A question of marriage

Published: October 9, 2013
The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism

The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism

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.

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Reader Comments (13)

  • np
    Oct 10, 2013 - 12:14AM

    Wow, it tells you how deep intolerance is within a country when the simple act of welcoming a person from another sect into one’s family by marriage is considered an ‘extra ordinary’ act by the author.Recommend

  • 1984
    Oct 10, 2013 - 12:18AM

    Just replace sect with religion/caste and you can reproduce the same article in an Indian newspaper…


  • x
    Oct 10, 2013 - 4:14AM

    Religion is different as some fundamental beliefs clash such as Islam and Hinduism are not compatible so unless you renounce your religion (one spouse does), it can not work.
    Sects have been created by man and such marriages are opposed due to social reasons and our closed mindsets. Marrying outside caste is also another ‘taboo’ which society has imposed on. Greater tolerance and acceptance needs to be cultivated as well as shedding the ‘what will people say?’ thinking.


  • wasim
    Oct 10, 2013 - 11:00AM

    people will divide themselves at any level possible… this is in nature of human spices..


  • Feroz
    Oct 10, 2013 - 12:17PM

    Problems start because in the Medieval World women were considered property of men and treated as chattel. That many are still tethered in the medieval world of thinking when the World has moved on, is a primary source of conflict. If we could only be concerned about our own actions, rather than what others think, what they do or how they behave — the World would be a terrific place to live.


  • pnpuri
    Oct 10, 2013 - 3:04PM

    irrespective of religion, caste, race or ethnicity by whatever name and of kind, the woman has been treated as property of male relation and therefore one liable to be scorned since time immemorial. interestingly these restriction becomes harsher as family or community to which one belongs gets more poor. there are any number of cases where inter-ethnic marriages among rich have been accepted, but the moment parties to such marriages are poor, the community leaders .are out to crush any breach of social (or is it unsocial) norms. .


  • Oct 10, 2013 - 3:33PM

    A good article.


  • Toba Alu
    Oct 10, 2013 - 7:00PM

    What most Pakistanis do not realise is that the situation in Western Europe was very similar till the mid sixties. No marriages between different wealth classes, no marriages between different religious sects, mostly a segregated society. What changed this was economic growth and access to all levels of education by all classes. At the same time a rural exodus took place due to productivity increases in the agricultural sector, strong industrialisation and the beginning of a rapid development of the service sector. School uniforms were to mask class differences. Interaction between children of different backgrounds increased very rapidly. It took a while before parents of the “higher classes” were accepting that their children got friends from a different background. Similarly as contacts between different sects. Till today some are still not accepting this, however most do. They have found other ways to distinguish themselves. In Pakistan the elites are very much aware of this development in the west. They are not prepared to follow as they will loose their priviliged position rapidly. With the higher levels of education many began to question the wisdom of their political and religious leaders. To the dismay of their parents many students lost faith in their traditional leaders be it class or religious leaders. So Pakistan is about 50 years behind, while some sections are about 1400 years behind.


  • gp65
    Oct 10, 2013 - 8:14PM


    @x: “Religion is different as some fundamental beliefs clash such as Islam and Hinduism are not compatible so unless you renounce your religion (one spouse does), it can not work.

    I am glad that you are open to marriages between people of different sect and castes. Marriages between people of two religion are an extension of the same idea. Your idea that one spouse needs to renounce religion to make it work is simply not true. What is true is that greater tolerance for each other’s beliefs and behaviors is needed. My own cousin brother (Hindu) is married to a Muslim and both have kept their respective religions. Many of my friends are also married to a person of diffrent faith. I am sure you are aware of many Indian celebrities who are married to a person of a different faith. In fact in India 2 Gujaratis – be they Christian, Parsi, Jain. Hindu or Muslim have more in common (including of course language, script, cuisine) than a Hindu Gujarati who has always lived in Gujarat has with a Hindu Kannadiga who has always lived in Karnataka.Recommend

  • islooboy
    Oct 10, 2013 - 9:50PM

    well you could eat apple beef sandwitches but thats just stupid


  • islooboy
    Oct 10, 2013 - 9:51PM

    i think shias are more strict in this regard


  • observer
    Oct 10, 2013 - 11:27PM

    Miyan Mitho has been acting as matchmaker between girls and boys of different religious backgrounds.

    I am sure Miyan Mitho can facilitate marriages between different sects too.


    Moderator ET- Is quoting ET reports against your comments policy?


  • gp65
    Oct 11, 2013 - 8:46PM

    @islooboy: “@gp65:
    well you could eat apple beef sandwitches but thats just stupid”

    Sorry, can you please elaborate what exactly you find stupid?

    As for your reference to beef, – in a marriage where 2 Muslims are married to each other, if one gets diagnosed with high cholesterol and is asked to give up red meat totally (that includes beef – fyi), will that impact the marriage? Obviously when 2 people of different faith are geting married to each other they know that they will need to show tolerance. This would also be true of two people of two nationality or languages. Not everyone is open minded and tolerant enough to make such marriages work and it is fine if such people marry people who are like them but there is nothing stupid about people of different faiths getting married to each other.Recommend

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