Call it desire or teenage infatuation, but to Rumana Ahmed, it was real love. Every time she would look into his eyes, she would get butterflies.
Back then, she was too young to understand the rocky journey of real life and the idea of financial independence. She just felt that she needed to be with this man. The feeling was mutual.
It was not long before they got married. She was a higher secondary student at the time.
The husband had a job. Still, he wanted Rumana to continue her studies and be financially independent. He arranged for her to enrol at a private university after she had failed to secure a place at a public institution.
But his decision to invest in his wife's education led to a series of arguments with his parents. They were not happy that he was spending such a substantial sum on his wife's education, but he stood by his decision.
Having completed her bachelor's in business administration, Rumana conceived. After the baby grew up a little, she wanted to get a job. But her mother-in-law opposed the plan. She told Rumana she would not babysit for her. Rumana was then forced to be a stay-at-home mom.
It just did not stop there. The mother-in-law already had previous grudges as her son had defied her and spent a lot of money on Rumana's education. When she would talk to her son, she would often vilify Rumana. Tension began to grow among the three and conflicts arose, a situation not unheard of in Bangladeshi and Indian families.
Things did not improve between Rumana and her mother-in-law even after a decade. At some point, she decided to file for a divorce. But her son was studying at an English medium school at the time, and she did not have an income source. In fact, she had never had a job before. She was 40 then.
"It was the start of an uphill battle after my divorce. I kept trying for a job at that age, but no one was willing to employ me. After overcoming insurmountable challenges, I finally managed an entry-level job as a schoolteacher. The salary was a little more than Tk10,000," she said.
The money was too meagre to cover the expenses of Rumana and her son. It was a life of extreme hardship, but she was helpless.
"If I started working after my graduation, I would be earning much more today even in teaching because I would have gathered experience," she lamented.
I asked her what her biggest regret would be if she looked back on her teenage self.
She said her life would have been different only if she realised before marriage that a woman's financial independence should be an indispensable part of her life even if she was married, that taking care of her own finances should not be forsaken for the sake of love and marriage.
That is to say, only if Rumana practiced the Nordic theory of love.
What is the Nordic theory of love?
The Nordic theory of love is a guiding principle that people can follow to form personal relationships in the modern age. Among other things, it provides guidelines on how to calibrate relationship parameters so that they align with modern values.
At the heart of the Nordic theory of love is maintaining individual independence in a relationship. The fundamental concept is that "authentic" love and friendship are possible only between two people who are "independent and equal".
This is in fact the Swedish theory of love. It was presented by Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh in his 2015 Swedish-language book Är svensken människa? (Is the Swede a Human Being?).
But Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist and author of The Nordic Theory of Everything, terms it the Nordic theory of love in her book as the citizens of all five Nordic countries, including Sweden, grow up with these values.
Trägårdh has mostly lived in America since 1970. He taught modern European history at Barnard College. He had observed the differences between Sweden and the US for years. He then wrote about some fundamental features of the Swedish society in his book that help explain why the Nordic nations keep doing so well in global indicators of quality of life and well-being.
"He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic," Trägårdh wrote to explain the Swedish theory of love.
But how can this theory empower Bangladeshi women and teach them the importance of maintaining financial independence in marriage? Before discussing that, it will help to know about 21st century marriages in the US, as observed by Anu first-hand.
Women's dependence on men: Bangladesh vs America
Anu moved to the US for love. She left Finland in 2008 to join her then American boyfriend Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters. She later married him and eventually became a naturalised American citizen.
As she settled down in her new home, she started paying attention to the patterns of relationships on four fronts – the relationship between parents and children, that between employers and employees, that between the government and citizens, and that between spouses.
She noticed that American women define the perfect husband as a guy who is handsome, kind, romantic, trustworthy, hardworking, and good with children. But when they seek commitment from a man, the financial equation comes into play.
That is, there is often an implicit or explicit understanding that a woman attaches a higher rank to the size of a man's pay cheque among his other qualities. This might sound like those gold-digging stories found in many cultures to varying degrees, but it is not.
Anu was surprised to discover that getting married in America in the 21st century is like starting a journey of financial inter-dependence between spouses to an undesirable degree. Thus, two people planning to tie the knot and start a family need to think very cautiously about finances beforehand.
Among other factors, such as student loans and health insurance, a woman especially needs to think about the cost of childbirth. She needs to think about who would pay the bills and bear family expenses if she has to quit her job to care for the baby.
Then a new crisis will arise when the baby is a few months old. If both parents get back to work, can they afford a good babysitting service or private day care? When the child grows even older, the parents would then have to think about school costs and save for college tuition.
