By Murtaza Haider
July 30th, 2015
Many Muslim societies believe domestic
violence against women to be less prevalent in arranged marriages. Empirical
evidence from Pakistan, however, paints a rather nuanced picture.
For centuries, parents of young Muslim
women have forced their daughters into arranged marriages, often with their
cousins, to protect land holdings or conform to their tribal customs.
Parents conveniently assume, and the brides
are made to believe, that by marrying their cousins, young women will not be
subject to domestic violence, that strong familial ties will guard against such
Marital Bliss Or Marital Blisters?
The Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey
(PDHS) in 2012-13 interviewed over 13,500 ever-married women between the ages
of 15 and 49. The USAID-sponsored survey provides a treasure-trove of data on
the health and well being of women. The survey revealed that one in three
ever-married women experienced physical violence since age 15, whereas one in
five women experienced abuse in the year leading to the survey.
But physical violence is just one
manifestation of abuse. Women also suffered emotional abuse at the hands of
their spouses. Since the age of 15, two out of five women in Pakistan suffered,
at least once, physical and/or emotional abuse at the hands of their spouses.
One in three women suffered the same in the
year before the survey. Even pregnant women were not spared, one in 10 women
suffered abuse while being pregnant.
For decades, married women in Pakistan have
suffered in silence. More than half of the women whose husbands abused them
never sought help or shared their sufferings with others. In their ignorance,
the parents perhaps thought their daughters enjoyed marital bliss. However,
domestic violence left them with marital blisters instead.
Family Ties and Family Trees
The PDHS revealed that most women in
Pakistan are married to their first cousins; only two in five women wedded
A relatively larger number of women married
cousins on their father’s side than those on their mother’s side. This tendency
is likely the result of family’s preferences to keep the agricultural land and
other assets within the family even after the young women were married to their
first cousins on the father’s side. The same does not hold for marrying cousins
on the mother’s side.
Dr. Nisha Malhotra, who teaches at the Vancouver
School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, is curious to find
out if cousin marriages protect women from spousal abuse.
Working with the PDHS, she found that the
answer to this question is not that straightforward because the incidence of
cousin marriages are not uniformly distributed across the urban-rural divide or
are spread the same way across income strata.
Dr. Malhotra found cousin marriages to be
more pronounced in rural areas where they accounted for 61 per cent of all
unions compared to the 50 per cent of all urban unions.
And, whereas, only 32 per cent women were
married to unrelated spouses in rural areas, a much larger proportion of urban
women (45 per cent) had a similar union. Again, agricultural land is more
commonly found in rural settings, which may be the reason why cousin marriages
are more pronounced in rural settings.
Another reason could be the fact that
villages are often established by rather insular communities (bradaries) where
a large number of inhabitants are direct relatives.
Source: Pakistan Demographic and Health
Survey, 2012-13. Drawn by Dr. Malhotra.
An interesting picture emerges when we
compare the incidence of domestic abuse for the types of spousal relations. The
following figure presents a breakdown of domestic violence.
We see that 28 per cent of women married to
unrelated men suffered physical (domestic) violence. A slightly lower fraction
of women married to first cousin’s on their father’s side (26 per cent)
suffered the same.
Surprisingly, a significantly larger
proportion of women married to second cousins suffered physical abuse than
those who married unrelated men. We see similar trends for emotional abuse.
Based on the preceding graphic and
discussion should we conclude that cousin marriages do not necessarily lower
women’s odds of being subject to domestic abuse?
Not so fast, says Dr. Malhotra. Since
well-off, highly educated, and urban women are more likely to have married
unrelated men, women’s odds of experiencing domestic violence should be
estimated after one has controlled the factors mentioned above.
Dr. Malhotra estimated a statistical model
where she controlled for income, education, and other related factors. She
found that when we control for other mitigating factors, the odds of a woman to
experience domestic violence are lower for those who married first cousins. The
same was not true for those married to second cousins.
Despite the evidence showing less
infrequent abuse in first cousin marriages, women should not be forced into
marriages against their wishes so that they may avoid spousal abuse. In a just
society, people are kind to all, and not just to their blood relatives.
Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of