Towards the end of what those around her consider a happy occasion, 13-year-old Bengali girl Beezley breaks down in tears. The camera films her sobbing on the floor as her relatives bundle her into a van at the conclusion of her bitterly fought, then hopelessly accepted, wedding ceremony, to 25-year-old Shyamal. She wanted to be a doctor. But after she was pulled out of school at such a young age, the viewer knows it is unlikely to end well for Beezley.
The traumatic scenes are part of a powerful half-hour documentary by independent filmmaker Tania Rashid. The doco, which delves deep into Bangladesh’s child marriages, has already been shown on Al Jazeera and will air tonight on SBS’ Dateline.
Married at 13 shows Beezley’s wedding being moved to a secret location (it’s considered bad luck to not hold the wedding at the bride’s house, but after local authorities are alerted to what’s going on, the families have no choice). Child marriage is illegal in Bangladesh, though still common. UNICEF estimates 29.1% of girls there are married by age 15.
Given the fact that what was taking place was illegal, did Rashid ever consider intervening, to save Beezley from her grim fate?
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Rashid is Bengali herself, though she’s lived in America most of her life. She’s written of how members of her own family tried to marry her off to far older men when she was younger.
Asked whether she felt a conflict between her journalistic duty and a desire to save Beezley, Rashid told Crikey that was the hardest part of her job. “Of course in situations where someone is dying, I’m not going to stand back and watch,” she said yesterday from New York. “But in this case, it’s a cultural practice. The family trusted us to come into their world. I just didn’t think it was my place as a journalist. Although there were moments that were so gut-wrenching.
“I thought that even if I had intervened, they’d do in it secret anyway.”
When stories of child marriage from the third world are broadcast, we usually hear from experts, NGOs and activists. These voices are present in a Married at 13, but they do not dominate. Instead, in the foreground are girls, some who have escaped child marriages, and some who have not. Rashid’s own background undoubtedly helped achieve this.
“For me, being south Asian, people are more likely to trust me,” she said. “I speak the languages, I understand the culture. It opens another window of intimacy.”
Even so, getting this level of access wasn’t straightforward. It took weeks of staying in rural villages, and a bit of being in the right place at the right time.
“It was difficult to get someone to admit, or a family member to admit, they were going to marry their child off,” she said. “It was a very taboo subject that no one liked to admit to.
“They’d deny it, but it would happen in secret all the time.”
But as the local community began to trust Rashid, she found many who justified the practice. Village elders told her it was the only way to ensure girls stayed pure. Bridegrooms said they wanted to marry girls as young as they could find, because they would be easy to control, and have few experiences of being around other boys and men. And struggling families spoke of the cost of raising daughters — a cost assumed by husbands once they were married off. Beezley herself said no one had asked what she thought of the marriage. It happened so suddenly, she didn’t even have a chance to tell her friends at school. After the marriage, she will no longer be allowed to see them.
“For them, it’s very normal. In their mind, there’s the whole dowry system where they marry a girl off, it gets rid of a burden,” Rashid said. “They sell her to the groom and then don’t have to worry. Fundamentally, it’s a system that disenfranchises young girls and makes them a responsibility.”
The film ends with a visit, a week after the wedding, to Beezley’s new home with her husband, Shyamal. He had agreed to let Beezley keep going to school before the marriage, but he has since changed his mind. Asked if she’ll still be a doctor, Beezley says that’s not part of her life now. Sitting next to her, Shyamal is thrilled. He can barely contain his smile. Later, he is filmed through the doorway, speaking to Beezley: “Don’t you know you’re a little girl?”
*Married at 13 airs tonight at 9.30pm on SBS’ Dateline