Ten years ago, Halima Akter, employed at a private company in Agargaon, Dhaka, would not have dreamt of divorcing her husband despite the incompatibility that plagued their marriage.
In 2014, the situation was quite different, which enabled Halima to seek a solution to her problems – a divorce. She sent a divorce notice to her husband of seven years, Rasel Ahmed, on March 18, 2014.
Things have changed in Dhaka in recent years; more and more women are speaking up about their marital problems and seeking a solution. In most cases, divorce is the end result.
Dr Sadeka Halim, sociology professor in Dhaka University, believes this is a positive trend because it means that more women are willing to overcome their fear of social stigma in order to build a better life for themselves.
“In a patriarchal society like ours, women are held primarily responsible for keeping their families together – even at the cost of their own happiness and well-being,” she told the Dhaka Tribune. “But that is a flawed concept, because a husband and a wife are equally responsible for their family.
“Though we have a law to prevent domestic violence, it is still a major problem in Bangladeshi households. In most cases, it is the women who are suffer physical and mental abuse in the hands of their husbands and in-laws. But now many women are speaking up against the abuse and choosing to break out of the vicious cycle.”
According to Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) and Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) data, around 67% of the divorce notices issued from 2011 to 2016 were by women.
In all five zones of DNCC, 28,355 divorce notices were issued in 2011-2016, 14,966 of which were filed by women.
In two zones (Zone 1 and Zone 4) of DSCC, 4,811 divorce notices were issued in 2011-2016, 3,215 of which were sent by women.
Zones 1 and 4 cover Dhanmondi, Kalabagan, Green Road, Kathalbagan, Nilkhet, Kakrail, Bailey Road, Shantinagar, Ramna, Elephant Road and Old Dhaka.
The numbers of divorce notices are increasing every year.
In 2011, 2,864 notices (1,773 by women, 1,091 by men) were issued in DNCC and 819 (533 by women, 285 by men) in Zones 1 and 4 of DSCC. In 2016, the numbers of divorce notices issued in DNCC was 4,847 (3,426 by women, 1,421 by men) and 852 (569 by women, 283 by men) in DSCC.
Salma Ali, executive director of Bangladesh National Women Lawyers' Association (BNWLA), said divorce nowadays is also propelled by the fact that women are becoming self-sufficient.
“Before, most women were entirely dependent on their husbands, which is why they tolerated all kinds of abuse silently. But as women are becoming financially independent, they have both the confidence and the opportunity to get out of abusive marriage, even though divorce is still heavily frowned up in our society,” she said.
She said couples with problems should seek counselling first to see if their issues can be resolved without ending the marriage.
However, there are many cases where Muslim men deliberately torture their wives so they would initiate the divorce, because they are under the impression that if their wives seek divorce, they would be exempted from paying denmohor, the alimony that is mandatory under Islamic law, Salma said.
Marjia Mukta, a housewife and mother of an eight-year-old daughter in Agargaon, dissolved her 10-year marriage by divorcing her husband Ekram Hossain because he was having an extramarital affair.
Ekram, who lives in Saudi Arabia, said he did not want to initiate the divorce because he did not want to pay denmohor to his wife.
This is a major misconception, says Dr Kazi Zahed Iqbal, lawyer in the Supreme Court.
“According to Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961, no matter which party files for divorce, the husband must pay the denmohor to the wife,” he told the Dhaka Tribune.