediately. He was not interested in bringing us. He thought it was better if we stayed in Bangladesh, particularly our children. They would study in Bangladesh – he thought that if they come here they might be influenced by the environment here… He would always say that good people do not come to London.
Her husband was later persuaded by the family elders to bring his family to Britain, but Morium was reluctant to leave her extended family in Bangladesh:
All the murubbi [elders] told him to take us. They said it would be good for us. By this time, the children were grown up, so he probably thought now it's good to bring them here. It was his wish… I didn't ask to come to London because everyone - parents, relatives – were all in Bangladesh.
When she and her six children arrived, her husband tried to make sure they were happy in their new home:
He would always take us out, we visited different places, we moved around. He thought if we stayed at home, we would feel bad, remembering Bangladesh, so he would take us out. We did not have any problems… We had friends, relatives, and other companions.
Her husband died in 1998 of a heart attack and was buried in East London:
We decided to bury him here because his children are all here. My eldest son can go and pray for him. During Ramadan, they went to his grave every day to pray for him… As his children live here, he was buried here.
Morium now feels settled in London because of her children and does not want to return to Bangladesh, even for a visit:
The last four years I have not gone back. My children and grandchildren live here. I don't like to go to Bangladesh, leaving them behind.
Fazilatunnessa (Tower Hamlets) and Mehjabin Islam (Newham): marrying 'back home' gives women power
Fazilatunnessa came to Britain in 2003 when she was in her 60s to join her husband. She has three children and told us of her youngest daughter, who has recently married a Bengali groom in Britain illegally. Traditionally, Bengali brides are expected to move to their husband's home and have little contact with their own family, but Fazilatunnessa explained that migrant or illegal grooms are often isolated and this gives the girl and her family more control:
He is a knowledgeable person. But he is alone. He doesn't have any family here. If he did have family – a mother, sisters, brothers – my daughter would face many problems. Now as he is alone in this country, we are his family… He is like my son.
Similarly, Mehjabin told us of her greater independence from her husband because of his migration to Britain:
After marriage, girls have to go to their in-laws' house, or they have to move with their husbands. My husband can't stay with my family as 'ghor jamai' [a househusband]. As I did not have an in-laws' house to go to, we moved to a house in Green Street.
Mizanur Rahman (Oldham): Marriage in Britain v. marriage in Bangladesh
Mizanur Rahman has lived in Britain since 1965 and has six children. He spoke of the difference in marriage practices between Britain and Bangladesh:
In Bangladesh marriage would be arranged by the guardians. They choose and only then can you marry. Here the children don't agree with this. They meet, talk to each other and then choose.
Mizanur Rahman has decided to marry his daughters to British Bengalis:
Besides, there are many relatives in Bangladesh who want to marry my daughters. It will be very difficult for me to make them happy. It is better for them to marry here.
Hasib (Oldham): The culture gap in marriage
Hasib, a school teacher in his early 30s, arrived in Britain in 1989 and first married a Pakistani girl in a 'love marriage'. After her family broke up the marriage, he married a British Bengali woman and they have two children. He spoke of the difficulties of arranging marriages between British Bengalis and Bangladeshis:
One system was that parents used to take the boy to Bangladesh. He would see 100 or 150 girls and choose one to marry. Another system was that the marriage would be arranged among family members, particularly among cousins. Now this happens less. Now taking a son or daughter to Bangladesh for marriage also happens less. That's because of the gap in understanding. If a boy or girl comes from Bangladesh, he or she has poor understanding and knowledge; everything is limited. It might be that he or she comes from a village. So it was recognised that it was difficult for husband and wife to reach a shared understanding. In many cases they separated. Both sides must have some similarity to reduce the gap in understanding. The differences were day and night.
Laila Rahman (Blackburn): problems for marriage migrants
Laila Rahman works for a community organisation for Asian women in Blackburn. She arrived in Britain in 1971 aged 16 to join her husband. She told us:
Our marriage took place over the telephone. My guardians, mother, uncles, were present on one side of the phone and he was here on the other side of the phone… When we went back home, we organised a Muslim marriage ceremony. We had to do that because our marriage happened on the phone.
Laila Rahman told us of the changing marriage practices of British Bengalis and the differences for daughters and sons:
They go home to find an educated girl from a good family background. So they bring girls from home. But they try to find a husband for their daughter here. They say that the boys from home are not smart, girls don't like them.
Laila felt that the third generation of Bengalis were more likely to marry in Britain:
Say a boy from Oldham and a girl from Burnley are married… They adjust well. They both speak English. They understand each other. They are brought up here.
Rimi (Newham): changing attitudes to marriage
Rimi came to Britain in 1992 to study. She told us of the disapproval she faced in Britain and Bangladesh for migrating as a single girl:
I was in England for two years as an unmarried girl. 15 years ago this was a serious thing, everyone objected to it. They talked a lot about me: 'You've sent the girl alone. At least you should get her married first and then send her.' In my college, I could see that no one was married so I didn't face problems there. But when I went to any Bengali weddings, I would face problems: girls who were younger than me, around 17 or 18 were already married. I was 20 years old. There was some shame around that.
Rimi wanted her parents to arrange her marriage:
Father told me several times to choose a husband on my own. My father was open. He told me, 'If you like someone, you can tell me.' Since I've been here, though, I haven't found a like-minded boy. I didn't find anyone. There might have been a suitable boy, but he wasn't ready for marriage. I did not look seriously. I was not confident that I would like the boy. I was always dependent on my parents.
She noted, though, that attitudes had changed a lot since then:
Now girls are studying, they are not interested in marriage. We even see some girls who are over-age who are not married. They used to get married early. That's because families were afraid that their girls might marry someone from another culture – White or Black or Indian or Pakistani. Nowadays, Indian, Pakistani, Turkish, they're all acceptable as long as they are Muslims. Parents are more liberal.
Farida Begum (Tower Hamlets): refusing to marry 'back home'.
Farida Begum arrived in Britain in 1987, aged five, with her mother. Brought up mainly in Britain, she argued with her parents about her marriage and left home. She told us:
My father wanted me to marry my cousin-brother. Everyone was pushing me into that… I didn't agree to marrying him. So it was decided that my older sister would marry him, but she did not agree to it. So my father said if you don't agree, then you can't stay with us. The groom was older than her and much older than me so I said no… We didn't want to marry within the family. We had different way of thinking.
Farida was determined not to marry 'back home' because she felt the boys there were dishonest in their relationships:
Boys become different from who they were while they were in Bangladesh. When they come here they don't stay with us. Their mentality changes. When they are in Bangladesh they say they will love their wife, you know, buttering them up. But when they come to London, once they get citizenship, they change…
However she was keen to marry a British Bangladeshi:
I'll marry a Bangladeshi boy, but not in Bangladesh.