Marriage on the agenda

June 6, 2021

Recently, Syed Abdul Rasheed of MMA, submitted a draft of a private bill in the Sindh assembly seeking to make marriage “compulsory for all those aged eighteen”. Despite evidence to the contrary, marriage, disturbingly, is still viewed by many in the society as a solution to most social ills

Marriage has been defined as a social contract, construct and a sacred bond. It is a particular societal concern of utmost significance in Pakistan. Simply put, it is one of the most discussed institutions in our drawing rooms - after politics and the ever-uncertain fate of the country’s finances.

We live in a society that is obsessed with marriage. A highly personal matter - weddings remain a truly social affair. Recently, a member of the Sindh Assembly, Syed Abdul Rasheed of the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, submitted a draft of the Sindh Compulsory Marriage Act 2021 as a private bill to the assembly secretariat seeking to make marriage “compulsory for all those aged eighteen”.

As soon as the news reached public platforms and other media networks, it reignited an age-old discussion about the merits of marriage and its institutional value. And whether or not it is a matter that the state needs to concern itself with when so many others are waiting due attention. The debate brought to the fore an even deeper concern. Marriage is viewed by many in the society as a solution to most social ills, including rape, one of the most heinous violent crimes.

Marriage as a social institution is of value across cultures and societies. It is a central connection serving as the basis for family and cementing the legitimacy of procreation. But most importantly, it is the economic merit of the institution that precedes all others. Often considered a stabilising influence, marriage is a costly affair. Unfortunately, the proposed bill is indicative of complete disregard for the monetary afflictions of married life by the mover. A provision in the draft submitted reads that the parents of the unmarried eighteen-year-olds must justify the delay to the concerned deputy commissioner. Else, pay a penalty fee of Rs 500.

In a rather Austenian fashion, marriage has once again become a hot topic. Interestingly, the 19th Century author realised that marriage was often dictated by social pressures and financial circumstances rather than by love and affection for the other. If finding companionship and beating quintessential human loneliness was the goal, perhaps partnerships formed under the marriage contract would be stronger and more rewarding. However, the proposal by the local lawmaker goes to show how little value is placed on concepts like the aforementioned.

Eighteen is an exciting age. Nearly the end of teenage – a rage-filled, hormone-heavy, confusing time in any young person’s life. A time of assertion of identity and individuality leading up to adulthood. To think that as soon as one reaches eighteen, the dust settles, and a new person emerges is an unrealistic expectation that many are still struggling to shake.

The proposal of the marriage bill is a perturbing development. Instead of focusing on providing education, jobs and reasonable income to the rapidly growing youth population, the legislator has proposed a costly measure.

Forced marriages are illegal in that they violate the freedom of choice and the right to exercise individual agency in matters of personal concern. The question arises, would state-sanctioned marriages not be illegal, then?

Also, is marriage really a solution to rape and abuse in society? Many convicted rapists in recent years have been married men. Marriage, therefore, cannot be the hypothesis on which we base the eradication of criminal behaviour in society.

In a society where young women are trying to establish their agency and find their voice, proposing a bill like this further undermines the female struggle for financial independence. And it is the state’s job to ensure that all individuals, irrespective of gender, are provided with the means necessary to become effective, contributing members of society. Married at eighteen, burdened with the thought of providing for their family by their early twenties with little education and no financial stability, will take away all possibilities of building a better society.

The bill is no joke, as many are calling it on social media. It has placed a deep-rooted mindset in the spotlight, one that is making many thinking individuals uncomfortable. Forced marriages are not permitted. It is only with the consent of the parties involved that a union can be formed.

The slight echo about the institution being obsolete must not cause distress to the lawmakers. Weddings are a favourite Pakistani past-time, and they will continue to take place with much fervour. The lawmakers should concern themselves with finding solutions to other problems. Abuse within the institution should be a concern more than making marriage compulsory. Bad marriages and unhealthy relationships can cause more damage to collective social wellbeing than fewer marriages. Policymakers and social influencers must learn to respect people’s privacy. Marriage certainly has social value, but it is a choice. Marital rape, child abuse, economic deprivation, meanwhile, are real issues, and it is high time that those with the power to make laws focus on fixing actual social ills.

The writer is a   staff member

Marriage on the agenda