IT would be fair to say that marriages in Pakistan are ‘forced’. On one end of the spectrum are the extreme cases, ones in which young girls, often even those who have not yet reached puberty, are forced to marry older men. These extreme cases often involve the use of young girls offered up as brides to settle disputes or pay debts. Those who dare to go against the fate that has been decided for them by cruel and authoritarian family members may even face physical harm. Declared the ‘honour’ of their families, any effort on their part to exercise their right to choose their future is seen as deserving of the most vicious violence. Even when the girls, or couples, run away, they are hounded until their location is discovered and relayed to their families so that they may be killed.
Draconian and cruel as they are, these sorts of cases of forced marriages are likely just a small percentage of the total instances of forced marriages that occur in Pakistan. A ‘forced marriage’, after all, is one in which one or both parties have not consented. The operative word here is ‘consent’, and while technically speaking consent can be given by saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’, philosophically speaking it is a much more complex issue. In the typical arranged marriage, for instance, both the bride and the groom are asked whether they agree to the match. This ‘asking’ and the consequent provision of ‘consent’ that is obtained when the bride- and groom-to-be say ‘yes’ becomes the basis of their acquiescence.
There is more to consent than saying ‘yes’. Focusing only on the technical definition of consent leaves out so much of the story. It does not, for instance, consider one of the strongest drivers of marriage in our society, which is family pressure. In most cases, when a bride-to-be is asked about whether she wants to say ‘yes’ to a particular proposal, the real message to her is simply that we have chosen this man for you and you should choose this man too. Technically speaking, the bride-to-be can say ‘no’ but the cost of this ‘no’, when everyone in the family has already decided that the proposal is the best one, is formidable. If the girl has the guts to stand up to her family, she will be pressured in other ways — withdrawal of affection, taunting, teasing, and, worse still, accused of misbehaviour and disrespect. It is not surprising that, faced with the usually perfunctory ritual of ‘asking the girl’, they know what they are supposed to say, what everyone wants them to say, and so they say ‘yes’.
Add to this the fact that marriage for women is the basis for ongoing social protection. Once a woman is in her late teens or 20s, it is expected that the umbrella of social protections provided to her by her father must shift to her husband. Being married, after all, is the only way that Pakistani society allows a grown woman to exist. For those who flout this rule, there is a lifetime of exclusions, criticism and intrusions. Grown women who are not under the wing of a husband are automatically considered social pariahs and their morals declared compromised. Even in 2022, it is difficult for a single woman to rent or lease a home in many areas in the country. Faced with such realities, most girls just say ‘yes’.
There is more to consent than saying ‘yes’. Focusing only on the technical definition of consent leaves out so much of the story.
Consent, in the end, means the freedom to say ‘no’, and that freedom is not available to women in Pakistan. In many cases, even men do not have this freedom. The guy sitting on the stage and smiling has likely just wed a woman picked for him because she is a cousin, because their families want to do business together, or because her brother has wed his sister. Love, both bride and groom are told, will come in time as life is shared, etc., etc. If it doesn’t come, then it doesn’t matter; it’s not like couples in Pakistan divorce because there is no spark between them.
Except these things do matter. Human beings, be they male or female, deserve emotional connection and fulfilment, instead of marrying to fulfil duties of obedience owed to parents. The extreme in forced marriages may be cases of girls who are sold by parents under duress, but forced marriages, as one journalist and activist has said, exist along a spectrum. The marriage of two cousins betrothed when they were born is most likely a forced marriage. From fulfilling duties to parents, the spouses are expected to get busy fulfilling their duties to each other as they bear the burden of an emotionally hollow bond that provides them with none of the gratification and mutual fulfilment that an intimate relationship should.
The availability of social media is doing its own job of pink-washing these hollow relationships as genuinely loving ones so that these sorts of ‘forced marriages’ can continue. Your friend who sees her husband for 30 minutes every day will write a long loving missive to him on Facebook and Instagram, waxing on and on about his greatness because, like consent, affection is also for show. Deep bonds do not require such performative gestures; the gestures exist to deceive all those not yet married that a fairy-tale does ensue after the wedding festivities are over.
Forced marriages are the norm in Pakistan, and they have created a nation of the emotionally unfulfilled. When the basic intimate partnership is bereft of equality, mutual respect, chemistry, etc. (none of which can exist in a made-to-order marriage), you end up with a society that lacks empathy. Instead of genuine human feeling, there is only obligation and duty and endurance, a resentful coexistence until one’s days run out. Forced marriages may differ in degree and submission, but the real plot acted out over a lifetime is always a tragedy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, January 5th, 2022