The Rebel Road…

I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you’re only going to kill a man. – Ernesto Che Guevara

Patriarchy and Pakistani society – I.

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Gender discrimination has come to be regarded as one of the defining features of all conservative societies of the world. Pakistan is no different in this regard. Pakistan, since its inception, has upheld an orthodox view of Islamic Shariah and traditions. It is in these traditions and the manner in which the Hadith and the Quranic verses are distorted, in order to appeal to the patriarchal sentimentalities of right-wing conservative elements, that the problems of the Pakistani women are magnified many times over.

Society at large finds social coherence and self-identity as a group by following native, unique traditions. Therefore, the scope of these problems is magnified by the insistence of the general population on the rigidity of these customs. This creates a denial within the people, which distances them from the realisation that they are in fact practicing a prejudiced and exclusionary ideology.

The role that has been assigned to women in Pakistan is one of excessive exploitation. It is for this reason that the male population finds it easy, as well as socially viable, to suppress the female population. An expression of this division can be seen in the way that the monogamous-marriage function of society, another universal institution of conservative societies, is affected and twisted to conform to the male perspective and its needs. There are a number of different ways that this exploitation is carried out and as a consequence, a number of issues have arisen in Pakistani society. This series aims to analyse the marriage function in our society and, in doing so, identify the root causes of the exploitation of women. It is my assertion that such exploitation has to do with economic or power-maintenance reasons rather than the ‘professed’ traditional or religious ones. The exploitation and subjugation of women is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable – a crime we are all guilty of regardless of whether we are rich or poor, the haves or have-nots. The series will also attempt to explain these mismatches in the light of sociological perspectives and try to present solutions based on feminist perspectives.

Marriage to the Quran (Haq Baksh-Wai): perhaps the most barbaric abuse of women in Pakistan – this practice is designed to invalidate the basic human rights of an individual for purely economic reasons. Though one finds it interesting that in a country brimming with religious ‘preachers’, there is an absolute lack of any significant movement against this phenomenon. It is also very important to mention that the idea of marriage to the Quran is completely self-concocted and has no basis in Islam.

It was invented by perverted and manipulative minds in order to exert a hold on women and, consequently, the property-share of women. According to the Islamic Shariah, the female offspring is entitled to a share of her father’s properties. This share, though half that of a male offspring, is just as binding according to Islam. The problem with this is that usually the male offspring, or the executors of the Shariah (in this case the male elders of the family), in accordance with their own agenda, want the property to remain in the family. If the female is married off to a different family, as happens usually, then the property inherited by that female would eventually wind up in the pool of assets of the husband’s family – an anathema to most feudal-minded families. Control over the estate (Jageer) must not be weakened. The feudal and tribal leaders especially do not want their power base to be weakened by this since their political power stems from their estate. This need is so strong that sometimes their daughters are married to the Holy Quran in the ceremony of Haq-Baksh-wai (literally meaning ‘Marriage to the Quran’).

“This is more common in Sindh. In Punjab, the daughters are kept unmarried till the age of menopause when they take up the Quran and Tasbeeh [prayer beads] voluntarily” (Amnesty International 1999:4).

In essence, this means that that particular female will spend the rest of her life in near seclusion, devoting herself to the recitation of the Holy Quran. By doing this, it is ensured that she will never have to marry a man, and hence never leave the house she was born in. In this way the threat of her taking away her piece of the inheritance, thus weakening the power-base, is averted. Another consequence of this is that since there will be no children from her, there will be no more inheritors of her property, and her share will be added to her next of kin upon her death, in this case usually the brother.

Marriage within family: another practice as seen in wealthy families is the inter-cousin marriage, almost a tradition now within interior Pakistan. This is done for many reasons, mainly though to keep land holdings within the family. Other reasons may include maintaining the purity of the hereditary line, or a xenophobic belief that if a girl leaves the immediate fold of the family, she will lose all the values held dear by that family, etc.

Pakistani society has always been a very complicated one, with many different values that may or may not find their roots in Islamic culture. As such, the Muslims of the Subcontinent in particular have evolved a very distinct Muslim culture compared to most other Islamic societies. This does not come without its own problems. Being primarily an agrarian society, land has always been one of the most significant forms of wealth. In trying to keep as much of it under their control as possible, many families go to ridiculous lengths to ensure the maintenance of this power base. Therefore, cousin marriages give a viable alternative to all these families. Usually the paternal uncle’s son is wed to the daughter. This, of course, is carried out without any regard for the true wishes or preference of the girl in question.

“By preference, marriages are arranged within the kin group; cross-cousin and parallel-cousin marriages are both common. People say that to marry one’s daughter to a stranger is to expose the shortcomings of the family” (Eglar 1960:94).

At the extreme though, most girls are married to cousins without regard for how unnatural such a wedding may be. There are reported cases in which girls are married off to cousins 10-20 years younger than them, so in effect the girl ends up raising her own husband.

(to be continued)

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