"Suddenly, the obsession for commitment from a well-paid man started to make a whole lot more sense. When money and access to money predetermined every major decision affecting a family and a child's future, it is no wonder that an American woman might pay attention to a potential husband's pay cheque and benefits package, no matter how modern-minded she is," Anu writes.
Why did this underlying reality of American marriages surprise her? Because she thought the US is one of the most modern countries on earth, but the financial inter-dependence between American spouses seemed like "peculiar remnants of a bygone era" that conflicted with the core principles of modernism – freedom, opportunity, individualism, and independence.
Let us now look at Bangladeshi marriages. This is a patriarchal land, with men historically having a high degree of control over women both in society and in family. In old Bangladeshi cinemas, there is a scene that is all too common. On the wedding day, the bride's father tells the groom, "Baba, amar meyetake tomar haat e tule dilam. Oke dekhe rekho. Aj theke or sob daitto tomar." (Dear son-in-law, I hand my daughter over to your custody. Take care of her. From now on, all her responsibilities rest with you.)
Perhaps a bride's father would not say it exactly like this in real life, but this statement depicts how a Bangladeshi husband was mainly thought of as the protector and provider for his wife and family back in those days. The wife would usually end up as a homemaker while the husband would be the finance minister of the household.
At that time, for Bangladeshi women, marriage was mostly about being with a man for social and financial security. Time has changed, and Bangladesh has undergone significant social transformations since then. Marriage in recent years has veered more towards the path of partnership with equal participation of both spouses.
But a Bangladeshi husband's role as the main provider in the family has not changed at all. His key responsibilities still include earning money and supporting his wife and children.
The same is true for a wife. She is still mainly expected to execute the household chores, including cooking and cleaning, and raise children. The biggest change that has happened is that more women now work. So, they are no longer homemakers only. They are both homemakers and working women.
But the continuation of deep-rooted patriarchal values means the male authority in the family is still prevalent. The activism of women empowerment has been gaining a strong foothold in recent years, but Bangladeshi women still fight for their rights both at home and outside.
As more and more women are getting educated and having jobs, they are gaining more roles to play outside the domestic sphere. Yet, in terms of economic opportunities, men are still far ahead of them. Also, in many occupations, such as technology and engineering, male preference is a given.
A 2020 UN report said the gender wage gap in Bangladesh was the lowest in the world. But explaining the implications of the inspiring news, former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office Dr Zahid Hussain said though women's involvement in the labour force or paid employment had increased considerably, their participation had remained in low-paying jobs.
He said the economic empowerment of women was still less than men but had increased compared to the past.
This means men still dominate the segment of high-paying jobs in the labour market and thus have better finances by default. Plus, as women are largely expected to prioritise family over career, their career progression is much slower than men.
The result? A modern Bangladeshi woman depends on her husband financially, even if she does not want to. That is, her thoughts revolve around the financial axis when she picks a man to marry and start a family with – much like an American woman.
She has to think about who will bear family expenses if she does not work after marriage and who will provide for her children once she becomes a mom. She has to think about who will pay for her children's education, hobby, and other demands.
Another blatant reason why Bangladeshi women depend on men is security. Their social identity is intertwined with their marital status. There is little acceptance in society that a woman will work and live by herself, if she so chooses. If she is alone, she is not safe. She needs to be protected by a man even if she makes her own money.
In other words, a man is a Bangladeshi woman's knight in shining armour, both financially and socially.
When I ask Bangladeshi women about the qualities they expect in their future husbands, their answers usually do not differ much from what Anu said about American women's preferences. A Bangladeshi woman also wants a man who is handsome, kind, romantic, and hardworking. But due to the explicit dependency on the man she knows she may not be able to avoid after marriage, she instinctively prioritises his finances.
But doing so without uncompromisingly focusing on her own financial independence at the same time means she is putting herself in a vulnerable position. She is setting herself up for possible future disappointments, should marital anomalies arise. She is ignoring the fact that financial dependence on her husband does not guarantee security; it is just an illusion of security.
Now, this is not to imply that every woman will wind up in a terrible situation like Rumana. Though divorce is highly disapproved of in our society, it is rising. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, divorce is increasing among educated couples.
Moreover, like many places around the world, divorce rose in Dhaka when the pandemic brought life to a screeching halt last year. From June to October, divorces in the capital increased by about 30% compared to the same period of 2019. During these five months, 39 divorces took place daily.
Several decades ago, a Bangladeshi marriage meant a happily-ever-after story. Divorce was kind of inconceivable. In the name of preserving the sanctity of marriage and to avoid social stigma of divorce, a couple was expected to continue the marital bond even if its core had broken down irretrievably for whatever reason.
