Are Marriage Vows Akin to Death Sentences for Inter-religious Couples in Bangladesh?

In his photo exhibition, Samsul Alam Helal captures forbidden love.

by Images by Samsul Alam Helal and Angela Skujins
31 July 2018, 11:00am

Runaway Lovers, Samsul Alam Helal's photo exhibition captures inter-religious couples.   

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The couples portrayed in visual artist Samsul Alam Helal’s body of work Runaway Lovers are fleeing. They’re fleeing from persecution, torture, and murder, because in their home country Bangladesh, their marriage is unacceptable.

The many varied communities in South Asia adhere to strict social customs that lead to their acceptance or lack thereof in society. Of these, one of the most common ones is the unspoken code that a bride and groom must come from one singular faith. And to wed legally, a partner has to convert and wipe away their past. While couples say “Yes” to their new bride or groom, they conversely say “Goodbye” to their mothers, fathers, friends and community. They part with their old lives and move to new places—or they can stay and risk death.

In countries like India and Pakistan, honor killings are rife. However, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Helal lives, these kinds of murders aren’t as common. However stories of estrangement and suicide lurk behind the smiles of ‘happy’ marriages, because if matrimony doesn’t work out for these couples, they can’t go back to the lives they used to lead before getting married. And that’s when they feel that ending their lives is easier than being ostracized.

It makes you wonder: What is the price of love? Is marriage worth it?

Samsul Alam Helal tells us why it’s so hazardous to be with your soulmate in Bangladesh, and whether he believes in soulmates at all.

VICE: Are inter-religious couples in Bangladesh actually in danger?
Samsul Alam Helal: When I made this photo series a lot of things happened. There was a lot of conflict in and around Bangladesh, around how religion and marriage intersect. The situation of inter-religious marriage is that nobody receives this kind of relation. Society rejects their love.

In the case of inter-religious love, couples who get married run away from their families. They go somewhere where nobody knows them so they can be together. Sometimes they break off their relationships with their families and lose contact with their parents.

These people are in love and they’re living together, but the fact is that they come from different religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. What comes with that is conflict. Everybody needs the freedom to choose their own religion.

How did you find these couples?
Not all the subjects are friends. Three were, but the others were people from my area; I asked their permission to take their photo. They didn’t want their identities known. That’s why they hid their face.

I went looking for more couples, but it was hard. A lot of couples are surviving with difficulty and they’re not allowed to pose for pictures. Some of them can’t show their face or even talk to me in case someone recognises them. They tell their families that they’re living together, but their families don’t know about the relationship.

It’s also a visual thing. It’s so the audience can feel that these couples do not show their true face in society. A lot of the couples wear a mask when they go outside.

Why were their faces hidden? Are they in danger?
In Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Nepal—essentially anywhere around this area—there are a lot of news stories, about attacks on inter-religious couples and the murder of their children. There are some extra-religious extremists in this part of Asia. They torture and kill people who are involved in these kinds of religiously conflicted marriages.

Bangladesh is different from India though. There aren’t as many honor killings here compared to India, but there’s a lot of pressure to marry someone from your own religion. A lot of people contemplate suicide. In India there are Hindu and Islamic extremists, but in Bangladesh it’s different. Here they don’t kill. Rather, the newlyweds are victims of suicide and broken relationships because the couples aren’t happy.

Why are they unhappy?
Some are unhappy because they cannot be their authentic selves. They can’t communicate with their families or society. I feel some of the couples are more broken than others. When I ask them how they’re doing, they say, “Oh, I’m fine.” But I can tell they are not.

It’s really sad. I talk to these couples a lot. Most of the time they miss their families. They’re not free or open with who they are. So I start to wonder, “How many years will this go on for? How much longer will they be sad?” For some it’s been five or six years. They have to be free. That’s why some of them think they should leave Bangladesh. Start afresh.

Can you tell us a bit about the flowers and the chicken feet? Do they mean anything?
I took these particular photos to translate a feeling. I use the burning flowers as a metaphor: they’re beautiful, but they’re burning. It represents the marriage. The chicken is a metaphor for the honor killings: it’s a bloody, beautiful creature.

Where are the couples now?
Some of them are still in my city [Dhaka]. I still talk to them.

What did you want to gain from showing these works?
Society hides this kind of relationship. My exhibition wanted to force this into a conversation. They have a beautiful relationship; babies come from couples like these. How can you say it’s awful? Everybody should be free to have these relationships. We are born free.

Why would they risk all this for marriage? Do you believe in love?
Of course. I believe that it’s nature, human nature. Love is as essential as the trees and animals around us. That’s why I believe in love, and that’s why I believe in relationships.

Follow Angela Skujins on Twitter .

This article originally appeared on VICE IN.