By Maliha Ahmed
March 19th, 2019
It’s time to reform marriage and
According to a 2011 government survey, 65%
of married women in Bangladesh suffered physical violence. If 65% of married
women can suffer physical violence, we can only imagine the position women have
when it comes to household bargaining power and control over resources.
From the economics of contracts, we know
that each rational agent, when deciding on his actions, will also incorporate
responses of other individuals involved to each of his possible actions before
deciding on his best response.
In the context of marriages in Bangladesh,
according to Dr Ambrus (a professor at Duke University specializing in game
theory and development economics) under any interpretation, Islamic marriages
grant men more rights over women in matters of marriage and divorce.
In countries like the US, alimony payments
are still a substantial factor to consider when one enters into marriage, but
in Bangladesh, where alimony payments are unheard of, proponents of Islamic law
argue that the “Mehr” money should act as a sort of alimony.
However, the key characteristic of Mehr in
Bangladesh compared to other Islamic countries is that it is almost universally
and automatically specified to be only paid in the case of husband-initiated
divorce, a lot like the standard prenuptial agreement. Hence, there is no
effective costly threat of divorce initiated by the wife.
According to contract theory, we would see
an increase in women’s household bargaining power and control over household
resources if the wife also has access to an effective threat of exit from the
contract which is costly for her spouse.
To add to that, the dowry system came to
rise in Bangladesh in the 1950s, making it one of the few Muslim countries in
which dowry is practiced. In most cases, dowry more than offsets Mehr, making
it cost less for the groom to exit the marriage.
A groom is so precious in a Bengali family
that the bride’s family in most cases will not even ask for enough Mehr
such that it can help support their daughter in case a divorce takes place.
Putting together all these, in case of
wife-initiated divorce, all costs in terms of social stigma is borne by wife
without any Mehr payment and even for husband-initiated divorce there is no
cost to the husband (as dowry more than offsets mehr) and no financial support
for wife (as Mehr tends to be insignificant).
Hence, the system of Mehr no longer serves
the purpose of upholding a woman’s position in a marriage contract and
providing her with a security net.
What is the link between a credible threat
of divorce, household bargaining power of women, and domestic abuse? In game
theory, we need a credible effective threat even if the threat itself is never
If the husband knows that his wife would be
able to obtain financial support in the case of divorce, he would incorporate
it into his behaviour. As a result, he would be less likely to engage in
abusive behaviour and would give his wife greater household bargaining power,
control over resources, and decision-making power.
Most women when they enter into marriage
have imperfect information over how the marriage is going to be and the
allocation of household bargaining power.
Usually, Bengali women are young when they
are married off, often in their early 20s, and in most cases, they are
restricted by their families in terms of freedom. Many parents will not support
their daughter wanting to go abroad for her studies but will never object to
their daughter in her early 20s wanting to get married.
They will spend lavishly on her wedding
ceremonies and “gifts” to the in-laws but will not support the same daughter
when she comes home to her parents crying that her husband abuses her.
Since “bujhano” by elders form an essential
part of their duty regardless of what the daughter wants, they will try their
level best to convince the daughter that she has no other choice but to stay in
an abusive relationship, irrespective of how wealthy or able her parents are to
support their daughter in case of a divorce.
Individuals usually consider the costs and
benefits accruing to them due to their actions, even in a contract like
marriage. Since the mehr system is not working effectively to serve its purpose
as a contract enforcement tool, it is high time we reform our marriage laws
more like the alimony arrangement in developed countries.
These provide sufficient financial
assistance to women who are vulnerable and do not have the earning capability
to sustain a lifestyle similar to what they had during their marriage.
Also, our inheritance laws which give
daughters half the rights of sons serve to upload the superior position of men
and weaker household bargaining power of women.
Women in the 21st century demand equal
rights as men but our laws are a clear violation of equal rights.
Studies have consistently shown that
greater bargaining power and resources in the hands of women have benefits not
only for women themselves but also for their children, leading to increased
expenditure on education, health, and consumption of children in the household.
Numerous studies have also found that
presence of a credible threat of divorce by the wife (which results in a
financial loss for husband) and gender-neutral inheritance laws substantially
increases woman’s household bargaining power and control over household
It is 2019, and it is high time we pull the
correct levers and stop malpractices in the name of culture to restrain our
women. Empowered women who take decisions themselves with knowledge and information
help society and the nation to move forward.
Maliha Ahmed previously worked in research at BIDS and BIGD. She is
currently pursuing her PhD in Economics at the University of Illinois at