1. Introduction 3. Methods

2. Overview of factors which may influence divorce

Muslim Marriage Customs and Laws: The joutuk or dowry plays a key role in the arrangement of marriages in Bangladesh. The dowry is an agreement between the bride's and the groom's family whereby the bride's family agrees to pay a certain amount of money and/or goods in kind to the groom's family [Aziz and Maloney 1985]. Though the practice is illegal under Muslim and state law, it is widespread in Bangladesh. The practice has consequences for the risk of divorce [Bhuiya et al. 1999].

Marriages as well as divorces can be registered with the government through the civil registration system, but most of those events are not registered. In cases where they are not, they are enacted through marriage ceremonies following existing religious and social customs and procedures.

Muslim Divorce Customs and Laws: Divorce of a Muslim marriage is an option which is available to spouses. The process of divorce is usually lengthy and hazardous starting with quarrels followed by mental and physical insults to women, followed by separation and, finally, leading to divorce. Divorce in Muslim marriages is governed by the laws of Islam which traditionally grant more opportunities to men than to women. Women are destined to play a subordinate role in marital life. A woman, of course, can seek divorce in cases where the husband deserts her, fails to maintain her, abjures her or if he is impotent.

Various rules and procedures exist which deal with the obligations of the marriage partners in general and the husband in particular in case a divorce takes place. The mehr plays an important role here. The mehr deals with the obligations of the marriage partners in general and of the groom in particular in case divorce may occur. A key element in the mehr is a specification of the amount of money which the groom pledges to give to his bride in case the marriage will fail. Determination of the mehr is mandatory according to Muslim law and is fixed by the parents or guardians of both the groom and the bride at the time of arrangement of the marriage [Aziz and Maloney 1985]. In practice, however, the groom's party often has the upper hand when negotiating the mehr and in a number of cases of divorce the groom's party does not adhere to what was agreed upon.

Women's Position in the Family: In rural Bangladesh, the husband is the breadwinner and the wife is the primary home-keeper. She depends on her husband for livelihood, and there are hardly any other possibilities for her to make a living. Moreover, divorced persons are looked down upon in the society with an obvious gender difference. Divorce of a woman damages her as well as her family's prestige. It may lower prospects of marriage of her younger sisters with the most eligible grooms. Chances of remarriage after divorce are usually lower for women than for men and this holds for Bangladesh as well as elsewhere [Shaikh 1995, Chamie and Nsuly 1981]. One can expect that the wife's economic dependence on the husband and the fear of subsequent poverty and her weaker position in the marriage and economic markets are powerful deterrents for her from leaving the husband, however unhappy the marriage. She compromises more than her husband to keep the marriage intact. Therefore, the decision of divorce is likely to be initiated more often by the husband than by the wife.

The practice of the dowry is a social curse to women contributing to marital tensions and divorce. It reflects women's economic dependence on men. In a number of cases the bride's party fails to pay the dowry demanded by the groom's party. In a community survey in Matlab, 20 per cent of 126 married women and 35 per cent of 79 divorced women reported conflict within marriage due to non-fulfillment of the demand for dowry [Bhuiya et al. 1999]. Marital discord can lead to domestic violence, which may force the bride to flee from the husband's home and accept divorce. Divorce can, therefore, be seen as a marker of extreme mental and physical insults, particularly to women in rural Bangladesh.

Polgygyny: Polygyny is characteristic for Teknaf. It increases the possibilities of marriage and remarriage for women. It reflects a groom's personal taste. Polygynous marriages are likely to be less stable than monogamous marriages for several reasons. Competition between co-wives for husband's love and affection may raise tensions leading to quarrels at home. A polygynous man, on the other hand, may view wives more as bed-partners than life-partners. If this is the case, keeping the marriage intact may be less important to him. This kind of view weakens the bonds of marriage and marriage and divorce are reduced to mere formalities leading to high probabilities of remarriage and divorce. The polygyny-divorce relationship has hardly been studied in Bangladesh for lack of data and it is one of the objectives of this study.

Other Factors Influencing Risk of Divorce: There is evidence that spouses' previous marital disruptions affect the stability of their current remarriage. One study in the USA found that the ratio of divorces per 100 marriages was 16.6 when both partners were in a first marriage and 34.9 when both had been previously divorced once [McCarthy 1978]. Another study reports that homogamous marriages (a single person choosing another single or a divorced person choosing somebody else who is divorced) were more stable than heterogamous marriages [Chamie and Nsuly 1981]. An analysis of the outcome of marriages in the USA showed that a prior marriage of the husband made a significant net addition to the probability of marriage dissolution in USA [Bumpass and Sweet 1972]. What causes remarriages to be more divorce-prone than first marriages is in debate. Martin and Bumpass [1989] argue that people in remarriages carry with them the characteristics (early age at first marriage, low education and so on) that raised the probability of their first marriage dissolving. If this is the case, then remarriages should not be divorce prone when age at marriage and level of education are controlled. White and Booth [1985], argue that the internal dynamics of second marriages (largely because of stepchildren) were more problematic than first marriages. In Bangladesh, the causes of divorce of remarriages, particularly polygynous marriages could be different than the causes of divorce of remarriages in developed countries.

In rural Bangladesh, teenage marriage is common and desired. The 1982-83 marriage cohort in Teknaf revealed that median age at first marriage was 16 years for brides and 22 years for grooms. Very young brides and grooms may not be able to cope emotionally with the heavy load of responsibilities involved in marital life. Their inability to cope with these new responsibilities may raise tensions and thus, affect marital stability. It is also to be expected that having an education and living in favourable socioeconomic conditions may help them to cope with marital responsibilities and thus, keep the marriage intact, particularly in early years of marital life. The divorce risk was found to decrease as duration of marriage increases in Bangladesh and elsewhere [Bhuiya et al. 1999, Menken et al. 1981].

Marriages are more stable if couples have children than when they do not have children. This was one of the conclusions of the review of the literature on causes of divorce [White 1990]. In the United States [White and Booth 1985, Wineberg 1988, Waite and Lillard 1991] and in Sweden [Andersson 1995] it was found that the presence of young children was associated with lower risks of divorce. The presence of children younger than six years decreased the risk of marital dissolution in Australia, but once the employment activity of the wife was simultaneously taken into account, the effect of having young children disappeared [Bracher et al., 1993].


1. Introduction 3. Methods

Determinants of Divorce in a Traditional Muslim Community in Bangladesh
Nurul Alam, Sajal K. Saha, Jeroen K. van Ginneken
© 2000 Max-Planck-Gesellschaft ISSN 1435-9871