MY three-year-old daughter, Sobh wanted to have a ritual of danwan which is reserved only for boys in some areas of rural Sindh. The ritual is held when a boy begins to learn how to walk. It involves putting a rope between the child’s legs. The rope is then cut by the eldest uncle on the mother’s side symbolising a release from all hurdles so that the child can walk and run freely.

Why is the ritual specific to boys and why are girls not allowed to have it? The reason is simple: the local people fear that if they have the same ritual for their daughters, they might run away with someone when they grow up. The right to free consent in marriage, especially for girls, is still a distant dream and the concept of marrying for love, taken for granted in Western societies, is still frowned upon in most rural areas in the country.

In Western societies, the issue of the right to marry only emerges in the context of same-sex marriage. But here where old traditions and local customs are at times even more powerful than state law, denying a man or woman the right to marry someone of his or her choice often goes unnoticed, with girls especially not expected to utter a single word against their parents’ choice. Young couples get killed by their tribesmen and family members in the name of honour, if they choose to marry of their own free will against the wishes of their family or tribe. Several others live a life of compromise for not resisting the wishes of their parents or tribal leaders.

Justifying this brutal tradition is wrong but one cannot deny the fact that such archaic customs are deeply rooted in culture. Customs like danwan go unchallenged in our society. A discriminatory practice which my three-year-old daughter was able to notice is taken for granted. Unfortunately, the fabric of our culture is constructed in a manner which promotes and protects these traditions that go against humanity, especially women.

When a woman belonging to a family in rural Pakistan pursues her right to marry someone of her own choice, and especially if she ties the knot with someone outside her tribe, it results in the male members of the family perceiving their ‘honour’ and social status as being threatened. And these threats are not imaginary. Everyone looks down on that family which is suddenly turned into an outcast.

In cases where the family itself arranges the marriage of their daughter to someone outside the tribe, that family often has to leave the village, and if they’re allowed to stay then their clan stops having anything to do with them. For society, it is a grave social offence to interact with the father of a daughter who marries of her free will. The same clan will have no qualms about showing respect to the family of a corrupt government servant or a smuggler or thug but it will not associate with a family whose daughter has married of her free will.

An example is included here of a close friend who fell in love with an educated girl belonging, by local standards, to a modern family. The girl forced him to arrange a court marriage because she feared her father would not allow their marriage and would make her marry her cousin, to whom she had been engaged since the age of five.

When the girl’s father discovered their marriage, he was furious, and told his daughter that he would never accept her marriage because he would lose all prestige in his community. The father physically tortured the daughter and kept her in confinement in a far-off kacha area until she agreed to seek a divorce. Finally a divorce was obtained through the court and she was forced to marry her illiterate cousin.

Who is responsible for the denial of this basic human right to women in Pakistan? The government, which has failed to enact appropriate laws, the police that are in cahoots with the perpetrators, or the courts which often set perpetrators free and seldom do justice by the victims? Or those fathers and brothers who kill their daughters and sisters based on their perception of ‘honour’? Or a society and culture which makes those fathers and brothers feel like outcasts among their own people?

Every one rightly blames the government for its inaction and those who go to the extent of killing couples who marry of their free will are viewed as inhuman by the larger section of society. But sadly no one blames a culture which gives no breathing space to the parents of those women who choose to marry of their own free will and who are considered merely an object of honour. The anti-women cultural behaviour and rituals like danwan need to be challenged at all levels.

It was with this in mind that our family organised a big danwan ceremony for our daughter Sobh in my small village of Mithri in Khairpur district — a place where no one could imagine that a girl child too could have the same ceremony as boys.

The writer is a faculty member at Quaid-i-Azam University and a PhD candidate at the Peace Studies department of the University of Bradford, UK.

Updated Dec 10, 2012 12:20am

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Comments (11) (Closed)

Dec 11, 2012 02:38am
" intelligent society". You are assuming too much...
Dec 11, 2012 02:12am
Kudos to Saeed for raising an important issue in the subcontinent. Time to change these is now and Saeed's act of organizing this function for his daughter in their remote village is a great way to showcase what one needs to do, and ofcourse a striking way to end this article.- Sanjay
A.H. Sheikh (@ahsheikh)
Dec 11, 2012 01:02pm
Well said, Government is not solely blamed, cultural behaviors are too. Some words on how to review these anti-human cultural behaviors would have added worth to article.
Dec 10, 2012 01:53pm
One more Salalah in the making. Great news.
Dec 10, 2012 09:50am
Congrats Sobh..
Dec 10, 2012 09:53am
The writer has brilliantly showed a picture that is prevailing in our society where discrimination on the basis of gender is very common and even not considered as discrimination by a big segment of our society. Whenever, it comes about a male and female baby/children/person things, attitudes, behaviors, expectations, roles, responsibilities etc. change. As far as marriage is concerned, marriage as per own choice is mostly discouraged. Majority of the couples go for court marriages, if they do not accept the socio-cultural pressures. But afterwards, in the most of times they are not accepted and welcomed by their family/clan etc. the situation is grim that needs efforts and commitment at various level – from individual to collective and from social to legal and so on and so forth.
Sue Sturgess
Dec 10, 2012 09:23am
This article has 2 distinct issues: 1) Kids learn to walk at approx 12 mths old. A symbolic childhood ritual has no real impact on adult life 2) Why would any intelligent society wish to deny its youth the right to choose their own spouse?
Dec 10, 2012 05:46am
Good article. You hit the bull's eye with "But sadly no one blames a culture which gives no breathing space..."
Dec 10, 2012 04:41am
The protectors of this culture where women are considered as a symbol of honor for the men of family or tribe is being protected and promoted by tribal and political leaders of interior sindh and balochistan. These people become our law makers so they have always been supported by local police, courts and other sdministrative authorities. A family living in such a culture, even when it does not believe in such culture or wants to change it, can not do this big task at its own. The media and human rights activists has to play a major role by helping progressive people from these areas against the brutality of these local politicians (who try to give a very liberal look in islamabad and karachi) and local police as well as courts. There have been many case which I have myself evidenced, where the fate of a girl is being decided by a jirga by these tribal leaders with or without the consent of family. I have few suggestion which may be useful, one the media should report these cases of human rights violation and then raise these questions from the elected representatives, police and other administrative authorities, two the dark sides of the culture should be highlighted and the bright ones should be promoted by writings (as this one), art and tv.
Dec 10, 2012 12:50pm
One thing one must remember.When your child starts walking,You better be prepared for the unknown.They have a habit of walking as to where they want. Nothing frightens them.To them the home is theirs to explore.You need a 24 hours eye on them.
Rafique Chandio
Dec 10, 2012 08:57am
Very Informative and Worth Reading.....