Women particularly were expected – and even advised by elder members of the family – to compromise and tolerate conjugal problems just for the sake of keeping the marriage alive. Though the sentiment is not as intense these days as it used to be, women are still expected to hold on – more so if there is a child involved.
But a woman does not need to go through a divorce like Rumana to realise the importance of financial independence. She often realises it when she is still married. Yet, many women are compelled to stay in bad marriages because they know it is not only about the emotional turbulence and social stigma of the divorce that they will face.
In fact, it is more about their inability to pay the bills, like Tania Tabassum.
The untold story of a seemingly happy marriage
After obtaining a civil engineering degree from a private university, Tania started working as a lecturer at a higher education institution. It was not a lot of money, but she was financially independent. She was also doing her MBA and preparing for government jobs simultaneously.
Before marriage, she highly prioritised financial independence. She had no interest in asking her man for money after marriage. Her thoughts aligned with that of a modern woman.
"I thought it would be an act of shame for a woman who had studied so hard to get an engineering degree and whose parents had invested so much in her education," she said.
After getting married, she continued the job. Her husband would also give her some money every month. But after she conceived, she had to quit the job.
She started spending from her savings to manage her personal expenses. She would also buy books and other stuff to pursue her dreams of studying for public sector jobs.
When her entire savings dried up, she slipped into severe depression. Cash inflow had already stopped earlier. She became completely dependent on her husband. That is when the ordeal began.
The husband started showing reluctance to give her money. It was not because the husband was not capable enough. He would buy his sister a Tk10,000 dress for Eid but would give Tania a considerably cheaper dress. Moreover, he would buy two dresses for his sister but only one for his wife.
"I could not accept it at all. A man can definitely gift his sister whatever he wants. But why this much discrimination between the sister and the wife? He would spend on his sister's gifts but when I would want something, he would say, 'Have a little patience. My finances are running low this month'," Tania said.
She never thought it would turn out this way. When the marriage proposal had come, she saw no red flags. The man was educated, had a good job at a well-known private company, and had a car and a house. On paper, everything seemed quite good. She thought she would build a happy family with this man.
Things went beyond finances and affected her mental well-being as well as her self-worth when she started experiencing toxicity in the family. Her sister-in-law, an undergraduate student, would ridicule her in different ways. She would say things like "Your general knowledge is very low; you do not know this and that." The words would feel like bee stings to Tania.
The sister-in-law would not do household chores, giving the excuse that she needed to study. She would then force Tania to do those, arguing that Tania was "unemployed." The mother-in-law was also a troublemaker, throwing comments that eroded Tania's confidence. She would express annoyance when Tania would go to the parent's place for a visit.
The father-in-law added insult to injury. He practiced frugality, so much so that it affected the family's food intake. For lunch, only four pieces of chicken would be cooked – one for each. The pieces would be barely enough for a grown-up person. Tania would need one more chicken, but the bowl was already empty. It was beyond her imagination that thriftiness could lead to such a bizarre mess at a family's dining table.
Her parents thought before the marriage that it would not be necessary for her to make a living as they were marrying her off to a well-off family. They thought their daughter might work to earn money if she chose to.
But what they thought should be a choice has now become crucial for their daughter.
"The kind of abuse I am facing in my marriage lies in the shadow of other overt forms of abuse, such as physical abuse, that people mostly talk about in society. But it is not any less horrible than other types of abuse.
"No girl would even think of staying in such a marriage, but my hands are tied. I have considered divorce but how would I support myself and my child? There are so many expenses I need to bear myself if I quit the marriage," she explained.
Tania now has a message for all girls out there – "No matter how rich or awesome your husband is, you must not financially depend on him. Just because you are married does not mean you are, or will remain, without troubles. Financial independence is your ultimate security."
This is precisely how the Nordic theory of love applies to the sphere of marriage.
The goal of the Nordic societies during the 20th century was to free people from all forms of dependency within the family and society. The idea was that wives should not be dependent on their husbands, adult children on their parents, and elderly parents on their children.
For Nordic people, the most important values in life are self-sufficiency and independence. This self-reliance and independence help create relationships that are not dictated by financial obligations or other underlying dependencies.
Instead, the relationships are driven by love, attraction, and genuine connection – three essential qualities that should define a marriage. Nordic women do not marry to depend on their husbands financially. And as they support themselves, they will not feel cornered if they find themselves in a shockingly awful situation like Tania.
A Bangladeshi version of the Nordic theory of love?
Though Tania now realises the power of the Nordic theory of love, it is certainly not possible for Bangladeshi women to fully practice this theory in their lives. For one thing, Nordic countries are vastly different from Bangladesh in terms of social, cultural, political, and economic structures.
