By Bina Shah
December 18, 2013
On a recent trip to Denmark, I experienced my first episode of culture shock in quite a while.
“Do you have children?” one Danish woman asked me, making polite small talk. “No, I’m not married,” I replied.
With a look of incredulity she said, “But you don’t have to be married to have children!” Another new friend, born in Iran but raised in Denmark, told me that many Danish couples, instead of marrying, show their love and commitment simply by having a baby together.
In comparison, the intricacies of love in Pakistan seem to come from a different era. Pakistanis will often ask a couple not whether they have a child, but, “Was it an arranged marriage, or a love marriage?”
Beneath this seemingly simple query lie layers of cultural complexities and paradoxes.
In Pakistan, love is considered all important by some, frivolous by others, and deeply threatening to societal order by the guardians of morality and religion. Still, most people in Pakistan hope to fall in love, at least after marriage if not before. And it isn’t Bollywood movies or Turkish soap operas, but Pakistan’s indigenous culture that primes its people to fall in love, even while requiring them to stay true to the nation’s conservative mores.
Strong societal codes place the responsibility of choosing a partner squarely in the hands of parents. In conservative families, this decision is made by patriarchs when the prospective couples are young. Often, the bride and groom are forbidden to see each other before the wedding, although most couples will manage to catch a furtive glimpse of each other with the help of sympathetic relatives and other allies.
Islam instructs that any marriage must be conducted with the consent and free will of both partners, but Pakistani parents believe that Islam also gives them the authority as guardians to act in their children’s best interests, even if it means overriding a son or daughter’s own hopes and desires. Taken to extremes, this can result in forced marriage, or “honor killings” dictated by some tribal customs as punishment for unsanctioned love.
But while a love marriage may be a challenging proposition for Pakistan’s conservative society, love itself is widely honoured. Folk songs and legends that celebrate love in all its forms have been wildly popular through the ages. Go to a Sufi shrine during the annual celebration of a saint’s death, and you’ll see thousands reciting mystical poetry devoted to the Beloved, or God.
As the great Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif writes: “Where love flows in abundance / There are no entrances, no exits / Every one can see the Lord!”
The Sufi poets expressed the separation between humans and God through the metaphor of lovers separated by cruel circumstances who fought for love, in some cases sacrificing their lives. The beautiful and wealthy Heer falls in love with Ranjha, a poor shepherd, but fate forces her into marriage with another man; the desolate lovers die and are buried side by side. The unhappily married Sohni tries to cross the river to reach her beloved Mehar, but her clay pot dissolves in the river and she drowns. A happier tale shows the village girl Marui; though imprisoned by Umar, a Soomro king, she refuses all temptations to marry him and become queen, and eventually is released to marry her poor lover, Khet.
In all these stories, the women fight for the freedom to love and to choose their own partners. This poetic ideal of the heroine resonates especially deeply with many of today’s Pakistani young, but even their mothers and grandmothers can relate. Delve deep into most family histories, and you’ll find tales of a rebellious daughter who married outside her community, or a son who bucked tradition and entered a “love marriage.” Sometimes a man might submit to an arranged marriage and then marry again — this time for love — while still married to his first wife. Pakistanis in love make careful compromises to negotiate the delicate terrain of tradition in a society that is rapidly opening up to other ideas and norms. And then there are those brave couples who travel to Karachi from all over the country to get married in court, against their families’ wishes.
Even in the most liberal families, a courting couple will be secretive or discreet about dating; when the time comes, they will observe the time-honored tradition of the man’s family presenting a marriage proposal to the woman’s. When couples go for dates at the beach, to watch the sun set over the magnificent Karachi coastline, the women wear Burqas so as not to be recognized by disapproving elders. Like their counterparts everywhere, teenagers in school uniforms meet in groups, hang out at new coffee shops, and make eyes at each other over their smartphones.
Not every love story in Pakistan ends happily. As in Sufi poetry, many couples are separated by the impossibility of making their union work in a society that has so many written and unwritten rules about love. Perhaps it gives these hapless lovers comfort to see a little bit of Heer and Ranjha, or Sohni and Mehar, in their plight. But the lucky ones who find love — before or after marriage — see the hand of God in their success.
Bina Shah is the author of several novels, including “Slum Child,” and short-story collections.