Earlier this year, I came across a news snippet announcing that a young woman had been killed by her own brother for defiling the family name. They lived near the fashionable and trendsetting city of Lahore, Pakistan. She was only 21 and a recent divorcee.
Surprisingly, it doesn’t take much digging around to find dozens of other cases like this from the last 6 months, all showcasing the same outcome: the murder of females by their relatives.
It’s almost ironic. It seems that no matter how modernised or liberated the nations of the South Asian province appear to be getting, some old habits really do die hard.
Of course, the stigma of divorce has for centuries been a sensitive topic within Asian culture. But a gradual shift in trends over the past few years suggests that this social dogma is beginning to change, albeit at a extremely slow pace.
Cue the statistics: Pakistan, India and Bangladesh have all seen record highs in cases filing for divorce from 2010 onwards. In Pakistan, 40,410 cases of separation were filed in 2010 and 259,064 cases were filed over the last decade.
Now these figures may not appear much for a country that boasts a population of around 187 million citizens. But when you factor in the embedded stigma that divorce signifies in the minds of its inhabitants, which can even lead to some family members committing murder, the figures are worryingly high.
In a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 1,000 women were killed by their family members in 2011. It is thought that there are many more murders that have not been reported.
But what are the root causes for this deeply entrenched stigma? Why is divorce such a taboo in the East?
Well, faith, first and foremost, plays a very important role: South Asian communities to this day exist around their continued loyalty to their religions. All cultural lifestyles emanate from this. Even in today’s modern era where the practices of the East are slowly catching up with the West, both in thought and aspirations, the constant routine of religious celebration continue to be prominent in the daily lives of South Asians.
Religion allows individuals to come together. It offers communal togetherness and acceptance as opposed to isolation. Of course, there are many things which religion considers as mandatory for its followers: prayer, pilgrimage and so on. But one necessity which seems the most life-changing for individuals is the issue of marriage.
The sanctity of marriage has always held much importance in Asian traditions where culture and religion tie together seamlessly. Religious traditions promote the necessity of marital unity as the cornerstone to a happy and blessed life.
Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam, the three dominant religions of the Indian subcontinent, all agree with marriage being an essential aspect of life. On some level, all of these religions epitomise marriage as offering the companionship an individual requires to fulfil their spiritual journey. Thus, the emphasis on marriage ceremonies, including specific rites and rituals that each of these religions permit, suggests an overwhelming importance placed onto the institution of marriage.
Where marriage offers an unwavering bond between an individual and his maker, the idea of deliberately removing yourself from this togetherness becomes a betrayal of the highest kind: betrayal not only to the sacred institution of marriage, but also to the religious community who has for centuries upheld these rigid traditions.
This being the case, we can begin to understand that divorce signifies the breaking of a sacred commitment, not only between a husband and wife, but also between the individual and his religious deity or God. Divorce is ultimately indicative of the removal of an individual from their spiritual path or nirvana.
But as in all instances of popularised faith, religion sits in its place. The real complications emanate from cultural traditions which are born out of religious practices. As is common for all groups of people who will adapt faith to suit their own needs and interests, cultural traditions have a tendency to manipulate religious dogma to another (and as my introduction suggests), very extreme level.
Religion then, takes a considerable backstop as cultural traditions become more important to uphold. In many cases, the community plays a pivotal role in safeguarding culture and thus stereotyping against particular social norms.
For instance, doctrines within Sikhism do not recognise divorce at all: community leaders take on the responsibility of acting upon any irreconcilable differences, and if no solutions can be found, are able to permit a kind of separation.
For leaders more extreme in their faith, divorce is outlawed as sinful because of its connotations of disrespect and anti-religious sentiment.
Another key element within close-knit Eastern communities is that status and religion go hand in hand. Community leaders as a rule will be the most religious and therefore enjoy the highest status. Those who adhere to religion and the cultural traditions of the community will see their status grow and grow, whilst the opposite can be expected of those who deviate.
Marriage then, elevates an individual’s status. Parents and families will also benefit from this, and this is why marriages at an early age are encouraged. It is no secret that child marriages are so commonplace in this part of the world. Of course, while some parents genuinely do this out of fear of poverty, it seems that the general consensus is that an early marriage promotes good standing and respect.
This is why “arranged marriages” are preferred and are generally the norm. For families, the purity of children – both of the body and soul – before marriage is paramount as it is another indicator of respect and good standing.
Yet, such emphasis on upholding cultural standing means that it has long been custom for a husband and wife to have never have met before their wedding day. Prior relationships are considered taboo and anything that will shame the family or the individual within the community is condemned. For some rural families in particular, family honour takes precedence over an individual’s general happiness and well-being.
Of course, the likelihood of such marriages failing later on is proportionately increased. No one can expect a woman and man to intimately live together harmoniously if they have had no prior interaction. Issues and problems are bound to crop up. And the sad fact remains that inevitably it is the woman who suffers the most when her marriage breaks down.
And that is another sad consequence of the darker side of these type of marriages – the stark gender differences that become brutally apparent when irreconcilable differences emerge.
Part Two to come…