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Marriages of desperation

September 27, 2017

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WAR bleeds people; it spills over borders, rivers, deserts and forests, with people hiding and pleading and always, always running. Along with the Rohingya, the people of Syria have seen incredible devastation in the past few years. Even as other wars have waxed and waned, these conflicts have continued in full view of the world, with the feeble bureaucrats of the United Nations looking on and doing nothing.

Like all wars, these conflicts of our times impose the greatest cost on women who become, even more so than in times of peace, pawns in the hands of men. Where currency may be hard to procure, a daughter or a sister can be traded, sometimes for weapons, sometimes for money and sometimes for safety.

The trade in Syrian brides evolved from just these circumstances. Turkey, which has taken in several million refugees fleeing Assad or the militant Islamic State group or the general barbarity of war, is one venue for the hapless trade in Syrian women. Refugees are everywhere in Istanbul, huddled and eager for any charity that they can get. It is no surprise, then, that some of the women among them have become targets for a thriving war economy in marriage.

In one case, reported by the UK newspaper The Sunday Times, an elderly man approached a refugee family about marrying their 17-year-old daughter. He wanted a girl with fair skin (what’s new?) and blue eyes (sigh) and she fit the bill. The man was already married, and polygamy is forbidden in Turkey. In order to get around this, only a religious and not a required civil marriage ceremony was carried out. With this, the two were married.

A woman is not a toy. But the moral mechanics via which she is transformed into one are notable.

The young girl was taken to a home ruled over by an old but cruel mother-in-law. One of the reasons the girl had agreed to the marriage was that she could not afford a sight-saving medicine that she needed for her eyes (the same blue eyes that the man so coveted). She never received the medicine. The man used her and his mother mistreated her. Then he tired of her and sent her back to her family. By this time her sight had degenerated to such an extent that she was becoming blind. The man divorced her in the same perfunctory way he had married her. The money he had paid to her family had long evaporated. In essence, the man purchased the young girl as if she were a toy, and then discarded her when she no longer amused him. There was no one to stop him.

Except that a woman is not a toy. The moral mechanics via which she is transformed into one are notable here. Beneath the purchase of a woman for pleasure is the idea that such a ‘marriage’ — and the quotation marks are important — is somehow permissible in religion. Underlying this sort of justification is the idea that a marriage as an act of charity is allowed despite the fact that the intention is not to form a lifelong relationship but to fulfil the whim of a rich man.

Embedded in this justification is the idea that a male is a whole human and a woman not quite that. And that in turn, buying a woman or using her as a thing without rights, instead of a person with them, is part of faith. All of these ideas preclude any understanding of marriage as a bond based on mutual respect or love or equality, and reduce it to a commercial transaction in which the man is a buyer and boss and the woman is a purchased product.

Syrian women, particularly those who are facing these dire conditions, are not currently in a situation in which they can contest this arrangement. That burden falls on all the rest of the watching world, particularly the Muslim world, which must grapple with the idea that the idea of marriage has been reduced to the purchase of women. Muslim scholars, usually so eager to issue fatwas and edicts on controversial issues of global import, have unsurprisingly remained silent on the matter. No one, it seems, is willing to point out the many injunctions that stress the equality of men and women, that point to marriage being a relationship of love and equanimity, rather than exploitation and profiteering.

Beyond issues of faith, the idea that marriage is a transaction carried out by men and endured by women further embeds the idea that Muslim men, Turkish or Pakistani or otherwise, are somehow inherently unable to respect women. This premise, now a staple of Islamophobic propaganda in the West, uses examples such as the ones involving the sale of Syrian women to Turkish men as the material for exclusion and mistreatment. It is difficult to insist that not all brown men from the Muslim world are committed to hating women, treating them poorly and insisting on their inferiority, when so few of them speak up against the misuse and mistreatment of Muslim women.

The example of Syrian women for sale is a dire one, but the idea that marriage is a transaction that involves the purchase of a woman, who must amuse and endure silently and exist in servitude, has millions of supporters in Pakistan. It is on the basis of that kind of support that economies of mistreatment, of the sale and enslavement of women, can exist and persist. As long as all of these smug and silent men continue to treat their wives as their property and marriage as a hierarchy, all marriages, whether they happen in refugee camps in Turkey or in fancy mansions in Karachi, are marriages of desperation.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2017