By Rafia Zakaria
Azhar Haidri is a man in love. Azhar Haidri is also a man of compromise. He loved one woman; but his family wanted him to marry another. As the television viewers who watched it all unfold may have told you, his was not an enviable choice. Since the happiness of all, himself and his family was a high priority for him, he did what a Pakistani man can do; He decided to marry them both.
The BBC report that detailed the twists and turns of Azhar Haidri’s multiple marriages said that both the wives to be agreed to the arrangement. The one he loved, Rumana Aslam is 21 years old, Humaira Qasim; the woman chosen by his family is 27 years old.
The facts and figures of such a situation as the one confronted by Mr. Haidri are familiar to many Pakistani men who find themselves conflicted between family obligation and romantic feeling.
On one hand are the demands of marriage as a means of accumulating social capital; in whose calculations, feelings are secondary. Under its rules, the point of a union is to strengthen the family unit, which in the absence of a strong state, is the individual’s insurance against catastrophe.
A cousin is ideal, allowing coveted inheritances to be kept within the family, and so are brothers and sisters of the spouses of siblings. In some other cases, sons and daughters of business partners allow commercial relations to become public ones, all happily converting to increasing profits. Once wed, both sides must make the best of “growing to love each other” or at the minimum reach a compromise of silent toleration.
On the other side are marriages of personal choice. Since in most Pakistani families and the culture at large, gender segregation is now increasingly the norm, a marriage of personal choice usually represents the groom to be encountering his choice of wife at a chance meeting, usually at a wedding, or similar occasion. His romantic inclinations toward the girl of his choice are communicated to the female family members of his own family. In some convenient cases, the “personal choice” happily coincides with the family’s demands of upward mobility, household harmony or a large dowry. In those cases where things do not round up so neatly, a choice is required between family and feelings.
This has to be no more. As Azhar Haidri’s story and the plot lines of innumerable soaps and television dramas can testify, polygamy or the marrying of multiple wives is now becoming a socially acceptable and even popular option for Pakistani men, who want to have it all. In recent days, the Council of Islamic Ideology, helpfully tuned to the romantic conundrums of Pakistani men, has also done its part. To make the task of marrying multiple wives easier, the Council has recommended that the requirements of permissions, whether they be from former wives or arbitration councils all be rescinded. When a man has to make compromises, he must not be bothered with such details.
In some countries, where women are considered full human beings, and love is something built on the choices of two and not one, polygamy would not be the solution to the romantic problems of men. In such a place, women (and not just men) would like the option of having choices; select one partner to satisfy family obligations and another with whom they can see the possibility of emotional and romantic compatibility.
Luckily, for Pakistan, these sorts of demands are not an issue or an obstacle. Not only do Pakistani women seem reconciled to the fact that they can only be “chosen” and never “choose”, the indignities of having to share a man with another woman do not seem to bother them much or even at all.
Any remaining women wishing to be “only wives” are being successfully shut up by the far louder voices who insist that a good wife is the one who would not only accommodate her husband’s future marriages, but lives in happy sisterhood with them.
With such visions dominating domestic futures, many wives are indeed not a problem at all. Men, the only beings with choice in Pakistan, can now exercise it with wild abandon, choose one, another and then yet another of the many waiting and wanting women, whose futures depend exclusively on being chosen by a man.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for DAWN. She is a writer and PhD candidate in Political Philosophy whose work and views have been featured in the New York Times, Dissent the Progressive, Guernica, and on Al Jazeera English, the BBC, and National Public Radio. She is the author of Silence in Karachi, forthcoming from Beacon Press.