Guest editorial

January 23, 2022

The idea of marriage being mainly about love and companionship only emerged in the last couple of centuries

Guest editorial

Social sciences recognise certain institutions as pillars on which a society stands. These are fundamental elements that ensure that the society keeps working in a particular way. Marriage is one such institution.

Anthropology understands that the concept of modern marriage is relatively new to mankind. Mankind had lived in promiscuity until some 10,000 years ago, when humans started trading their roaming lifestyle for a sedentary one. As groups of people settled down in a permanent location, there was the need for rules to run the society. Enter norms, values and morals. One of the side effects of these developments was the introduction of ‘marriage’. Anthropologists believe that the concept goes back about 4,350 years in human history. The first recorded evidence of marriage ceremonies (in Mesopotamia) uniting a woman and a man, dates back to about 2350 BC. Over the next several hundred years, marriage evolved into an institution embraced by other civilisations. The function of ‘marriage’ was understood to be producing biological heirs and structuring a family. As the function was indispensable, another layer of religious meaning was soon added.

Through most of its history, marriage had little to do with love. It was often arranged with the couple having no say in the matter. This practice endured for good reason too. With matters like property and reproduction at stake, it was far too important to be left to the designs of ‘young love’, especially among the upper class. Even for commoners who had some degree of choice, the main concern mostly was practicality. The idea of marriage being mainly about love and companionship only emerged in the last couple of centuries. With industrialisation, urbanisation and the growth of the middle class, more people became independent from large extended families and were able to support a new household on their own. Encouraged by new ideas from the Enlightenment (liberty, individualism, etc), more people began to focus on individual pursuit of happiness rather than familial duty, wealth and status. This focus on individual happiness also led to other transformations, like easing restrictions on divorce and more people marrying late. As we continue to debate the role of marriage in the modern world, it might help to keep in mind that marriage has always been shaped by society. As a society’s structure, goals and values change, its ideas of marriage will also continue to change.

Pakistan got its independence in mid-20th Century, experienced colonial and postcolonial filtering of cultural norms and values, engaged with liberalism and neo-liberalism and underwent Islamisation and enlightened moderation – all within a few decades. If cultural values seem all over the place, it is not without reason. However, this situation is not unique to the country. In the globalised world, there is hardly any filtering of ideas. A ‘cultural lag’ – a delayed acceptance of a change in material culture around oneself – is a phenomenon being experienced around the globe. In focusing on marriage practices in Pakistan, we see a similar cultural lag. Many relevant ideas about gender roles, universal human rights, divorce, rights and duties in marriage, duties towards children, economic bliss, social success, etc have changed. The cultural norms have still to catch up. This act is where much of the discord originates.

Every culture is different and reacts to change differently. Sadly, hardly any scientific data comes out of Pakistan, so that not many conclusions can be drawn without guesswork or making some assumptions.

The writer is a published   anthropologist and has been working for the past twelve years.  She teaches at the International Islamic University, Islamabad

Guest editorial