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Your urban feminist sensibilities (even if you are a man) may be offended to learn that two economists from the World Bank have determined that women married in watta satta (barter) marriages face less marital discord than the rest in rural Pakistan.

Barter marriages involve the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister pair from one family to a sister-brother pair in another family.  Thus, when a man marries a woman, his wife’s brother simultaneously marries the man’s sister. The practice is common in rural Pakistan.

Barter marriages are often despised by the urbanites, who consider the practice to be a reflection of tribal customs common among illiterate and low-income households. There are numerous reported cases of women (and men) married off in watta satta exchanges against their will, and who were later subjected to domestic violence. The literature on gender equity holds a disparaging view of barter marriages and considers such unions a violation of womens’ basic human rights. How then can two leading economists from the World Bank, Ghazala Mansuri and  Hanan Jacoby, conclude that the likelihood of marital discord in barter marriages is lower than in non-barter marriages?

Jacoby and Mansuri published their findings in the prestigious journal, American Economic Review. The authors also made available the data and algorithms on the journal’s website for others to explore their findings first hand. Yours truly could not resist the temptation, and downloaded the data to determine under what circumstances barter marriages are likely to be preferred.

A systematic review of Jacoby and Mansuri’s data however reveals conflicting trends where women in barter marriages appear to have a higher likelihood of marital discord. It is only after subjecting data to advanced statistical methods that women in barter marriages appear better off than the rest.

Jacoby and Mansuri collected data from over 3,000 households in which one in five women reported being subjected to physical abuse by their husbands. Women in barter marriages reported a slightly higher rate for abuse than the rest. In addition, one in five women had once been estranged from their husbands. Again, women in barter marriages reported a higher rate of estrangement.

According to their data, 36 per cent of all unions are barter marriages in rural Pakistan. However, the practice is more frequent in some areas than others. For instance, watta satta unions accounted for as many as 65 per cent of marriages in Nawabshah, Sindh, and about half in Larkana, the hometown of the Bhutto clan, but a mere seven per cent in Attock, Punjab. The practice seems more prevalent in Sindh and the Saraiki belt than in Punjab. With such a wide variation in barter marriage rates across Pakistan, one should hesitate to generalise conclusions for the entire country.

In order to understand the practice, one may want to speculate about the motivations of parents (fathers mostly) who force their daughters (and sons) into barter marriages. The most commonly held belief is that such marriages ensure instinctive reciprocity that allows a father to manage the welfare of his daughter by linking it directly with the welfare of his son-in-law’s sister. If the daughter is mistreated or forced to return to parents’ home after a quarrel with her in-laws, her parents would dispatch their daughter-in-law back to her parents’ house in a quid pro quo.

The above rationale for barter marriages may sound primitive, but watta satta marriages appear to be the antecedent to, and a little different from, a modern military strategy: Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which is recognised by defence strategists as being an effective deterrent to hostilities.

Whereas poor illiterate parents may choose watta satta marriages for their children for economic reasons, the landed rural gentry may also choose similar unions in order to maintain their land holdings intact.  By marrying off their daughters in barter marriages, the landed gentry can ensure that neither side demands land in inheritance for their daughters. Also, some parents may use their daughter as the bait to get a mate for their son, who may not be fit for marriage in the first place.

Parent’s literacy and land holdings are instrumental in decisions regarding barter marriages. The data reveals that illiterate fathers who own more than 100 kanals (12.5 acres) of land are most likely to wed their children in barter marriages. On the other hand, literate fathers (with primary education or higher), who own less than 100 kanals, are least likely to force their children into barter marriages.

The demographic composition of the household is also instrumental in barter marriages, which are more common in households where slightly older unmarried brothers are available for the barter. Women married in barter marriages on average have more brothers than other women.  Similarly, women in barter marriages had fewer sisters than the rest.

Watta satta marriages are yet another manifestation of endogamy. Whereas almost 77 per cent of women in the sample were married to men who were their blood relatives, 86 per cent of women in barter marriages reported the same.

Interestingly, while consanguineous marriages are decried by geneticists for having a higher rate of congenital diseases among children resulting from such unions, Jacoby and Mansuri data revealed some side benefits of such unions for women. Women married to cousins were less likely to be subjected to physical abuse from their husbands than the rest.  In fact 33 per cent of women in barter marriages who were not married to cousins reported physical abuse compared to 20 per cent of women who were married to their cousins.

While numerous tabulations derived from their data show that women in barter marriages report a slightly higher rate of estrangement and physical abuse, Jacoby and Mansuri rely on advanced statistical techniques (accounting for endogeneity in endogamy) to conclude the contrary.

The men and women bartered in marriage perhaps would not care much for the calculus that shows them to be better off than the rest. Their fundamental right to choose a spouse is denied in barter marriages. The barter of free will for a small benefit in welfare is never a fair deal.

