“After we married, I would ask him, ‘Will you abandon me?’ ”
For Rohingya women in refugee camps, marriage is both an escape and a trap.
For decades, the Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar, have been stateless. Denied citizenship in their homeland, where they’ve been persecuted by the military, hundreds of thousands — the majority of the population — now live in refugee camps in Bangladesh. The women in these camps are expected to marry. For those who marry Bangladeshi men, the unions offer the hope of security — food, income, citizenship for their children. Some find love. But more often, marriage turns out to be complicated, even dangerous.
My brother-in-law and my now-husband prayed at the same madrassa. My brother-in-law must have mentioned me because one day, my husband called and asked, “How are you?” And then later, “Do you like me?” I said yes. We talked on the phone every day. After two months, we decided to meet at a restaurant. I took a rickshaw. Our meeting was just for seven minutes because I was going to another village and didn’t want to run into traffic. I left thinking that I’d ask my sister-in-law to convince my parents to let him marry me. If I married him, I could have a better chance for education and health care — everything.
We thought we would live together, but my in-laws did not accept my family. So my husband visits twice a week. He works as a shopkeeper and brings everything: rice, fish, meat, and vegetables. Everything is perfect. My only hope is that someday my in-laws will accept me. It depends on Allah.
Toyaba Begum, 32 or 33
When I first saw my husband, he was wearing new clothes and seemed smart. He became friends with a man named Amin, who lived near me. He sent Amin to my house as a middleman to convince my mother to let me marry him. For nine months, he protected us from harassment and brought vegetables, meals, and household items. Finally, my mother agreed.
After we married, I would ask him, “Will you abandon me?” I knew he had another wife. He would say, “I married you not to abandon you. I married you to live with you forever.” For 12 years, he sometimes stayed here, and he sometimes stayed with his first wife. When he was living with me, I was happy. But after I had three children, he told me to go with him to live with his first wife, which was also closer to his family. I had visited my in-laws before, and they hated me because I’m Rohingya. I knew the move wouldn’t be good, so when I told him I could not go live with his first wife, he divorced me. I felt like I had lost my eyesight. I was not able to see the way. I had three children — what would I do with them?
M., 23, a Bangladeshi
I had a Rohingya friend who lived across the border. One time when I called him, his sister picked up. After talking to each other a few times, we fell in love. She had a nice way of talking.
At around 4 in the afternoon on August 25, 2017, I got a call. It was from A., my friend’s sister. She said she was escaping to Bangladesh. She arrived here around 8 p.m. My sister and I went to meet her. She was with about 50 other people. She looked pale. I brought her home, and after four months, we got married. It didn’t happen earlier because she was traumatized. I wanted to be considerate. When she was ready, she told me.
There was no wedding ceremony. Our marriage was not registered. My hope is to eventually get her citizenship.
A., 18, a Rohingya
At around 10 in the morning on August 25, I had finished my morning prayer and I was cooking soup with dried fish. My house was set on fire. Suddenly, people were running everywhere. The military was shooting at people. There were eight of us in my family, myself included. We all ran. I didn’t know where my parents or brothers or sisters went. I later heard they were killed. I’m the only one in my family who survived.
I couldn’t bring anything when I ran from my home, but I had my brother’s mobile phone. I called M. — we had just talked a few days before — and told him, “I lost everything here, including my parents and brother. Please save me.” We hadn’t talked a lot. I felt like I didn’t know anything about him, just that he and my brother were friends.
When I first arrived in Bangladesh, I was like a sick person. I couldn’t walk well. I didn’t have any injuries, but the journey was hard — especially the part in a canoe. I appreciated that M. and his family protected me. That’s why I decided to marry him. Originally, I was hoping for an arranged marriage, like my parents had planned, but by marrying my husband, I found peace.
Sanu Ara, 17
My family decided to leave Myanmar because my father built a mosque without informing the authorities, and they started harassing him. First, we lived in a village in Bangladesh. When Bangladeshis told us that Rohingya are not allowed to stay in the villages anymore, we moved to the camps.
Two months ago, a friend of ours brought a man to the house. The man knew her husband — they both sold fish in the camps’ markets. He was tall and handsome. He told me that he was a Rohingya, and he asked my mother if he could marry me. My mother and I said yes as long as he wasn’t already married to someone else. The man swore by God and the Holy Quran that he was unmarried.
We stayed together for 15 days, and on the 15th day, we got married. He gave me some jewelry, and a few days later, he took it back. He said he borrowed it from someone, and he would buy it for me again later. When we married, I didn’t know that he was a Bangladeshi. People told me afterwards. When I asked him, he confessed. He said, “I told you I was Rohingya because I wanted to marry you.” He said he would make me a citizen of this country.
Twenty-five days after we were married, I learned that he had a wife. One evening, he told me he was going to go home to his village. But the next morning, he didn’t come back. I heard a rumor that he was sent to prison because he married a Rohingya. I don’t think he’s ever coming back.
Shajedha Begum, 30
One day when I was shopping for clothes, a man came into the store, grabbed my hand, and forced me into his rickshaw. He took me to a village a half-hour away and said, “I brought you here so I could marry you. If you do not agree, I will kill you.” I was so scared. Four days later, he took me to a house in another village. He called it a house, but it was a hotel. We signed a marriage certificate there. I made a copy, but he took it.
We were married for four or five years. During that time, he visited once a month. He had another wife. He would bring me fish and vegetables, but only enough for a day. I had one child with him — my son is now 6. My husband did not even come when he was born. When my child was 1½, he kidnapped him. My son was still breastfeeding at the time. A woman who resolves marriages between husbands and wives helped bring my son back. I don’t know how. I just know I got my son back. To this day, my child doesn’t know who his father is.