Marriages in Pakistan: More than just a gamble

Recently, I’ve come across two articles on marriage, each published months apart in the New York Times.  The first is an introspective piece that advocates marriage within a Western setting, and the other addresses the apparent prevalence of free-will marriages in Pakistan.  While the first discusses a past romantic relationship and how the author eventually comes to regret not marrying her partner of seven years, the latter looks at how some Pakistani women are risking their lives and defying tradition to marry for love.  It so happens that both articles appear to deal with the ramifications of choices women make within the context of a relationship.

In “Missing the Boat: A Case for Marriage,” where Jessica Bennett (the author) reminisces about a lost opportunity, I was struck by her comment on how, ultimately, “marriage makes it harder for the other person to leave”.  Coming from a Pakistani cultural framework, the sentence could have read, “arranged marriages make it even harder for the other person to leave.”  This is contrary to what some women are willing to endure for their personal happiness as detailed in “Defying Parents, Some Pakistani Women Risk All to Marry Whom They Choose,” even if it is for the short-term.  While I understand Bennett was referring to how marriage might have salvaged her own relationship (trial separation; mandatory counselling), in Islam, marriages not only contribute towards sustaining a halaal relationship (in addition to financial support and procreation) but one of its effects is to extend the longevity of a relationship even if sometimes it is to the detriment of the couple.

Most marriages in Pakistan are of the arranged (or even semi-arranged) variety.  An arranged marriage occurs when a member of the family, a close friend or a third person party (hoping to hinge their way into your family’s inner circle) help bring two supposedly compatible families together in matrimony.  The groom and bride have never met before, and any interaction between them is akin to small talk with a stranger.  Conversely, a semi-arranged one is where the alleged “couple” have several “meet and greet” opportunities, thereby allowing both the couple and families to gain a sense of familiarity.  In some cases, extended formal engagements are also tolerated.  Notice however, how in both cases, the emphasis is on “families” and not individuals, further underscoring Islam’s communal theme of marriage being the cornerstone of properly functioning Muslim society.

Many couples have found happiness and love in arranged marriages (my parents are a lucky statistic who after many years together can still banter with each other).  In Pakistani culture, love marriages (also known as court marriages) are a rare albeit growing trend thanks to the “connections” made on social networking sites, whilst successful love marriages are still a rarer commodity, since such an act of “free-will” challenges traditional mindsets as it relates to one of the most powerful institutions in Pakistani society: the family.

A traditional set up for the henna night that precedes the wedding ceremony..

When people attend a Pakistani wedding, they’re often struck by the ensuing fanfare of it all.  The flawless-looking bride and groom, surrounded by flowers, music and laughter; days spent in the prettiest clothes and dapper suits, what’s not to love?  What many may never learn is that the bride-to-be (let’s call her Sania) is a newly minted doctor who will probably not return to medicine (or consider specialization) until after her kids are school-aged.  And even then, the lack of flexible hours and familial support might prevent her from returning at all.  As for the groom, he might have had to break things off with his Greek girlfriend, someone he met while completing his doctorate at a top British university.  More importantly, what is least evident is the skillful negotiation and consultation that resulted in this marriage.  Both are from affluent families: she, the daughter of an industrialist, while his father is a well-known technocrat in government.

Consider another scenario and another wedding.  The atmosphere is the same in that people are rejoicing on the occasion of a wedding in their village.  The groom in this case belongs to a family in the milk business; they are owners of a thatch of fertile land and have a large herd of healthy cows and buffaloes and thereby supply fresh milk to nearby towns.  The bride’s father is the village mason who works whenever the opportunity arises.  Jameela is 18 and the groom is 32, and because she is barely bringing a dowry, she knows better than to not accept the proposal.  Additionally, the marriage will help, in a rather Austenesque fashion, to introduce her younger sisters to other eligible suitors in the community.  What is a wedding really but a networking event for matchmaking mamas and their nubile little brides-to-be?

In both cases, cultural and religious customs reinforce traditional gender roles, especially those regarding women’s responsibilities in the home and family.  Sania and Jameela are both expected to accede to tradition and marry according to the wishes of their parents and to the expectations of a community – where the honor of an entire family hinges on a woman’s behavior and reputation. Both Sania and Jameela will face the consequences of their decisions – decisions that families will label as “kismet” or “destiny,” usually in response to the “woe is me” attitude that has been ingrained into women as they comply to societal pressure to marry well.  In both cases, irrespective of class differences, both women sacrifice their own happiness and wellbeing for the greater good of the family.

Women of elite and affluent families however can afford to remain unmarried or consider (for the lack of a better word in this case) spinsterhood.  Jane Austen’s character, Emma said it best:

“…I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! — the proper sport of boys and girls — but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else.”

