Recently, Mukhtar Mai’s married Nasir Abbas Gabol in her low-key hometown of Meerwala. The publicity and the debate generated by the event, however, resonated across the globe, garnering attention from international newspapers and television channels.
Yet, unlike the coverage of the brutal events and awe-inspiring heroism that initially catapulted Mukhtar Mai into the public eye, many of the stories published in the Western media betrayed the confusion of attempts to process the somewhat unlikely union.
Indeed, Mukhtar’s marriage presents a conundrum even to Pakistani feminists. Should the fact that Mukhtar chose to get married after having vowed never to do so be celebrated or condemned? How should one evaluate the fact that she was to be a second wife? Even further, is the act of marrying a man who threatens to kill himself and destroy his own family if she refused him an act of resistance or coercion? Should the fact that she set the conditions for the marriage be touted as an example for other women? Finally, was there possibly a romantic spin to be put on the story, where a constable entrusted with guarding his charge falls in love with her and ultimately marries her despite the social stigmas attached to her?
A cornucopia of questions thus surrounds this very Pakistani marriage while raising issues that rarely make their way into public discourse regarding the nature of marital relationships.
Let us first consider the most controversial of the facts, that Mukhtar is Constable Gabol’s second wife. Many narratives of victimhood and religious piety surround polygamous unions in Pakistani society. Religious scholars routinely skirt around the contextual reality that the Quranic revelation that allowed polygamy was revealed when the entire Muslim community numbered 770 and many of the men had been massacred in the Battle of Uhud. Accosted with the imprimatur of religious sanctity, polygamy is presented not as a provisional allowance made under specific circumstances but rather as an entitlement, any abridgement of which is an attack on the rights of a Muslim man.
Religious discussions aside, however, Mukhtar’s acquiescence shows the complexity of polygamous unions from both a socio-cultural and personal perspective. In her statement following the solemnisation of the nikah, Mukhtar clearly stated that her decision to marry was heavily influenced by the fact that she was saving three marriages. The seemingly unstable constable had threatened not only to divorce his previous wife, but this would have led to the ensuing divorce of Gabol’s own sisters that were married to his wife’s relatives.
Thrust however unceremoniously into the midst of these marital dramas and having the futures of three other women riding on her decision, it is little surprise that Mukhtar did ultimately agree to marry Abbas Gabol. A woman who had committed her life to saving women thus did, not what would ultimately have made the boldest feminist statement and demand that he relinquish his wife and substantiate the equality of man and woman. Instead she did what she could to save who she could, given the status quo.
It is this status quo that merits the most attention in the discussion surrounding Mukhtar’s marriage. It forces one to consider whether the most pragmatic approach to female survival in a male-dominated society is figuring out a way to save those that you can or choose to make grand statements of resistance.
Perceived in this way, Mukhtar’s decision is an avowal of the realities of feudal Pakistan where women cannot live alone without male protectors and where marriage is a calculation in survival than an exercise in romance. In Mukhtar’s case, the situation was even more egregious, given the fact that the man wanting to marry her was none other than the person entrusted by the government to be her protector.
In a patriarchal system where unprotected women are fair game for all manner of abuse, the petulance and immature threats of Constable Gabol were bolstered as entitlements. By preying on Mukhtar’s compassion and the reality that three women would be abandoned and stigmatised if she did not relent, Mukhtar relented and Constable Gabol succeeded in his aim.
The interpretation of circumstances presented is but an interpretation substantiated only by the few facts available in the public domain. Yet despite its speculative dimensions, the dynamics of Mukhtar Mai’s marriage is representative of many unions that take place within Pakistan. Women who have faced divorce or any other form of social stigma are left in the uncomfortable position of choosing to live as unwanted and often maligned guests in their fathers’ or brothers’ homes or acquiesce to being second wives.
In other cases, marriages are routinely and unapologetically arranged to solidify business interests, land disputes and old vendettas. The woman, then, with the maligning spectre of divorce hanging over her, is left to endure whatever abuse her husband or in-laws may heap on her in an effort to salvage her marriage and avoid bringing shame on her family.
With the arrival of children, the seal of dependency is complete and many women are left forever dependent on the man whose identity legitimates their existence in the world.
Mukhtar Mai came into the spotlight to demand justice against the perpetrators who committed a horrific crime against her. Her position in the limelight, given her poverty and the unwillingness of many to acknowledge the existence of such brutality in our society, raised a public outcry. Her marriage, in this larger sense, is representative of similar realities that are also worthy of discussion.
Will it ever be possible for Pakistani women to live independently without a male protector? Will Pakistani marriages ever be more than arrangements that are made for men and by men? If these questions are deemed worthy of introspection and public debate in Pakistan, then Mukhtar Mai may have saved a lot more than just three marriages.
Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Reproduced by permission of the author & DT