In marriage, only full rights make for a better half

In marriage, only full rights make for a better half

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That most Pakistani marriages – over three-fourths – are not unions of equality for women is borne out again by a new study about perspectives and practices related to their civic registration and enforcement of rights.

Most findings of the Punjab-based survey are downright disturbing. These include the fact that most girls and their families are expected to ignore documenting the rights of girls in the marriage registration deed (‘nikahnama’). Most registrars certifying the marriages believe, the study reveals, that even considering the option of right to divorce for women and not accepting a wife’s unquestioning obedience to their husbands “is bad for marriage.”

Why are brides not competent (86 percent registrars say so!) to negotiate the terms of their marriage and document them in the nikahnama? Why can’t women have a better deal in a union designed around the rest of their lives? Why should their human and constitutional rights be subservient to obnoxious and outmoded patriarchy, including by male family members of the bride?

Because an equal union is premised on equal rights, the road to being the proverbial “better half” begins with full, not half rights. 

- Adnan Rehmat

Equal pursuit of happiness through equality in rights and practices should define matrimony. But the odds are stacked against women in Pakistan in the institution of marriage through institutionally encouraged discrimination and social norms that strengthen patriarchy and custom. This leaves many women suffocated and trapped. 

While there are some serious flaws in the way the marriage deed is formulated, it allows for documentation of demands and expectations of the girl that can assist her legally if case disputes later arise. But since girls getting married are discouraged from outlining these, they effectively waive rights that become difficult to recover in courts.

This is producing mostly pain and perpetuating misery for many women. Considering it ends up codifying a diminishing of women’s rights as wives and mothers, the marriage deed is the very embodiment of institutionalized patriarchy and misogyny. Incidentally, this nikahnama is an instrument of registering the marriages of Muslims but non-Muslim women in Pakistan face similar patriarchy in registering or dissolving their marriages.

All this must change – and radically so in favor of the women. This can’t happen without legal reforms driven by parliament. Several areas need reforms in the laws and regulations governing rights of families and registration and dissolution of marriages. And these need to be driven by the perspectives of ensuring women’s rights.

For starters the issue of lack of consent must be addressed – underage marriages must be expressly outlawed. Pakistani provinces have different minimum age for the marriage of girls. Disallow marriages without a computerized identity card that is provided to all citizens at 18 years of age. Also ban forced marriages – many, especially in rural areas are enacted without official documentation, allowing women’s consent and rights to be disregarded and difficult to enforce when disputes arise.

Another needed reform is to treat marriages as civil, not religious unions. The country’s complex legal framework selectively uses civil or religious law frameworks and is often rigged against enforcing women’s equality in marriage. Polygamy is another ugly custom that militates against women leaving them vulnerable to discriminatory treatment.

Inheritance rights of women must be expressly linked to marital property rights – this is where women tend to lose out their right to immovable assets built in the shadow of their marriage union but often deprived first by husbands and in the case of their deaths by other male family members. Women must have inalienable equal rights based on civil law. 

Lastly, but not the least – because all women, just like men, deserve equal happiness, if a marriage union fails to guarantee this as a cornerstone to all her other rights, a woman should be able to divorce her husband as a mirror right granted to her husband. No more, no less.

Because an equal union is premised on equal rights, the road to being the proverbial “better half” begins with full, not half rights. Women don’t deserve to settle for a marriage of convenience nor one of unhappiness. Both men and women deserve happiness, but men must accept – with the force of law – that no marriage is a happy marriage without a happy woman. 

- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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