Are Pakistani feminists reluctant to talk about marital rape?

Pakistan's feminist movement faces challenges in exposing sexual assaults that have been shrouded in secrecy.

DW April 13, 2022


Since the first "women's march" in 2018, the struggle for women's rights has grown into a large-scale movement in Pakistan. Pakistan's feminists have been relentless in campaigning for the right to bodily autonomy, safer public spaces and an end to violent sexual crimes. Campaigns like #MeToo and #TimesUp have also given more women a public platform to expose sexual harassment and violence. 

However, Pakistan's feminists appear to be hesitant in tackling the widespread problem of marital rape, which occurs when a husband forces his wife into sexual activity against her will. Pakistan remains one of the 36 countries yet to explicitly criminalise marital rape. Others include Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and India.

Legal ambiguity of marital rape

In India's Karnataka state, a recent court ruling refusing to quash a rape case filed by a wife against her husband has given hope that the debate on outlawing marital rape move forward.

"Rape is a rape, be it performed by a man, 'the husband,' on the woman, 'the wife,'" the judge said. Although the move does not strike down the "marriage exception" defining rape in Indian law, it will require the husband to stand trial in this single case.

In Pakistan, the legal situation of marital rape is unclear. In 1979, Pakistani law defined rape as forced sex outside of marriage. In 2006, a bill to protect women was introduced, which redefined rape as sex without a woman's consent. Although this definition potentially makes marital rape a punishable crime, there was no specific mention of marriage in the change. The penal code remains ambiguous.

Sara Malkani, a high court lawyer in Pakistan, told DW that there are "no known convictions on grounds of marital rape" in Pakistan. She added that official complaints of marital rape are few and far between.

"Even if a complaint is filed, the case does not go to trial," she said.

Rape hidden behind religion

In places where marital rape is not outlawed, many women do not report their husbands because they feel ashamed and know it will not be prosecuted. The religious context of marriage is also often used as a shield from legal action.

Shireen Ferozepurwalla, a marital rape survivor in Karachi, Pakistan, sought a divorce on grounds of "domestic violence," as marital rape is seldom considered to be grounds for separation. Ferozepurwalla said her ex-husband would try and use religion to coerce her into having sex.

"My husband would tell me that the angels would curse me for denying him [sex]," she told DW. "He would say if I pleased him in bed [that] I would go to heaven directly, and if he was angry with me, no matter what I did, I would go to hell," Ferozepurwalla said, adding that he used to force himself upon her.

Haroon Ghazi, an Islamic cleric in Pakistan, told DW that in Islamic culture, "signing the marriage covenant in and of itself establishes consent" to sex. However, Ghazi added that battering one's wife is considered sinful.

Adding marital rape to Pakistan's feminist manifesto

Pakistan's feminism movement tackles a distinct set of issues during the annual march. The latest march focused on labor rights for women. However, the continued prevalence of gender-based violence begs the question of why Pakistan's feminist circles do not speak out as forcefully on marital rape.

A women's march organiser, who requested anonymity over security concerns, told DW that one of the primary reasons that marital rape is not discussed as much is because it is not reported. The activist said that feminists do acknowledge marital rape, but women are reluctant to come forward because they are stigmatised for questioning the sacredness of the institution of marriage.  

"Just because this is not a mainstream discussion, it does not mean that conversations around it are not happening. The contributing factors behind rape such as violation of consent are equally important," she said.

The activist continued to say that Pakistan's feminism movement is a "people's movement," and that demands for raising awareness of issues must first come from within the people.

"This will only happen when we shake foundations, so women are comfortable in not only reporting it, but also living with the consequences of it," she said. 

Zohra Yusuf, ex-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told DW that victims of marital rape are often confused about their own rights.

"Sometimes, women themselves believe that their husbands are entitled to demand sex whenever they desire," she told DW. "The lack of sensitisation from authorities, and the initial reaction from the police to any instance of domestic violence is not encouraging," she added.

Yusuf said that spousal violence often goes unchecked because law enforcement treats it as a "family matter," which makes it off-limits for outsiders to intervene.  

However, feminists say that Pakistani authorities are slowly becoming cognizant of gender-based violence, but that Pakistan's social system needs to do more to provide support to victims within legal structures.

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