Under a glistening July sun hovering above Swat Valley, Pakistan, the light in 16-year-old Nighat’s life was dulling down with every passing second. What she believed was another average school day quickly turned to become her worst nightmare as her mother walked into the room, forever redefining Nighat’s normal with the words that left her mouth.
“Instead of holding my school uniform in her arms, Mama held out a pale yellow shalwar kameez, instructing me to put it on,” she recalls. Little did she know, intricately sewed into the fabric of the shalwar kameez was the inescapable patriarchal cage that demanded her to detach herself from her greatest pursuit: becoming a doctor.
“My mother told me to get ready for a family dinner, but as soon as we arrived at our destination, my eyes landed on the Molvi (the Islamic officiant of marriage) sitting beside a grey-haired man who looked twice my age. It was then that I realized my life would never be the same again.” Every dream that Nighat fostered within her heart shattered right before her eyes. “I felt betrayed and hopeless marrying a man thirty-two years older than me. It felt as though my family just wanted to get rid of one more plate at the dinner table - as though my life was nothing but a financial burden to the ones I loved most,” a strong note of melancholy overpowered her voice.
Throughout the history of its existence, marriage has been a deeply entrenched societal institution - one that is considered such an obvious milestone in a woman’s life that we have only recently started to question its inevitability. But opting out of marriage is still, bizarrely, a stigmatized choice for women, one that garners questioning, scrutiny, and, to a great extent, shame. Keeping in mind all that marriage has traditionally encapsulated - the dowry system, the subjugation of women in housework and childcare, the erasure of their name, identity, wealth, and profession - it’s deeply perplexing to see how we’re trying to correct its foundational wrongs, rather than questioning its validity in an evolving feminist world.
In third-world countries, marriage began as a way to organize people’s lives economically and politically - the desires of the individuals participating in the institution have always taken a backseat. Within South Asia, marriage is often titled the main means of transferring property, occupational status, personal contacts, money, tools, livestock, and women across generations, and kin groups. For the upper-class, marriage was the main avenue of consolidating wealth, transferring property, laying claim to political power, and even concluding peace treaties. When upper-class men and women were married, dowry and bridewealth changed hands, making the match a major economic investment by the parents and other kin of the couple.
In addition to wealth, another resource changed hands: the reproductive ability of the woman, with the likelihood of divorce increasing if the couple remained childless for long. In heterosexual marriages, men benefited from the cash and land women brought with them, while women gained the economic “security” accorded by the man, as women have traditionally not been allowed to work outside the home.
Despite the promised “safety” that men claim to inject into a woman’s life, even in the sacred process of matrimony, women’s rights are often stripped away from them by the very men they are taught to instill their faith into: their own fathers and brothers. To this very day, in many Muslim countries, crucial clauses from the Nikah Namah (the Muslim contract for marriage) that grant women the basic rights to pursue education and work after marriage are ripped out against their will, leaving them legally and socially handicapped from ever escaping their patriarchal cages.
As believed by many, however, the institution of marriage is going through a world-historic transformation. With the introduction of love and choice and the inclusion of non-heterosexual couples’ rights to marry, marriage has been detraditionalized. But that repurposing is still through the lens of correcting the wrongs of an institution that began by looking at women as property. The purpose of marriage and the reasons for which people get married might have evolved, but the entrenched gender roles have not. While research shows it is possible to exist within a marriage as a feminist, it is without the shadow of a doubt that the concept of marriage itself brings with it a lot of baggage that needs to be addressed, overcome, and defeated.
Written by Manahil Naveed