By Mavra Bari
Wedlock seems to be the only viable option for poor women seeking education.
ISLAMABAD: For most young Pakistani women from the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder, education and marriage are mutually exclusive. The question in this battle is: which choice dominates? Unfortunately, marriage usually beats education as it seems more economical, at least in the short term. In addition, the tradition of marriages set at birth between cousins is a pervasive reason for girls to dropout from school.
Even when migration from village to city takes place, the bonds of this tradition remain. Zubeida Rehman and her family, who migrated from a village in Rahim Yar Khan District to Islamabad nine years ago, are prime examples of this. She works as a maid and has three children, Farzana, Saima and Nadeem.
Due to her minimal exposure to schooling in the village, their eldest, Farzana, was an 11-year-old first grader at International Islamic School of Excellence. Farzana said that, “I always felt very awkward at school as I was the oldest student in my class.” That is why when she turned 14 and a demand from the village came for the wedding to her cousin, Ejaz, she readily accepted. However Zubeida’s employers, who are paying for her education expenses, offered to fund Farzana’s education till matric if they waited till she was at least 18.
However, Farzana and her family decided that she be married off at 16, regardless of education. Now, she bitterly comments “I wish I had taken my employer’s offer and continued my studies now, but back then, getting married seemed like an easier option. I did not want to start feuds in my village and bring shame on my family. I am four months pregnant now, and I hope to educate my child no matter what.”
Saima, who is 13 and in seventh grade, has a similar reverence for education and aspires to complete a bachelor’s degree. However, her mother worries about Saima’s educational future, as she is betrothed to a cousin, Emdad, who is completely illiterate. Zubeida adds, “He lives in the village and even though a school was made 2 years ago, it has no teachers and is used as a storage building.”
Emdad happens to be Ejaz’s brother. This marriage pact, colloquially called “vatta satta” (exchange marriage) creates even bigger problems. If Saima’s wedding is put off till she finishes her education, Farzana could become a victim of abuse and anger at the hands of her in-laws. Zubeida fears that Saima will have to drop out as well as the in-laws do not approve of her education. “They want a slave, not an educated daughter-in-law,” she says, adding, “Even though Emdad has no prospects, we cannot dissolve the promise as it will lead to many disputes.”
There is a bright spot for Zubeida though. While Farzana and Saima’s marriage pacts have become a barrier to education, her son, Nadeem, has a promising future. He is engaged to his maternal uncle’s daughter, who also works as a maid in Islamabad. Despite it seeming that Nadeem’s education is unhinged because he is a boy, Zubeida insists that it is because, “I have a good understanding with my brother. We both want our children to study and that’s why we will make sure they do not get married until they have at least matriculated. Living in the city has shown us the importance of education.”
Zubeida’s children are just one set of examples that explore how the tradition of fixed marriages leads to problems in attaining education, and it seems that the problem is exacerbated when at least one of the betrothed are illiterate. However, it is not only tradition, but also the nonexistence of schools in villages that compound the perpetuation of this cycle of illiteracy.
Source: The Express Tribune