I have two master’s degrees from Columbia, keep the h silent in haute couture (you’d be surprised at how few Pakistanis like me do so), and know to scour the fine print before I sign anything. But I scrawled my signature on the most important contract of my life without reading a word. And, as I later found out, many of my also well-educated female friends did the same. Why do Pakistani women agree to marriage contracts without scrutinizing them first and making sure they won’t be sorry later?
For my nikah, orofficial marriage ceremony, in March 2008, I chose a majestic monument in Lahore, aptly known as the Badshahi or the King’s mosque. It was 8 a.m., and the spring sun was strong as I sat decked out in a heavily embellished duputta (long head veil). My aunt had warned me: “You will have a headache, an ear ache, and a neck ache by the end of the day, which will be proof that your parents adorned you with a sufficient amount of jewelry.”
More than the weight on my body, I was bothered by how extraneous I felt to the ceremony. My soon-to-be husband had been briefed by the religious scholar presiding. He had also read the marriage-contract papers in detail, making the additions and cancellations he wanted.
But I hadn’t seen the document. When I had asked to, my mother had rebuffed my request, saying there was no need, since she had already gone through it. When I told my fiance I wanted to discuss the contract with him, he wondered why I didn’t trust him to do what was best for us.
My grandmother, the stern matriarch of our family, warned me with a scowl that to read the contract would be a bad omen. But I was still eager to see the papers and began bugging my father. He initially consented, but eventually pulled back, saying he didn’t want my husband’s family to take offense. I burst into tears. My father patted me on the head, whispered consoling words, and said I should trust him.
Marriages in Pakistan are physically and emotionally exhausting. The rituals are designed to remind the woman that there is no turning back. Drained by the festivities and eager for a smooth end to the 14-day-long wedding, I gave in.
And so, during the ceremony, I sat a mile away from my fiance, could barely hear the words being recited, and felt as removed from the proceedings as a guest. I heard the microphone being passed to my husband. I heard him say “yes” three times, as is the tradition in Islam. I heard a round of congratulations. When my mother engulfed me in a tight hug, I protested that I had no idea what was happening.
Other women I know walked into marriage wearing similar blinders. One friend, who works as a pediatrician at one of Pakistan’s largest private hospitals, described her nikah ceremony as “confusing and far too quick.” She said that her father had simply thrust a sheaf of papers toward her and instructed her to sign on the dotted line. “Much later I realized I had no idea what I had signed,” she said. Another friend—who is a lawyer!—said she never got to see the complete contract. “I was given this single sheet of paper and told to sign, while the rest of the contract was being vetted by my husband,” she said. “Now, looking back, I don’t know why I signed it at all.”
Women’s rights activist Rubina Sehgal has an answer. She thinks no more than 2 percent of Pakistani women are familiar with their marriage contracts, which even educated and progressive women don’t view as a binding legal document, even though that’s what it is. “It has to do with their upbringing,” she said. “Women are brought up to believe that marriage implies submission and obedience and so, when it comes to the marriage contract, they just sign it. They forget at that time that they have the right to read it, vet it, and even suggest changes. At the time of tying the knot, a lot of importance is given to trust—trust your soon-to-be-husband, trust your parents.”
The problem is that marriage contracts often take away rights women otherwise have under Islamic law. This includes the right to file for divorce: Almost all the men in my family and in my husband’s family cancel this provision before handing the contract over to the woman’s family. It’s considered impolite, and a breach of the trust that Sehgal talks about, for a woman or the relative representing her to insist otherwise.
Women also forfeit the right to other protections. For example, in Islam, a woman is promised a certain amount of money (in keeping with her husband’s income) usually given to her if she chooses to divorce. The money is meant to provide her with some degree of financial security, especially if she leaves her husband. Despite the excellent logic behind this right, most men frown upon it. They put into the contract measly amounts, such as $1 or $10, simply to fill in the blank. And women don’t ask questions. An elderly aunt of mine takes great pride in saying that she agreed to 1 cent when it was time to marry off her daughter. “I had faith in Allah, so 1 cent was all I asked them to put down,” she said.
But Allah is the one who gives women this right, I protested. My aunt dismissed me.
Qaisera Sheikh, vice president of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Pakistan, says that she has seen women suffer because of their passive attitude toward the marriage contract. “Later on in their married lives when things did not work out, these women realized they had unknowingly given up their right to divorce, for child support, etc.,” she said.
In my case, as in the case of most women I know, my husband’s family suggested an amount for the marriage payment. My father agreed to it. I signed at the mosque without knowing how much money I would have in the event of divorce. My husband did not cancel the provision allowing me to file for one. Still, if he had, I would have been able to do nothing about it.
And at moments when my husband and I have fiery arguments leading into spiteful fights, I find myself wishing I had added to the contract provisions like child support and financial assistance in the case of a separation or divorce.
Thankfully we have a beautiful marriage, so such regretful thinking is rare. My husband and I don’t talk about the signed papers of our marriage contract lying at the bottom of a cupboard in his office. But it remains a reminder of the time when I failed, in my own eyes, to ask for my rights.