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The Bill-Melinda split and the lonely Bangladeshi divorce

  • Published at 11:32 am May 8th, 2021
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What our reaction to the Bill-Melinda divorce says about our infatuation with marriage

The basis of every para-social relationship with celebrities is the great amount of emotional energy, interest and time that we readily expend on them. So naturally, when the news of Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce hit social media, the internet immediately lit up with all kind of commentary: debates broke out about their personal and professional choices, their carbon footprint and net worth, speculations about the continuation of their philanthropic work, details about their daily life and habits that no one cared about before. Memes and trolls appeared in legions, posted and reposted in great numbers, until they ran parallel with the news. I have no intention to nitpick the details of this famous divorce because it is already being done enough. What captivated me about this somewhat international phenomenon is not the divorce itself, but the Bangladeshi buzz surrounding it. And I think that makes for a good discussion. 

Our infatuation with marriage

I want to zoom in on the comment section of the Bill-Melinda divorce news posted from the official Facebook pages of renowned Bangladeshi newspapers. It is fascinating to note that a great many of the comments repeatedly resonate the same idea: A good number of people pointed out with great conviction that the Bill and Melinda’s broken marriage is exemplary of the proverb “money doesn’t buy happiness” and blamed the divorce on their “lack of family values” and “western lifestyle.” I do not want to spend too many words discussing the vagueness of these statements because today I have a different agenda altogether. I do, however, want to take a minute to point out that, money does in fact buy happiness, because it provides you with choices to do what makes you happy. And secondly, family values are concepts that vary across the globe and while we may pride our culture to be superior to others’, but it is a truth that marital discord is in fact universal. In this article, I want to focus entirely on what our reaction to this famous split says about our concept of divorce in Bangladesh. 

For many of us, marriage means the highest source of happiness and completion for both person and community. In our culture, marriage is often considered to be permanent and lists high as one of the important goals of life. With the push for modernization, many parts of our culture has changed and evolved to accommodate the contemporary mindsets of newer generations. The principals of marriage however, remain quite rigid. I’m no social scientist, but I can think of one very effective way to summarize the South Asian expectations of marriage: Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’s Rahul Khanna (played by Shahrukh Khan) had once said, “Hum eki baar jeete hai, ekbar marte hai, shadi bhi ekbar hoti hai… aur pyaar bhi eki baar hota hai.” My rough translation of the quote from Hindi to English is, “We live once, we die once, we get married once… and love also happens to us only once.” This famous quote taken from 1998’s highest grossing (and cringe-worthy) Bollywood film, effortlessly presents the essence of the South Asian marriage union. 

The blueprint of most brown marriages is the principles and traditions that are passed on to us by our ancestors, where divorce was unheard of. It is precisely for this reason that divorce is considered as the ultimate failure even in modern times. While I do wholeheartedly agree, that marriage can provide us with a sense of oneness and peace, we cannot argue that in many cases, it becomes or has the potential to become a site of oppression for both men and women alike. 

Divorce is messy but sometimes it’s necessary

As bystanders to unhappy marriages, we often glorify the suffering of the couple in the union, invade their privacy and nitpick the details of their discord just like we do in famous divorces; but mostly we exalt those who continue to suffer “for the sake of family and kids”. Ironically, after trying their best, when people finally give up on their unhappy marriage and opt for divorce, our reverence of him or them switches to shunning and shaming. In the name of family values, unhappy couples are urged to “work through” their differences and remain together no matter how unhealthy or toxic their relationship. Another tendency that is inherently South Asian is the propensity to diluting one wrong by comparing it to a greater wrong. For instance, if someone’s spouse is psychologically abusive, instead of feeling rage or sympathy on their behalf, we tend to say, “at least they don’t hit you, so do not complain.” We label divorced people “impatient” without knowing their truth. And this distorted concept of patience blurs our line of morality and robs people of their rights to be free of unhappy marriages. We are so conditioned into thinking that divorce is an indication a loss of morality or commitment that we often react with shock and disapproval. 

In Bangladesh, divorce is not only a separation between spouses, it involves the separation of the individual from his or her culture and community because we make divorced people out to be a source of dishonour for the family and community as a whole. Often times, people who opt for divorce are seen as to have drifted away from core family values and traditions. For younger generations, who are straddling the fence of two vastly different ideologies stemming from the past and the present, divorce provides a very conflicting message. We are taught that individual happiness is important for our overall wellbeing but at the same time are repeatedly told to think of “family honour” and “what people will say” before making decisions that are not approved by the greater family or the whole ecosystem beyond. 

Divorce is a very personal decision that is often not very easy to take. It is important to understand that regardless of social standing or background, divorce often involves years of grueling effort, sleepless nights, desperate prayer and earnest counsel. Yes, marriage can bring wholeness and beauty to our lives and divorce is almost always exacting and messy. However, the fact remains that the opposite is also true: Not all marriages are beautiful. And sometimes divorce is not a tragedy; it is a perfect solution to a bad situation. 

Sameirah Nasrin Ahsan is a Mechanical Engineer based in Dhaka. She aspires to be an author someday. For rants and book recommendations, you can follow her on Instagram: @booksnher

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