If you want to observe a man — who has never prayed five times in his life — instantly rediscover his religion, watch his daughter plead her case for marrying a man from a different sect. Almost out of nowhere, the educated, well-mannered, gentle father whose best friend also happens to be from a different sect, will begin arguing that the ‘other’ sect is sponsored by a ‘foreign conspiracy’ to hurt real Pakistanis. “I have no problems with the boy himself but I can’t give you my blessings to marry outside our sect,” the father will implore in the build-up to his punch line. “Couldn’t you have settled for someone within our sect instead, there are so many nice boys out there, why him?”
Most of us struggle to define the role religion should play in our lives but it usually doesn’t impact people around us until a cousin or best friend pops the question: “I’ve fallen in love with someone from a different sect, will you help me convince my parents to give us a green signal?” Almost instantly, deep philosophical questions about religion need to be reconciled in order for you to give a half decent response to a person you care deeply about. When it comes to intersect marriage, a religious scholar is usually the best place to start for advice on how to proceed when it comes to your religious views.
However, the decision to marry someone from another sect isn’t just centered on religion; this is also a social decision. “What will people say?” is the first thing parents declare when they receive a reluctant ‘okay’ on the marriage from a religious scholar based on certain preconditions. This has a lot to do with the demonisation of the ‘other’ within our society. In Pakistan, you don’t have genuine intellectual or ideological disagreements with each other. You either hate someone or love someone. There is no middle ground in which we choose to disagree with each other but live together in a positive spirit of harmony and peace.
This is visible once an intersect marriage actually takes place. When a bahu from the ‘other’ sect behaves differently, her actions are immediately projected onto her sect and family background rather than judged on their own merit. For example, at the beginning of a marriage, when a husband chooses to spend more time with his wife rather than his mother, there are whispers of the new bahu casting a spell on a previously devoted son, because that’s what people from the ‘other’ sect do. We don’t necessarily demonise the ‘other’ because we’re evil but because all our lives we’ve been brought up to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is in our social DNA and it’s ripping apart our country and our families from within.
In fact, the divisive opinions on intersect marriages are a microcosm and metaphor for our broader inability to talk sensibly about things without questioning the intentions of the ‘other’. For example, mainstream Pakistani society is divided into two camps about whether or not we should talk/negotiate with extremists who want to overthrow the state. The funny thing is that these two camps can’t even talk to each other — forget the extremists for a moment — without questioning whether the other party is sponsored by either a ‘foreign’ or ‘extremist’ agenda. This happens because we’re not used to having people with our own demographic profile disagree with us. And if we do disagree with someone who ‘should’ have the same opinion as us, then they must be sponsored by an agenda promoted by a demonised ‘other’ (read: ‘foreigner’ or ‘closet extremist’).
How do we break this cycle? As usual, we’re hopelessly waiting for social change to come from the top down. The government can’t pass laws to make us better human beings and treat each other better. Instead, change will come when ordinary people like us start making extraordinary decisions — like welcoming someone from the ‘other’ sect into our family — to transform Pakistani society into a more tolerant, pluralistic and peaceful one.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2013.