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The right to choose

Saeed Ahmed Rid

MY three-year-old daughter, Sobh wanted to have a ritual of danwan which is reserved only for boys in some areas of rural Sindh. The ritual is held when a boy begins to learn how to walk. It involves putting a rope between the child’s legs. The rope is then cut by the eldest uncle on the mother’s side symbolising a release from all hurdles so that the child can walk and run freely.

Why is the ritual specific to boys and why are girls not allowed to have it? The reason is simple: the local people fear that if they have the same ritual for their daughters, they might run away with someone when they grow up. The right to free consent in marriage, especially for girls, is still a distant dream and the concept of marrying for love, taken for granted in Western societies, is still frowned upon in most rural areas in the country.

In Western societies, the issue of the right to marry only emerges in the context of same-sex marriage. But here where old traditions and local customs are at times even more powerful than state law, denying a man or woman the right to marry someone of his or her choice often goes unnoticed, with girls especially not expected to utter a single word against their parents’ choice. Young couples get killed by their tribesmen and family members in the name of honour, if they choose to marry of their own free will against the wishes of their family or tribe. Several others live a life of compromise for not resisting the wishes of their parents or tribal leaders.

Justifying this brutal tradition is wrong but one cannot deny the fact that such archaic customs are deeply rooted in culture. Customs like danwan go unchallenged in our society. A discriminatory practice which my three-year-old daughter was able to notice is taken for granted. Unfortunately, the fabric of our culture is constructed in a manner which promotes and protects these traditions that go against humanity, especially women.

When a woman belonging to a family in rural Pakistan pursues her right to marry someone of her own choice, and especially if she ties the knot with someone outside her tribe, it results in the male members of the family perceiving their ‘honour’ and social status as being threatened. And these threats are not imaginary. Everyone looks down on that family which is suddenly turned into an outcast.

In cases where the family itself arranges the marriage of their daughter to someone outside the tribe, that family often has to leave the village, and if they’re allowed to stay then their clan stops having anything to do with them. For society, it is a grave social offence to interact with the father of a daughter who marries of her free will.
The same clan will have no qualms about showing respect to the family of a corrupt government servant or a smuggler or thug but it will not associate with a family whose daughter has married of her free will.

An example is included here of a close friend who fell in love with an educated girl belonging, by local standards, to a modern family. The girl forced him to arrange a court marriage because she feared her father would not allow their marriage and would make her marry her cousin, to whom she had been engaged since the age of five.

When the girl’s father discovered their marriage, he was furious, and told his daughter that he would never accept her marriage because he would lose all prestige in his community. The father physically tortured the daughter and kept her in confinement in a far-off kacha area until she agreed to seek a divorce. Finally a divorce was obtained through the court and she was forced to marry her illiterate cousin.

Who is responsible for the denial of this basic human right to women in Pakistan? The government, which has failed to enact appropriate laws, the police that are in cahoots with the perpetrators, or the courts which often set perpetrators free and seldom do justice by the victims? Or those fathers and brothers who kill their daughters and sisters based on their perception of ‘honour’? Or a society and culture which makes those fathers and brothers feel like outcasts among their own people?

Every one rightly blames the government for its inaction and those who go to the extent of killing couples who marry of their free will are viewed as inhuman by the larger section of society. But sadly no one blames a culture which gives no breathing space to the parents of those women who choose to marry of their own free will and who are considered merely an object of honour. The anti-women cultural behaviour and rituals like danwan need to be challenged at all levels.

It was with this in mind that our family organised a big danwan ceremony for our daughter Sobh in my small village of Mithri in Khairpur district — a place where no one could imagine that a girl child too could have the same ceremony as boys.

The writer is a faculty member at Quaid-i-Azam University and a PhD candidate at the Peace Studies department of the University of Bradford, UK.