A women’s socio-economic status does afford her certain liberties in this regard.  Some might even be lucky enough to choose who they marry.  That is not the case for Jameela, who will have to do the best under the circumstances and pray her husband is a loving and caring human being.  As for Sania, despite bringing in considerable dowry, she will either wait it out – in that perhaps her new family will come around to the idea of a career – or she too will join hordes of other women who undoubtedly sacrifice their dreams and aspirations to maintain harmony in her new family.

For many Pakistani families, a marriage builds networks and in many cases is a step up the economic ladder for one of the parties.  In the same vein, it is understandable from a completely practical point of view why many parents would not approve of love marriages, because unlike those who can choose their spouses, for many, the social networks created from arranged marriages is a source of pride and in my experience even perpetuates (and justifies) nepotism in the work place.  A marriage for love does not guarantee this.  Additionally, not all mothers are willing to “let go” of their sons that easily.  My interaction with people within my community (friends and family) has allowed me to witness the depth of a mother’s (slightly twisted) attachment to her son – a vicious cycle whereby a woman lacking in a solid relationship with her own husband transfers her affections and loyalty to the son. Often, when a new woman enters her son’s life, the mother is replaced in his affections, and that is where much of the acrimony and misunderstanding ensues.  What does that tell you of a women’s mental health in this country?  A study carried out in Pakistan showed that 25.5 percent of upper- and middle- class women experienced depressive disorders resulting from marital conflicts followed by 13 percent resulting from conflict with in laws.  I presume these percentages increase as the women’s socio-economic status falls.

With such high expectations, it is possible to suggest that Pakistani women are groomed from birth to become wives and mothers and it is no wonder that many young women firmly place their own value in terms of their marriageability.  The pressure on single, Pakistani women to marry and to marry well starts early on.  Irrespective of socio-economic standing, the ideal female partner appears to be: young (child-bearing), fair (light complexion), educated (preferably doctor) with considerable dowry potential.

This is not to suggest that all men are superficial and that all women are slated for motherhood, but rather that women are often liable to have to compromise more to maintain the sanctity of marriage compared to men and that marriages are ultimately a gamble on happiness.  Having said that, wouldn’t the chances for a successful marriage increase when both partners are better acquainted with each other and therefore relatively prepared to handle the pitfalls of a relationship?  What I find interesting, however, is that a 2005 study in the Journal of Counseling & Development found no differences in satisfaction between Indian couples in arranged marriages and American couples in love matches.

Pakistan’s highest court legalized “free-will” marriages in 2003, and those actually exercising these rights are women like Nusrat Mochi “who ran away to begin a new life, against her family’s wishes, with a husband of her own choosing”.  Or Almas Khan and Shamim Akhtar, a couple who were killed in Chakwal over Eid-ul-Fitr for eloping together.  Or the 219 (out 943 honor killings in 2011) women who were killed for daring to choose their spouse.  Their self-awareness and sense of empowerment is actually an act of desperation, a last-ditch effort for freedom.  Education is a first step towards changing mindsets about women’s role in society – on expectations in both the private and public domain.

Coming around to Benett’s article, I have to agree with her: “While happily ever after may indeed be a farce, there’s something to be said for uttering I do.”  I cannot fathom how Sania and Jameela’s lives have turned out but, as someone who prefers her glass half full, there is always something to be gained in an experience like marriage.  My only advice to those seeking matrimony is let happiness be their guide for finding a spouse and not let “longevity” keep you in an unhappy marriage, nor let the possibility of a divorce prevent you from experiencing this form of trust and commitment.

  • Iqraq

    I’m confused about your statements regarding women bringing a dowry. In Islam there is no dowry on the part of the woman. The man pays a dowry to the woman for the privilege of marrying her. I thought Pakistan was a Muslim country?

    • Merium

      Iqraq, Pakistan’s culture of dowry is inherited from Hindu traditions and unfortunately exists in much of South Asia. The government has instituted the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Act (1976), the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Rules (1976), and the Dowry and Bridal Gifts (Restriction) Amendment Ordinance (1980) to restrict dowry and other marriage expenditures but enforcement of such laws is akin to impossible.

      • Iqraq

        Salaam Merium,
        Your article opened my eyes, I never realized how bad it was in Pakistan. To still be practicing traditions such as dowry is shocking.

        Can I make a gentle suggestion? Perhaps you can reframe this article with the angle that dowry has ZERO to do with Islam. We should not be practicing it and it has no place in Muslim society. In fact it is a throwback to pre-Islam Jahiliyyah as baby girls are killed in societies which practice dowry. Muslims should know better than this. This point should be
        made crystal clear if change is ever going to happen. I apologize if I have offended you.

