Why rishta culture thrives

January 23, 2022

For all our Western-inspired evolution, rishta culture continues to uphold values the society still holds dear

Why rishta culture thrives

Dilwalay dulhaniya lay jaingay is a few decades old, but the idea that a person can choose their own partner and find a happy ending hasn’t really found weight in Pakistan.

As a society, we appear to be increasingly gravitating towards Western ideals. This is also true for relationships. However, while Bumble and Tinder are no longer obscure names for apps your mom wouldn’t want you to use, something is helping rishta aunties stay in business.

If anything, the business is thriving.

One reason for this is that, despite all the societal evolution, our collectivism remains intact. Maha Abbasi, a mental health counsellor, isolates the main problem: “This means that decisions, particularly important decisions, are made as a family unit. One of the most common phrases heard around the marriage process is ‘Shaadi dou logon ki nahin, dou khandanon ki hoti hai’ (marriage is not just between two people but two families),” she notes, adding that the notion that our elders know better isn’t always factual.

Rishta culture upholds these values despite women seemingly having more freedom than before. “For instance, women now get to speak to their prospective partners beforehand rather than seeing them for the first time on the wedding day. However, this doesn’t give them more control,“ adds Abbasi.

Sociologist Dr Zakria Zakar, the University of Okara vice chancellor, says that our progress is restricted to things and has not extended to attitudes.

“We claim that our society is opening up, but that seems to be restricted to fancy new buildings and cars. The reality is that, as people, we are still exceedingly patriarchal in our views,“ he says.

However, men seeking to control women isn’t the only reason that such systems exist. Two core changes that we have undergone is that people now have fewer children and the joint-family unit is on a steep decline. This means that fewer options for marriage are now available within the ‘community.’

Where people in the ’70s and ’80s were being carted into engagements with distant cousins while still in their diapers, there are not many cousins available today. Also, previously, the opinion of several family members was needed because the introduction of a new person had consequences for the family unit.

In comes the rishta aunty, who can fill the gap with FBI-level paperwork on men and women that won’t disrupt the façade of cohesion at the centre of most Pakistani families.

“Marriage in many cultures in Pakistan is a tool to maintain homogeneity. A difference is often viewed as a wrong, not just a difference. Our approach to marriage perpetuates our fear of difference. A marriage brings in not only a wife, but also a daughter-in-law and a sister-in-law, a future mother, and so on. As we continue to domesticate women, it is assumed that similarities will make the ‘adjustment’ easier. Differences stand out in an assimilated unit, hence the threat. Hence, the tribal mind set,“ Abbasi explains.

“Arranged marriage is seen as something for respected families. The women who participate are respectable women. These respectable women become obedient wives and fit perfectly into existing structures,” says Dr Zakria Zakar.

Jabeen*, a mother based in Karachi, more or less concurs. She draws comparisons between the circumstances of her daughter’s first engagement, which broke off, and later marriage. She pushes the idea that “different” doesn’t work.

“With her first engagement, she chose the man she wanted to marry. They were of a different background, but we were happy as long as she was. However, the family went overboard with their demands – which were directed not at us but at our daughter. She was pressured for many things including a larger dowry without us hearing a peep about it,” she recalls.

In Jabeen’s case, when things went sideways, the family could do very little except watch the aftermath. “Every time we tried to intervene, we were told the children had settled their issue. Eventually our daughter stepped away from that relationship, and we never had a say in anything.“

“However, when we went through the arranged marriage route, everything was handled by the elders in the family,” she adds. She notes that it was easier to deal with the in-laws because there were no back-channel demands being made.

Alvina, a Lahore-based professional who preferred an arranged setup, says that it makes no difference whether one chooses their partner or not.

“A marriage is a gamble, no matter how well you know someone. The dynamics of a couple change completely once they get married. The arranged setup worked for me because I ended up with someone who turned out to be a perfect match,” she says. “But I know that’s not true for everyone.”

“Even people who find their soulmates on their own must prepare for how unprepared they will feel. How a marriage turns out can hardly ever be predicted,” she asserts.

However, Dr Zakar believes that the need of the hour is pushing women to have more control and not less. “If I look at the stats from the last 30 years, it’s obvious that there isn’t a significant difference in how spouses are chosen. We don’t want to give women reproductive autonomy, which starts with marriage.“

“Arranged marriage is seen as something for respected families. The women who participate are respectable women. These respectable women become obedient wives and fit perfectly into existing structures,” he adds.

Abbasi echoes the sentiment: “We have to revisit the definitions of izzat in the first place and then revisit why only a woman needs to uphold it. A man is not held to the same standards because ‘this is what men do/ are’ is often tossed around to free them of all blame – hello patriarchy. Because that’s how men are. Respectable women stay at home, marry by their parents’ choice, and continue this cycle to no end,” she says.

In essence, rishta culture stands on attitudes that refuse to change and social structures that are helpless against rapidly evolving family dynamics.

*Name has been changed to protect identity

The writer is a journalist and researcher based in Lahore.

She tweets at @luavut

Why rishta culture thrives