A Different Mindset

3 Nov

Every Tuesday for the past year I have been reading an advice column that appears in the women’s section of the English-language newspaper that we get delivered to our home.

I like to read it because it gives me a chance to learn about the issues that the women who write asking for advice are facing here in Pakistan. There is also an element of curiosity in my interest, I admit, because the problems are real, as well as the people, and to be frank, the queries received and the advice given out are full of references to social practices and norms that are quite unlike my own, and that reflect a totally different way of looking at the world.

This week there was a long letter from a woman who is having problems in her marriage due to the fact that after five years she has been unable to conceive. The whole letter is worth reprinting, but this passage in particular tells most of the story:

Things are getting very rough between us and I understand that my husband is also frustrated like me, maybe more than I am since he is not the one with the problem. He has asked me on several occasions to get khula from him, as he says that I am wasting his time and that by now he would have had three or four children had he married a normal woman. A baby is the only thing that I could not give my husband; apart from that I have always fulfilled my duties as a wife and as a daughter-in-law. I even give my salary to my husband; out of which he gives me a fixed pocket-money and the rest he spends as he likes…My husband’s constant mental torture, the talk of divorce and khula and also the fact that I don’t want to waste any more of his time have made me think about getting a divorce. I have decided to give IVF one last try and then if that ends up unsuccessful, I would ask for divorce”.

I didn’t know what khula is, but the columnist explains it like this:

On no account should you go for khula; if he is set upon divorcing you he must take the blame himself. Khula is the option granted to women who want to leave their husbands but their husbands are unwilling to do so…Since it is your husband who is thinking of putting an end to your marriage, he should not ask you to apply for khula. It shows what a mean person he is. Not only will you be blamed by even your own family for not trying to save your marriage, you will have to waive your right to your mehr*…But the fact that he is asking you to apply for khula shows that your husband wants to lay the responsibility of ending your marriage on your head”.

Regarding infertility and the money issue, the answer was this:

Holding you responsible for this deficiency is very dastardly on your husband’s part, who seems to have forgotten all the sacrifices you have made. There are many childless couples who are enjoying good lives after trying to have children and then accepting that God has some other purpose for them, and we all must submit to His will. Instead of giving all your money to [your husband], invest it for yourself. Tell your husband that you have to save it as your future with him is not secure, plus you might need it if God willing your IVF treatment works out”.

What stands out for me about this letter is the fact that for this woman, the cruelty of her husband has not yet made him unfit in her eyes.  Even though the man is called “mean” and his behavior “dastardly”, a marriage to him is still preferable than a divorce, if only she could give him a baby. That she would still want to have a child with him seems incredible to me.

What complex set of values enables people to accept as natural conditions that someone else with a different background would find intolerable! Both of these women speak the same language, they understand each other in ways that I, regardless of how many years I spend here, could never do.

I have always tried to be careful when writing about Pakistan and its culture, firstly because I live here, and with that must come a certain degree of acceptance that is different from respecting a culture from afar. Secondly, I didn’t want to risk appearing condescending or judgemental. I have always measured my words very carefully because while I may disagree with a lot of what I see around me, I don’t want to be guilty of being impolite and impolitic at the same time, by discussing, and very likely challenging, in a public forum, sensitive issues regarding social customs and morality that are rooted in history and religion, subjects which, in this context, I know almost nothing about.

However, after having said that, cultural observations do happen every day, and while most of the time I feel I am equal to any situation that presents itself, no matter how unusual, sometimes my foreign self is shocked and shaken by what I see.


*I looked up the definition of Mehr: a token payment, at the time of the marriage contract, symbolizing, on behalf of the husband, the acceptance of the financial responsibility of the family that shall be formed on the basis of this contract.


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