        Note: This comment has been modified according to MMW’s Comment Moderation Policy.

        • Krista

          Just a note (and your apology below is appreciated) – as Sobia mentions below, not everything that people do in *any* Muslim society is a perfect example of Islam. Our posts at MMW would be a LOT longer if we had to explain every single action according to whether people were following Islam exactly right or not.

          I also wanted to mention that issues around dowries form only a small part of the problems that Merium is talking about here. Some of the other problems might not be legally prohibited in the same way, but they are also causing harm and oppression. So it’s not only the dowry that should be seen as problematic from a religious standpoint. (And, although this should be obvious, it’s not only Pakistan where a lot of similar problems around marriage arise.)

          • Iqraq

            Salaam Krista,
            Thanks for your reply.

            Although the article does a fantastic job at describing the problems around marriage in Pakistan (as I said it really opened my eyes and the insight regarding mother-son attachment is profound and well-observed), it neglects to spell out clearly that dowry is plain and simply wrong. Hence we are doing a great disservice to any Pakistani women who may not know any better and continue to believe in this practice should they stumble upon this blog. Surely part and parcel of empowering women is educating them on what their rights are in Islam and what is Jahiliyyah culture? What is a more compelling argument to effect change than to stand up to their men saying ‘our Prophet (pbuh) never told us to do this so why are we doing it?’

            I am new to this blog and it appears to have a slight feminist streak to it (which I support). That is why I am surprised at the perceived acceptance of dowry practices in this article. I take your point about there being many issues which need to be addressed but dowry is by far the elephant in the room. Let’s give it the attention it is due. Allah knows best. Peace.

          • Krista


            I don’t think that Merium’s saying that dowry is okay or that it should be accepted. I just don’t think she sees it as the only thing that’s wrong here, and I’m with her on that. If we take dowry out of the equation, there are still a lot of things going on that are just not okay, and that might actually be harming women even more than the dowry issue is.

            So, personally, I don’t actually see the dowry as the elephant in the room – or at least, I don’t see it as the only one. For example, Merium also talks about the preference for light skin when men are looking for a wife, which is also totally outside of Islam. As is, of course, the violence or threats of violence against people who marry against the wishes of their families. I see this post as critical of all of these things, not as reflecting an “acceptance” or any of them.

            I agree with you that the dowry system is wrong, and I hear your point about how women should know it’s not required of them.

    • Sobia

      “I thought Pakistan was a Muslim country.”

      I’m sorry but I find this statement odd. What does Pakistani culture’s tradition of women paying dowry have to do with Pakistan being a Muslim country or not? There is no Muslim country on earth where people act perfectly Muslim or follow Islam fully. None. Maybe I’m wrong but this sounded like a passive-aggressive insult against Pakistan. Every Muslim country on the planet does things (many things) which would make one say questioning the way you have “I thought _________ was a Muslim country.”

      • Iqraq

        Again I apologize for the passive-aggressiveness. You are right. Pakistan is a Muslim-majority country and no Muslim-majority country on earth is perfect. It’s just that Islam is what gives us honour. And the further away we are from Islam (and practicing culture instead) the less honourable we will be. Please can we all remind each other *clearly* to leave behind these Jahiliyyah cultures and regain our honour through real Islam. I offer my humble apologies again if I hurt anyone’s feelings. The internet is a very impersonal medium and easily leads to misunderstandings.

        This comment has been modified according to MMW’s Comment Moderation Policy.

        • Sobia


          “It’s just that Islam is what gives us honour. And the further away we are from Islam (and practicing culture instead) the less honourable we will be.”

          As you will see, I totally disagree with you on that one. I don’t believe Islam can be practiced without culture. I’ve never seen it expressed without culture. Whether it be Arab cultures, South Asian cultures, East Asian cultures, etc. Culture always comes into play. What most people mean when they say we should practice “pure Islam” is that we should practice it in an Arab way. We obviously can’t practice it as it was during the time of the Prophet (pbuh). For example, they did not have all the technology back then, but today technology is a part of most of our cultures.

          It really, really irks me when we blame culture. As if demonizing a culture is completely fine and non-oppressive. Calling a culture “jahiliyyah” is not cool. There is nothing wrong with practicing Islam through the lens of culture. That’s how it’s always done. (For example, I dress modestly according to the culture I live in, not say Saudi , Bedouin culture). By calling Pakistani culture “jahiliyyah” you are REALLY not helping. You are assuming the people in the culture, including the women, are jahils. And that is so not acceptable. Pakistani women are smart and I would argue most know dowry as it is practiced now is not Islamically sound, but because of the patriarchal systems of the world they can’t change it. Doesn’t mean they’re not trying and fighting the patriarchy, but it’s a very tough system they’re up against. They are not jahil.