Those poor, rural parents who are motivated by the desire to insure their daughters’ welfare by forcing them into a barter marriage need to be advised that such unions may not offer the safeguards they covet. As for women who may be forced into barter marriages by their parents for selfish reasons, e.g., to preserve land holdings for their male offsprings, the State should offer legal protection and shelter to those women who choose not to be bartered in marriage.

Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at murtaza.haider@ryerson.ca

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of Regionomics.com.

He tweets @regionomics


The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (32) Closed



She Sep 07, 2011 12:15pm
Such issues really need attention. I got to know about a wedding at Haji Moza Ocha a village in southern Punjab, where the landlord of the area purchased the bride for his farmer for 110,000 Rs from Faisalabad with a condition that both of them would be obliged to serve the landlord for rest of their life. He dint only bought a woman but enslaved their whole generation.Such exploitation needs to be shown up in order to discourage these activities..
Anil Sharma Sep 07, 2011 01:54pm
Watta-Satta is happening in India, also. But not to this kind of proportions. It is not rare in South India. However, we can't say, these kinds of arranged marriages are happening by force. Mostly these are happening with the good intention of securing a decent married life for women in the families. Often brothers who have the responsibility for their sisters agree to their parents. Normally, these are decisions taken by both the families, together.
T.A Sep 07, 2011 01:59pm
Thanks for writing; very well written article. It sheds light on one of the most basic issues in our country. The unfortunate part however is, whether anybody who can make a difference will end up reading it!
Abdul Rahim Saandh Sep 07, 2011 02:01pm
Its a very nice n important issue to be discussed, but the thing is that i also belong to a village and i also got married on watta satta basis and that hurt me a lot and now we r permanently seprated, but in most of the cases where close reltaives are involved people used to live happily even in watta satta case. so u cant say it as a whole wrong thing though it partialy effect society badly, bcz if it is true whatever u have said..than in urban area divorce rate shoudnt increse..so also think of it dear..tata
Natraj Sep 07, 2011 02:45pm
Sorry.. I totally disagree on what u have mentioned...This things wont happen in south India....
Nishant Sep 07, 2011 02:57pm
The root of all problems in Pakistan is the presence of Landlord system. The day this zamindari shall end, this country will have an effective governance.
gulshan Sep 07, 2011 03:50pm
one of the reasons for watta satta marriages also some time called 'dawathi ' marriage is the skewed gender ratio -less females available.to take care of the interests of the male member of the family the younger sister is offered in exchange.somerimes it results into considerable difference in the ages of the couple.the system can lead to lot of mismatch & exploitation by older males who may not otherwise get a match.the custom i understand is prevalent in certain rural areas in arab countries also.on the whole system ,in the present days has nothing to commend &is a legacy of old days.
Agha Ata Sep 07, 2011 06:16pm
I fully agree with Nishant. The end of zamindari would be the beginning of democracy and human dignity
BRR Sep 07, 2011 06:33pm
It is not prevalent in the South of India, at least in any significant form. Having lived there are decades and traveled there extensively, I can attest to the fact that it is not prevalent.
h Sep 07, 2011 07:08pm
Coming from a fairly traditional pakistani family who has lived here and pakistan. i still fail to understand how people can be made to do things against their will and put up with unfair treatment. I think victims have some blame in their situation esp scenarios such as domestic violence.
Jalaluddin S. Hussai Sep 07, 2011 07:17pm
I, as an average Muslim and Pakistani-Canadian, feel very bad over this inhuman "barter marriage" institution. But is not the real cause lack of education and extreme poverty?
Forbidden Fruit Sep 07, 2011 07:35pm
Watt-sutta gives either side the assurance that they can harass their "Bahu" whenever things go wrong in their daughter's "susral". Education and eradication of landlord mafia from Pakistan would help, as these are the fruits of illiteracy and feudal mentality.
AA Sep 07, 2011 08:59pm
This happend in my wifes family but with full consent and done happily but not simultaneously. Once the girl comes to the home and if are happy with daghter-in-law then all the process starts. I am from south India, TN. Still it happens but not in greater proportion.
Muhammad Farooq Sep 07, 2011 09:25pm
Is any one in authority to curb this practice is hearing??? we are still living in the jungle.
Ghanshyam Sep 08, 2011 12:26am
It used to happen from pakistan to South India but nowadays very less. There is no point in discussion that it happens in South or North India. Now people are changing, they make new relations with new people only.
Madhan Sep 08, 2011 01:18am
Can you tell me where buddy? I am from south..
Mohan Kapur Sep 08, 2011 02:01am
How terrorism in a society is related to "Zamirdari"? I can agree that enslavement is due to Zamirdari.
Umar Aftab Sep 08, 2011 02:27am
