Reframing Marriage

Marriages based on an equal partnership should be encouraged, writes Fizza Hussain

Reframing Marriage
Malala Yousafzai’s recent appearance on the cover of British Vogue made Pakistanis to go berserk. Detailed debates took place on whether she deserved it or not. Many called her a puppet of the west and nothing more. The cherry on top? Yousafzai’s comments on marriage; her unusual take on an important institution was seen as disrespect to Pakistan’s culture. After all, one comment from a 23-year-old activist is all it takes for Pakistani culture to crumble.

Anything falling a little out of the box of cultural norms and values is rejected and trolled.

In Malala’s interview with Vogue, she talks about marriage as an obligation. Here’s what she said: “I’m slightly nervous…especially thinking about relationships. You know, on social media, everyone’s sharing their relationship stories, and you get worried…if you can trust someone or not; how can you be sure.”

She goes on to say:

“I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?” Her mother – like most mothers – disagrees. “My mum is like,” Malala laughs, “‘Don’t you dare say anything like that! You have to get married, marriage is beautiful.” (Vogue, July 2021)

Every South Asian girl relates to having fears and doubts about marriage, considering we live in a society where a woman’s agency on her decisions is considerably reduced post marriage. The way Malala’s statement was blown out of proportion and seen as a threat to our values and traditions is evidence of the growing intolerance around us.

Marriage is a beautiful institution, for sure – but what defines marriage in our society? Let’s put things into perspective.

When we talk about marriage, we need to ask ourselves – are we talking about the beautiful union of two people who love each other, or are we talking about the idea of forcefully binding two people together just for the sake of fulfilling the “obligation” of getting married, overlooking multiple issues that come with a patriarchal system such as rishta culture, forced marriage, dowry, honor killings, domestic violence, child marriages?

The toxic “rishta culture” still dominates – the idea of people coming over to “look at” the girl seems so last century; yet, it still happens. Not only does it still happen, but people continue to defend it. “How else are two people supposed to meet?” is a common response. Well, perhaps if they weren’t forbidden from talking to the opposite gender all their life, sent to segregated schools, and conditioned to believe that any interaction with the opposite sex will lead to dire consequences, maybe they would have been able to find a suitable partner on their own terms.

The institution of marriage is some 4,000 years old. It started off as a patriarchal practice to control women as one’s “property”; it was a way for men to make sure that the offspring their wife was carrying was their own. The intention to marry was largely motivated by restricting women to their homes, preventing them from owning property, and taking away their individuality by changing their last name from their father’s to their husband’s. Simply put, it maintained the superior status of men.

When the institution of marriage became recognized by the Church during the 16th century, some things improved for wives. Monogamy became more normalized with the Church requiring the husband to be more faithful and respectful towards their partner. However, the concept of men as “heads” of the household and primary decision makers with control over their wives still held.

This changed a lot later when women won the right to vote in 1920. Following this victory, the nature of marriage changed dramatically; women were considered full citizens as opposed to mere shadows of their husbands. During the 1960s, the law forbidding women to use birth control was discontinued. Women won bodily autonomy. During the 1970s, marital rape was officially recognized as a crime. Abortion became legal. This ended the notion that men owned their wives “sexually”, furthering the idea that women alone had ownership of their bodies. These defining steps in the West drastically changed the way people viewed marriage. It changed the dynamic between husband and wife.

Coming to Pakistan, how much has changed? No legal protection for wives against domestic and sexual violence currently exists. The idea of women being in control of their bodies is a concept lost on us –evident by the negative reactions to “mera jism meri marzi” (my body, my choice). There is no law in the country that clearly defines marital rape as a crime. Before 2006, the Zina ordinance created during Zia-ul-Haq’s time clearly stated that rape would only be considered if the victim was “not the man’s wife”.

The Women’s protection Act of 2006 eliminated this statement. However, the status of marital rape as a crime in the current penal code remains ambiguous. Domestic violence is rampant with marital rape as one of the main forms of abuse. This is evident from the rise in domestic violence cases during COVID-19. Owing to Pakistan’s cultural climate, conservatives claim that criminalizing marital rape would “weaken the institution of marriage”, and that marital rape is a “western liberal concept”. Religious verses are wrongly used and misinterpreted to prevent the criminalization of marital rape. Other Muslim countries around the world such as Azerbaijan, Somalia, Sudan, Turkey, Qatar all recognize marital rape as an offense, with no evident effects on the rates of marriage. Pakistan needs to reassess the reasons for why it refuses to recognize a crime that is widespread.

Women are forced to get pregnant in cases where they are unable to birth a son. Forced and child marriage rates are one of the highest in Pakistan with early pregnancies in young girls causing permanent health issues and a restriction on economic opportunities, leading to financial dependence on their husbands.

Then there’s the issue of dowry. As outdated as it seems, this is still a popular practice. There are multiple cases of women being sent back home, physically abused, or even killed because of the family’s failure to provide the demanded amount as dowry. These rates are highest in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Women are humiliated, their self-esteem crumbled, and their value reduced to nothing but material objects. This inescapable dehumanization of women is a predominant characteristic of marriages in Pakistan.

In many situations, the true nature of the man is hidden from the girl’s family. Problems such as addiction, alcoholism, anger issues, etc. are kept a secret until after the marriage. This is based on the illogical assumption that the man “will automatically be fixed after marriage”.

The belief that “making sacrifices for the family is the responsibility of the woman” is collectively echoed by society. Domestic violence is treated as a “private issue” between husband and wife. Ironically, when a couple publically shows affection, it seems to offend the whole country. This was evident when there was public outrage following actress Sarwat Gillani posting a picture kissing her husband, or when an official complaint was filed with the FIA regarding a couple kissing on an Airblue flight. Any kind of violence is a private issue but any affection shown between husband and wife is a national concern.

The attacks on Malala’s views are quite rich coming from a society that puts in zero effort to protect its women from marital abuse and violence. Apart from weak laws and societal interference, crucial clauses in the Nikkah-Nama (marriage contract) providing some protection for women are deliberately struck off (such as clause 18/19 –wife’s right to divorce), demanding dowry is still a popular practice in the 21st century, and asking women to quit their jobs and look after their homes post marriage is more common than we think.

The institution of marriage has evolved all over the world; mainly in the last 40-50 years. Since the early 1900s, women have won the right to vote, work, go to school, and have gained access to reproductive health. Two people take a mutual decision to spend the rest of their lives together based on their understanding, love, and compatibility.

Unfortunately, it seems Pakistan is still stuck in 16th century notions of marriage where outdated traditions still dominate. Something as basic as the girl and the boy wanting to spend some time together prior to their union for a better understanding of each other is largely frowned upon, and in most cases, not allowed.

There needs to be some room to breathe. Women are made to feel useless and of no value if they’re unmarried post 30. Men and women shouldn’t be forced to make this commitment without being mentally ready. Marriage shouldn’t be an end all be all situation.

We desperately need to change the way we perceive marriage. We need to accept that marriages in our society curb the freedom of women. Marriages based on an equal partnership should be encouraged; the obsession with marriage needs to stop.

Until protection and basic rights are guaranteed, let’s stop bashing those who are hesitant to enter an institution that needs to be freed from patriarchal coercive control. Let’s also stop bashing Malala for presenting a perspective that resonates with millions of girls living in a society where their space and voice has been snuffed out.

The writer works with the Human Rights Department of Sindh as part of the Huqooq-e-Pakistan