This weekend in Jacobabad, Sindh, a 61 year old man was arrested for marrying a 9 year old girl, in direct contravention of the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act. Yet for every child marriage that is stopped in Pakistan, hundreds of thousands more take place, condemning Pakistan’s young girls to a life of servitude, physical and mental abuse, and malnutrition.
At the same time, this story in Scroll.in highlighted the problem of child marriage in India, stating that 12 million children in India are married, that most of them are Hindu, and 80% of them are girls. The statistics are sobering but necessary to know, because they reveal the links between illiteracy and child marriage, and highlight the fact that better water and sanitation would free girls up from household chores so that they might be able to spend more time on their education.
The fact that both India and Pakistan are plagued by child marriage shows that this isn’t a religious problem as much as it is a cultural one. And because India and Pakistan share a common South Asian culture (as well as neighboring countries Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), it makes it easier for us to see how the trends work in the entire region. In Sri Lanka, child marriage rates are very low (only 2%), which corresponds to its high education levels for girls.
Child marriage is an ongoing abuse against girls and young women. In Pakistan, we are seeing the emergence of a new abuse: burning girls to death in honor crimes. Last month in Abbotabad a teenaged girl was kidnapped and set on fire for helping her friend to elope. A tribal council sentenced her to this particularly gruesome kind of death. This month, schoolteacher Maria Abbasi was burned to death for refusing a man’s marriage proposal.
And yet, is this trend so very new? In India for centuries women were burned to death in sati, the custom that decreed a widow must die on her husband’s funeral pyre. Burning women for providing insufficient dowry continues to be a crime across much of the Subcontinent.
In the Hindu religion, Ram made Sita prove her loyalty by walking into a fire. Somehow this has been turned into a morality tale about Sita’s virtue, when in reality it is something that no woman should have to put herself through. And yet it is held up as an example to millions of women in South Asia today. Would any man risk death by fire to prove his fidelity to his wife?
In Pakistan, we like to brag that Islam has freed us from Hindu customs, that Islam gave rights to women that had never been granted them before. Yet Muslim men in Pakistan are beating, raping, shooting, hacking and burning women to death for supposed discipline and control. Are these the rights Islam gave us?
All this leads me to think that when it comes to girls and women, there is no separate “Pakistani” or “Indian” culture; there are only variants on the same theme that a woman must pay with her life for a crime that stems from a man’s inability to control his sexual desires and urges. That there is a universal system which declares a woman must content herself with serving the needs of a man and his family rather than fulfilling her own destiny.
Pakistan and India are equal competitors in the Misogynist Olympics. No country can make a claim for cultural or religious superiority when half its population is made to suffer under the real culture and religion of South Asia: patriarchy.