I have a strong feeling the writer does not know much about Pakistani society. "Their fundamental right to choose a spouse is denied in barter marriages." If you look at Pakistan minus Karachi more than 90% of all marriages are decided by parents. I haven't seen anyone I have known in Pakistan complain about their parents taking this responsibility. In fact most of the guys and girls I knew were pressing their mothers to find brides and grooms for them quickly. Exchange or barter marriages referred to in Islamic literature as Shighar marriages are also forbidden in Islam as indicated by the following: Abu Hurairah (One of the prophet's companions) reported that Allah's Messenger has forbidden ash-shighar, which means that one man says to another: Marry me your daughter and I will marry you my daughter; or marry me your sister and I will marry you my sister." (Reported by Muslim). In another authentic Hadith, Abdullah ibn Umar stated that Allah's Messenger forbade ash-shighar, which means that one marries his daughter to another on condition that the other man gives him his daughter in marriage, without mentioning any dower." (Related by Al-Bukhari).
sidhas Sep 08, 2011 04:27am
thank you very much for sharing this research. It shows that rural or traditional folks may be illiterate but not ignorant of harsh realities of live. It is as you said a survival technique to esure best possible outcome. Now the problem occurs when the same is put into a dynamic urban setting and things fall apart. So do you think that the research is incomplete and only be relevant if the same data existed for urban areas. Then one could confidently show that the research is not only reliable but consistent. thank you.
vijayaraghavan Sep 08, 2011 06:54am
I totally agree with Mr.Natraj, I have never heard about this custom in south india...
sajid ali Sep 08, 2011 09:46am
i totally condemn the system of watta satta marriage system which is common in pakistan's rural areas.in this system some time a little girl has to be marry with an old age person which is totally inhuman behaviour.
Gopal Patel Sep 08, 2011 01:40pm
In India in the state of Haryana where girl child foeticide is very prevalent many Panchayats have decided to resort to watta-satta marriage. If you have no girl in your family the male child cannot get married easily.
Hoping life Sep 08, 2011 09:19pm
Your disagreement with the comments of the writter are welcome and honored, How ever bringing contentitious Islamic references from 6th century arab society into a purely local socio-ethnic, socio-cultural tradition will move your argument into irrelevance and vagueness.
NOOR muhammad baluch Sep 09, 2011 04:17pm
I strongly condemned the barter marriage begin muslim because it is prohibited in our religion and what so ever is going on in our society is wrong wherein parents giving there young daugther to the old age in barter marriage just for their own cause. I also request to the concern government to pass a law and declare the barter marriage an offense until and unless it is made out with the free consent of the couple who are going to tie in marriage.
M Tariq Sep 09, 2011 07:25pm
Wata, Love & Arrange marrage systems have same problems.
M Tariq Sep 09, 2011 07:59pm
Wata, Love & Arrange marriage systems have same problems.ISLAM is the only solution of problems, If we follow "ISLAM" then we will save us from these problems.
s.qamber.ali.shah Sep 10, 2011 01:56pm
Last line STATE == which is the least bothered institution, has never, will never, indulge, as the elected operators , have many other things to do, for themselves?? The only cure, is eduction, which we are deprived of and shall remain deprived of, as education, will give right to speech, which no one likes here, so all the attempts are an excercise in futillity. but, yes bring them out and place them one on the top of the other, hope the zamirdars will one day realize the wrong they are committing for their own selves?? depressiion and oppression btoh are sins
Col (Retd) Ram Gulra Sep 11, 2011 06:21pm
Watta Satta is just one more type of marrige arrangement that has existed in almost all societies from time immorial. This type of barter has both its advantages and disadvantages. I have known instances where such marriages have flourished as well as those where they have miserably failed. As in any other forms of marriage in this type too, success depends upon the couple's ability to cope with domestic differences or conflicts. Watt Satta has nothing to do with economic status, tribal customs or religious sanctions ... it is a practice that exists in all societies. We can keep on quoting from scriptures for and against this practice but as long as there is societal approval and no judicial embargo, this practice should not be condemned on personal whims or individual's likes or dislikes. In fact among rural people this form of exchange marriage ensures a certain amount of security and stability for both couples. I am informed that actor Amir Khan's sister is married to his first wife's brother (a Hindu). While Amir's marriage has broken down, his sister's marriage is still intact. Amir is now married to another Hindu girl called Kiran Rao.
gopal Sep 11, 2011 09:37pm
This is far better than marrying your first cousin as there is a risk the child will have health problems.
Revathy Sep 12, 2011 11:33pm
i totally agree with both Mr.Natraj and Mr.Vijayaragahavan,never heard of watta satta kind of marriage in south indian and also marrying first cousins is forbidden.
pramod Kumar Sep 14, 2011 11:41am
that kind of marriage is not possible in Haryana because of the social structure there. dont misguide people.
Muhammad Farooq Sep 14, 2011 09:00pm
this problem is one of the horrible offshoots of feudalism. Nobody has guts to eradicate it.