Between Law and Custom: Women, Family Law and Marriage in Pakistan

Article excerpt


Marriage is an essential institution in Pakistan and is considered an important moral and social obligation. The choice made in marriage is a critical determinant of women's adult lives so that laws and customs governing marriage are of vital importance to their overall well-being. Throughout the world economic changes and political processes including movements for gender equality have altered the marriage landscape and family formation patterns. Structural changes associated with globalization and modernization as well as ideational forces that emphasize personal freedom, social equality and individual prerogatives relative to family and the larger community are influencing family life and behavior (Jayakody, Thornton and Axinn, 2008). Pakistan, often portrayed as a static and tradition-bound society, has experienced these changes as well (Qadeer, 2006). However, along with these economic and social changes are sharp regional disparities in development and enduring cultural practices that are shaped by class, caste, religion and ethnicity (Mansuri, 2008). In rural and tribal settings patriarchal customs establish male authority and power over women's lives to such an extreme that women may be sold and bought in marriages, exchanged to settle disputes and become victims of crimes of honor (Mumtaz and Shaheed, 1988; Amnesty International, 2002).

Although certain rights of women within marriage are established in Islamic law as well as Pakistan's civil law, a number of forces work to subvert these rights (Amnesty International, 2002; Malik 1997; Ali, 2000). The 1973 Pakistani Constitution and international conventions such as CEDAW (Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women) were undermined by an Islamization process that began in the 1980s under the military regime of Zia al Huq. The Zia regime enacted a number of laws based on archaic religious interpretations not seen in Pakistan for centuries and that were contrary to many of the advances made by women (Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 2006; Goonsekere, 2004).

Weak governance and lack of rule of law renders much of population beyond the scope of the formal legal system so that customary practices may carry greater significance than the rights granted in the formal law (Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 2006; Shirkat Gah, 2007). Therefore, cultural norms and distorted interpretations of religion often override statutory laws, interfering with women's rights to protection in marriage and divorce (Jilani and Ahmed, 2004; Ali, 2000 and Patel, 2003). Forced marriage and other practices that deny women the right to decide the terms of their marriages persist. For a large proportion of the female population independent decision-making regarding entering or exiting a marriage continues to be met with enormous societal and family resistance. Women who pursue choices that are formally granted to them under the law but are not in accordance with family wishes, such as independently choosing a marriage partner or seeking a divorce, may find themselves cut off from family and community support. Even worse, they may find themselves in mortal danger. Those who take such actions are often compelled to seek refuge for protection from their families.

In this study women's marriage experiences in Pakistan are examined, focusing on the women's ability to enter and extricate themselves from marriage in accordance with the rights and options accorded to them by law. These experiences are examined against the backdrop of social and economic transformations taking place in Pakistan. Qualitative interviews with 15 women whose choice to use such rights resulted in the need to seek the protection of a women's shelter in a major city in Pakistan were used to examine the gap between women's rights in marriage as articulated in the law and the manner in which these are curtailed in practice. These narratives expose the many obstacles and repercussions encountered by women who seek to exercise their legal rights. …


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