Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: A Marriage of Convenience?

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Apr 11 2009 (IPS) - Pakistan’s Mukhtaran Mai, who gained global acclaim for daring to take her rapists to court, announced her marriage last month to an already married police constable.

Mukhtaran Mai with her husband: "What I did was done as a last resort." Credit: Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare Organisation

Mukhtaran Mai with her husband: "What I did was done as a last resort." Credit: Mukhtar Mai Women's Welfare Organisation

Mai said she was left with no choice after Nasir Abbas Gabol, 30, her former bodyguard, threatened to kill himself. His parents and first wife, Shahla, begged her to agree to the marriage offer.

The announcement sent shock waves through women’s and rights circles in the country. Mai, who has fought a valiant, 7-year-old battle against tradition and patriarchy was suddenly no longer a role model and icon.

"Mukhtaran Mai has fallen from being a national heroine to a disappointment, even for the media," asserts Karachi-based Najma Sadeque, a founding member of Shirkat Gah, a non-governmental organisation.

"One wishes she had not done it," says Naeem Sadiq, a business consultant here who actively campaigns on pro-democracy issues.

Sadiq who considers Mai an "exceptionally brave woman" is concerned that her marriage sends a message that "she is promoting polygamy".

From a village, Meerwala in Punjab province, Mai who belongs to the Gujjar tribe was raped in 2002 by men from the higher Mastoi tribe on the orders of the village council, as punishment for an alleged offence committed by her younger brother Shakoor.

Instead of committing suicide as is the custom in these conservative villages, she took the rapists to court. Thirteen men are behind bars, and the case drags on.

The news of her marriage to a man with four children on Mar. 15 is the only blot on a public person who has become a world-wide symbol of courage and fortitude.

"Look, I’m not going to explain my act. I cannot keep everyone happy all the time. Only time will prove that what I did was done as a last resort," Mai told IPS in a phone interview from Meerwala.

What Mai did was exercise her right to marry a man of her choice, as enjoined in Islam and the Pakistan penal code.

In Islam, men are allowed to practice polygny (have multiple wives). But men who can marry a maximum of four times, often flout the most stringent condition – of treating all their wives equally.

"No matter what angle I look at it, and if this is a choice marriage and not of convenience, I think she shouldn't have done it since it immediately puts the first wife in a secondary, dispensable and vulnerable position," says Sadeque, who is adamant that the precedent set is a bad one "sending the wrong message."

"I also think it is embarrassing for those who helped her," she continues.

Anis Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on Status of Women (NCSW), has a different viewpoint. "Mai is a strong woman but not a feminist. She failed to understand that she was overstepping the rights of another woman. If she knew she would have resisted the pressure to marry a selfish man."

Mai defends her decision. By marrying Gabol she says, "I have saved three women and 11 children."

This is with reference to an abominable practice in rural Punjab – ‘watta satta’ or exchange marriages. Gabol’s two sisters are married into his first wife’s family. Had he divorced her, his sisters, who have three children each, would have been ignominiously thrown out of their marital homes.

What is the guarantee that he will not marry a third or fourth time? "I will cross the bridge when I come to it," is all that Mai says.

She insists that she has secured Gabol’s first wife’s interest through a pre-nuptial agreement. He has agreed to spend five days in a week in his village, Alipur, 15 kms from Meerwala, with Shahla and their three children, she says.

"The house he lives in with his first wife was transferred to her name as was a plot of land. All his income will go directly to her and their children; I don’t want any part of it," she declares.

How Mai will enforce the pre-nuptials in a country where women are considered the property of their husbands is questionable.

Rashid Rehman, Mai’s counsel and a lawyer with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) spoke to IPS over the phone from Multan, in southern Punjab. He confirms the signing of the pre-nuptial, describing it as a memorandum of understanding (MoU).

"It says he will not interfere in the working of the non-governmental organisation (Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation) run by Mai; will not spend more than five days in a month with her and will give the house (the first wife is living in), a plot of land and 10,000 rupees (roughly 120 dollars) or 80 percent of his monthly salary (160 dollars) to his first wife," says Rehman.

According to Professor Akmal Wasim, who is head of the legal faculty at Hamdard Univerity, Karachi, "a Muslim woman has the right in Islam to lay down certain condition to secure herself, and also her welfare during marriage, before the signing of the nikahnama (marriage contract). It’s called Taqliq."

"She also has the right to amend or lay down further conditions at a later stage," he adds, citing examples from Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi legislation. "If there is a breach in this contract, Mai has a right to file for a divorce," he explains.

Her legal counsel, Rehman, is of the opinion that the marriage may be a marriage of convenience.

He reasons that "there was pressure on her from influential parliamentarians to drop her case or go for an out-of-court settlement, till a few months back", a charge she disclosed at a press conference in Islamabad on Feb. 6 and later confirmed to IPS naming, in particular, the federal Defence Minister, Sardar Abdul Qayyum Jatoi.

"The minister told my uncle, Ghulam Hussain, that I should drop the charges against the perpetrators of the Mastoi tribe, who were either involved in the verdict of the panchayat (village council) against me or gang raped me," she is reported in the English-language Daily Times as having told the press.

The minister has denied the charge.

Mai may have been seeking to counter the pressure with a marriage alliance with the more powerful Gabol who are more influential than the Mastois, the lawyer suggests.

Mai has been careful to ensure her husband has no claim on the donations to her charity from Pakistan and abroad. Her NGO runs Meerwala’s only three primary schools – two of them for girls – that provide schooling for 600 girls and 100 boys. For women, there’s a shelter, a resource centre with a lawyer that provides legal assistance, and a mobile health clinic that takes medical assistance to their doorstep.

"There is nothing for me (in this marriage), just the right to divorce," she says. But not everyone is convinced.

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