They are the global champions of gender equality, actively promoting this equality at home, at work, and in public life. They are among the best places to be a woman and to raise children. In her book, Anu does not assert that the Nordic countries are paradises. But she argues that the freedom, opportunity, and independence that Americans cherish are achieved better in the Nordics than in the US.
Evidently, Bangladesh lags far behind the Nordics and the US on social, economic, and development indices in the global arena.
But the biggest barrier to practicing the Nordic theory of love is that it is not just a philosophy that individuals may or may not follow. Most of the policies in the Nordic countries are direct manifestations of this theory, Anu notes. So, it is not a question of culture; it is about how a society is officially structured and how state policies are formulated.
For example, a married Bangladeshi woman will face obstacles to practicing the Nordic theory of love when she becomes a mom. Bangladesh's official policy says expectant women will get 16 weeks of maternity leave with full payments. But the law is implemented unevenly in Bangladesh, resulting in disparate practices in different sectors, said a 2019 study of Awaj Foundation and Fair Labor Association.
Most of the workers in the garment sector, the largest employer of women in Bangladesh, do not have access to maternity benefits. Disturbingly, the situation of women in other organisations in the private sector – the segment of females that is more educated and have far better pay than apparel workers – is not markedly better. What should be a right for a woman is a privilege in practice.
As a result, many expectant women just leave their jobs and are then forced to financially depend on their husbands, like Tania. Even in America, there is no universal parental leave policy, which shocked Anu very much.
"Prospective parents in the US face enormous challenges simply in arranging and paying for their lives if they want to have kids. Often the livelihood of one of the spouses is at stake, and needless to say, it would usually be the mother's," she writes.
On the other hand, the universal minimum amount of parental leave that new parents in the Nordic region get is nine months. While on leave, the parent who stays home also receives at least 70% of his or her pay for the whole duration of the leave.
More importantly, this leave does not depend on a person's employer. A Nordic citizen is entitled to this benefit, no matter what company s/he works for. After the leave is over, the parent can just return to the workplace. The state thus enables women to not financially depend on husbands when they are out of work due to motherhood.
But not even an advanced country like the US can replicate the Nordic model, let alone Bangladesh. As Anu suggests in her book, the US would need its own version of the Nordic theory of love to make smart policy choices to achieve what the Nordic countries have achieved.
That holds true for Bangladesh – or any other country for that matter – as well. But what would the Bangladeshi version of the Nordic theory of love be? And what if the implementation of policies based on it remains a pipe dream? Does that mean Bangladeshi women cannot derive any benefit from the original Nordic theory of love?
"No," says Shirin Rahman as she shares her story.
An interior architect by profession, Shirin has worked both in Bangladesh and Dubai. She married at 29, quite late according to Bangladeshi standards, and conceived soon after. She left her job like Tania to care for the baby.
Of course, she was more than happy to carry out her duties as a new mom but as time went by, her depression only grew. She was no longer earning. She had to ask for money from her husband even for small personal expenses.
"I had been an unemployed homemaker for four years. I consciously prioritised my motherhood over my career, but my depression was caused by the fact that I was doing unpaid household chores while my passion was put on hold," she said.
She would take money from her husband and mom, but she was not happy about it at all. She was worried about how she would ask them for a large sum when she would need to buy big stuff. She was embarrassed to even think that they might ask her questions about the purchase if she asked for a big amount.
"That would make me very uncomfortable, I thought. That was the moment I realised that getting back to the labour market was the only solution to this pitfall. I put in massive efforts to get a job. But it was very difficult because I had already lost touch with my professional community because of the four-year gap."
But a tenacious Shirin refused to give up. She knew she had to start earning again by hook or by crook. After lots of efforts, she managed to start freelancing. She is now a full-time freelance architect. She is elated that cash is flowing in again to her account.
"I feel like a winner. There was – and still is – no problem in my marriage. Yet, I experienced it first-hand that I could not afford to be financially dependent on my man," she said.
Shirin strongly emphasises education. She says a girl must finish her studies and then start her career. She also emphasises that a working woman taking a break for motherhood or any other reason must get back to working life afterwards.
"This is not like 'OK, I will try'. It is like 'I must, no matter what'. You cannot just sit idle and lament that you do not have the same state facilities as women in developed countries. If the state does not help you, you help yourself," she said, giving her opinion on how Bangladeshi women can practice the Nordic theory of love in their own way.
Bangladeshi women need not be like Nordic women to practice the Nordic theory of love. For sure, this theory cannot prevent a divorce, which happened to Rumana. But it can certainly emancipate women like Tania, whose marriage has been relegated from a loving partnership to forced financial dependency.
And it can inspire women to be like Shirin. She told me becoming financially independent again after a four-year break had increased her personal as well as conjugal happiness.
Disclaimer: Some names have been changed to protect identities.