          I also don’t think it’s cool to blame another religion. Merium, I know you didn’t mean it in any negative way, but you state that dowry was borrowed from Hindu traditions, as if Hindu traditions are terrible. As a Pakistani Muslim I’ve heard this so many times – blame Hinduism for all our negative practices because Hinduism is so bad. This is not cool either but Pakistani Muslims do it all the time. We need to imagine someone saying “Unfortunately, we borrowed _________ from Islamic traditions.” I’m sure if we looked into Hinduism further, we may find things other than what we assume. (For example, Hinduism doesn’t in fact sanction the worshipping of idols).

          We have to be careful when examining religion and culture. I’m not cool with the way we pit the two against each other. It’s completely counterproductive and still ends up demonizing and oppressing people.

          • Iqraq

            Seriously? You’re defending dowry? Wow.

            There’s very little merit in us continuing this conversation then. I make du’a that Allah guides all of us especially myself to be closer to Him and keep us all on the Straight Path.

            I apologize again for any shortcomings on my part and I wish you Peace.

          • Krista

            Look, nobody is defending dowry. But I think we’ve also debated this topic to death, especially given that it’s not really the main topic of Merium’s article. Let’s keep future discussion to some of the other themes that she raises.

  • Mobo

    An excellent write-up. The author has displayed a clear understanding of the issues concerning marriages in Pakistan and has communicated this message in a cogent and coherent manner. Successful marriages are built on trust, communication and mutual respect. Hopefully, those individuals with discernment can appreciate this and seek ways to deepen their familial bonds.

    • Merium

      Hi Mobo, thank you for your comment!

  • Hassan Rizvi

    A nice read. Particularly liked your insights on mothers and their “twisted” attachment to their sons..Spot on! Can you imagine how difficult the job, in turn for sons, is to strike a balance in their relationships with the women in the house?

    • Merium

      Hassan, thank you for your comment! Honestly, I think everyone suffers in cases like these. It is the most unfortunate situation.

  • nasia

    Ditto in India. I cannot believe our countries fight so much. We are THE SAME. eXTREMELy well written, almost heartbreaking.

    • Merium

      Thank you for commenting Nasia!

  • Hina Sami

    Dear Merium,
    A very heart-felt read indeed. It is interesting that I stumbled on your article after having met an attempted suicide patient yesterday. Her reason: her husband of 4 years treats her worse than an animal. Her mother was narrating episodes, one after the other about how he pulled her hair out of her head, until she had tufts in her hands; and about how he beat her up in front of male relatives and ripped her clothes in the process etc. Absolutely heart breaking to think that I live in a city where women like her go through this ‘domestic torture’ every day in the name of “staying married”. This family belongs to a lower-middle class and in spite of the taboo attached to divorce are now resolute that they will get their daughter divorced if the husband does not mend his ways. The state i saw this young girl in was not very hopeful – can only pray that she recovers. The only thought that raced through my mind was – I hope it’s not too late. Marriage in Pakistan has become a trap. if you cross thirty and you are female, then alarm bells are ringing constantly. Why? because these are the traditions set by those before us. I am going to turn thirty and I’m single and will Insha’Allah marry someone whose thinking matches mine. I would rather be happy at forty with the right person then be married at 21 with someone who is incompatible with me. And if Allah does not will this to happen, I pray to Him that I don’t become like the grumpy spinsters who can never be happy for anyone else because of their deprivations. I have so much to be thankful for and this life is too short to whine and waste time. We must look for like-minded people and realize that our religion Islam is so liberal (a word we don’t often use to describe Islam) that there is room for intervention by elders and even divorce. It is we who have made divorce such a taboo and second marriages a symbol of not being faithful. A thought revolution is much needed and your closing words about ‘pursuing happiness’ offer hope to me. so thank you.

    • Merium

      Hi Hina, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I was sad to read about the woman you mentioned – I cannot imagine what she is going through. I hope she finds the strength to persevere and the legal recourse for justice, insha’Allah.

      I appreciate your comments about being single and Muslim. I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of “us” out there with some very interesting things to say on the subject – I hope I get a chance to do a follow up piece on this in the future. But yes, I’d rather be happy at 40 than miserable at 21! I wish you all the very best.

  • Muslim Spice

    Marriage in Pakistan and in South Asia for that matter makes the world of the participants and their extended families stop. It is such a delicate and tradition laden ritual.

  • Azhar

    Apart from social evils like dowry arranged marriages usually have good going. Exceptions exist certianly

  • Kamilla

    I’m an American who is going to marry a Pakistani of my own free will. Thank goodness he gets to pick his own bride.

  • kash

    Very interesting take on them. I also have done a post on this subject. I think sometimes the rituals are overlooked as something evil. –