Family and kinship are the core of social life in Bangladesh. A family group residing in a bari functions as the basic unit of economic endeavor, landholding, and social identity. In the eyes of rural people, the chula defined the effective household—–an extended family exploiting jointly-held property and being fed from a jointly operated kitchen. A bari might consist of one or more such functional households, depending on the circumstances of family relationship. Married sons generally live in their parents’ household during the father’s lifetime. Although sons usually build separate houses for their nuclear families, they remain under their fathers’ authority, and wives under their mothers-in-law’s authority. The death of the father usually precipitates the separation of adult brothers into their own households. Such a split generally causes little change in the physical layout of the bari, however. Families at different stages of the cycle display different configurations of household membership.
Patrilineal ties dominate the ideology of family life, but in practice matrilineal ties are almost as important. Married women provide especially important links between their husbands’ brothers’ families. Brothers and sisters often visit their brothers’ households, which are in fact the households of their deceased fathers. By Islamic law, women inherit a share of their fathers’ property and thus retain a claim on the often scanty fields worked by their brothers. By not exercising this claim, however, they do their brothers the important service of keeping the family lands in the patrilineal line and thus ensure themselves a warm welcome and permanent place in their brothers’ homes.
A woman begins to gain respect and security in her husband’s or father-in-law’s household only after giving birth to a son. Mothers therefore cherish and indulge their sons, while daughters are frequently more strictly disciplined and are assigned heavy household chores from an early age. In many families the closest, most intimate, and most enduring emotional relationship is that between mother and son. The father is a more distant figure, worthy of formal respect, and the son’s wife may remain a virtual stranger for a long time after marriage.
Marriage is a civil contract rather than a religious sacrament in Islam (see Islamic marriage contract), and the parties to the contract represent the interests of families rather than the direct personal interests of the prospective spouses. In Bangladesh, parents ordinarily select spouses for their children, although men frequently exercise some influence over the choice of their spouses. In middle-class urban families men negotiate their own marriages. Only in the most sophisticated elite class does a woman participate in her own marriage arrangements. Marriage generally is made between families of similar social standing, although a woman might properly marry a man of somewhat higher status. Financial standing came to outweigh family background in the late 20th century in any case. Often a person with a good job in a Middle Eastern country is preferred over a person of highly regarded lineage.
Marriages are often preceded by extensive negotiations between the families of the prospective bride and groom. One of the functions of the marriage negotiations is to reduce any discrepancy in status through financial arrangements. The groom’s family ordinarily pledges the traditional cash payment, or bride-price, part or all of which can be deferred to fall due in case of divorce initiated by the husband or in case the contract is otherwise broken. As in many Muslim countries, the cash payment system provides women some protection against the summary divorce permitted by Islam. Some families also adopt the Hindu custom of providing a dowry for the bride.
Of the total population in 1981, an estimated 34 million were married. A total of 19 million citizens of marriageable age were single or had never married, 3 million were widowed, and 322,000 were divorced. Although the majority of married men (10 million) had only one wife, there were about 580,000 households, between 6 and 10 percent of all marriages, in which a man had two or more wives.
Although the age at marriage appeared to be rising in the 1980s, early marriage remained the rule even among the educated, and especially among women. The mean age at marriage in 1981 for males was 23.9, and for females 16.7. Women students frequently married in their late teens and continued their studies in the households of their fathers-in-law. Divorce, especially of young couples without children, was becoming increasingly common in Bangladesh, with approximately one in six marriages ending in this fashion in the 1980s.
Typical spouses know each other only slightly, if at all, before marriage. Although marriages between cousins and other more distant kin occur frequently, segregation of the sexes generally keep young men and women of different households from knowing each other well. Marriage functions to ensure the continuity of families rather than to provide companionship to individuals, and the new bride’s relationship with her mother-in-law is probably more important to her well-being than her frequently impersonal relationship with her husband.