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Exchange Marriage Practices in Rural Pakistan 

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    There are negative connotations surrounding arranged marriages. Some of these can be attributed to a lack of knowledge. There are many parts of Pakistan where people live happily after an arranged marriage. The context of the marriage differs greatly between rural and urban communities. This writing will focus on the arranged marriages in rural Pakistan, specifically the consequences of exchange marriages for women. Exchange marriage is a form of arranged marriage in which families decide on the union of a daughter and son by exchanging daughters between families. People often categorize exchange marriage as forced marriage. This does not describe the traditional practice in its cultural context and this causes confusion and false assumptions. The context of this practice needs to be understood before one evaluates any behavior. In this paper I argue that various examples of exchange marriages throughout rural Pakistan have provided evidence that, in a time of poor economic opportunity and government protection, exchange marriages act as an efficient mechanism for safety and economic security for women.

    Unstable government has led to an unreliable infrastructure system in Pakistan. The economic opportunities in rural Pakistan are limited to mostly agrarian methods of farming and, as of late, livestock. The villages of rural Pakistan as a whole are male dominated societies that place little value on the opinion of women . Villages in the rural areas vary slightly by their intake of mass media, education levels, and women’s status. Many of the articles referenced in this report are focused in the Punjab province of Pakistan, which is the most developed and shares a border with India making up the greater central eastern region of Pakistan.

    There is no denying that women born in rural villages of Pakistan have a cultural expectation that they are expected to live their life . The elders of the village usually decide what is best for them. Once a woman is married, they are expected to stay away from other men and take care of household chores. Religion plays a major role in family units and gender roles in all of Pakistan. According to a 2012 study of Muslim exchange marriages and family law in Pakistan, equal rights will be upheld for both males and females . It is clear the government is not withholding the right for the women of Pakistan. It has been reported numerous times that men of the police or military commit many physical, even sexual assaults. This is not the behavior of a government interested in equal rights.

    The farming lifestyle and social pressure on women plays a huge part in children and women having strict roles in the village. Girls are not expected to be educated. The lack of education for women limits their social mobility. This disadvantage, in combination with scarce opportunity for making money or moving up in economic/social class, makes women valuable to the economy and family unit. Sometimes women are educated for the purpose of being more valuable so they might move up in social class or economic status .

    Dowry is a common practice during Pakistani weddings. It is also sometimes known as bride price. A dowry is a gift, property, or money the bride brings to the husband for their marriage. In general, parents prefer a son because a dowry is received when he is married. The variable income and lack of law enforcement present an environment where not all families are prepared to supply large dowries and marry off their daughters. If this were the only way to marry a daughter off, some families would not have time to save enough money for the ceremony before their daughter was too old to marry.

    Here is where exchange marriage solves the issue at hand. By allowing the exchange of daughters, bride price can be reduced immensely. The limited resources create a high value placed on women because they create children and perform unique responsibilities. This value is associated with wealth and women become a sign of honor .

    An arranged marriage is a broad category. Exchange marriage, often referred to as wata sata, where two families exchange daughters in marriage. This is one type of arranged marriage system that has been around since family institutions were created. A more specific kind of exchange marriage is endogamous which is when family members marry within their caste or village. This type of marriage is usually consanguineous, usually marrying a first cousin, and therefore an exchange.

    The selection process for exchange marriage differs between urban and rural areas. In urban communities women are essentially interviewed and if the families agree then a date is chosen. Usually, if the woman does not like the family or the man in question then the marriage will not come together. In rural settings, the bride’s opinion has little impact on the final decision. Elders of the village(s) agree to marriages with little debate to be had. Usually, the bride’s father will first suggest the union.

    Pakistan is generally a dangerous place for women especially in rural areas. Even Pakistani women from the elite class are victims of physical and emotional abuse. Akhtar recounts an incident from 2000 when a girl named Fakhra Yunus had acid poured on her by her husband, causing severe burning of her face and upper body. This proves as an example that marriage within the high socioeconomic classes do not necessarily guarantee wives are any safer from abuse. With nearly 300 cases of violence against women in 2012 and over 7000 rapes between 2005 and 2007 it is understandable that a family would try to find social security another way.

    There is an ethnography that explains the autonomy for women living in different rural villages around Punjab. A semi-urban community was included in a study comparison. The semi-urban men were not better-educated and only 13% own land . The relevant differences were that the semi-urban community had better access to facilities, mass media, and girls schooling. Overall a majority of the women questioned in regards to autonomy are married to a cousin. The level of autonomy was based on six variables. The first is mobility, followed by economic autonomy, access to money or resources, decision-making influence, fear of husband, and the level of communication with their spouse.

    In most rural villages less than ten percent of men work in a business or commercial occupation and another ten percent work in the army or police force. For this reason, marriage has become a critical ritual for survival and maintaining power. It was found in many of these rural villages women had more mobility because there is more pressure for resources so the women must be able to venture for work. It was also compared that even in a semi-urban area at least a quarter of wives from each community reported being hit by their husband at some point. In semi-urban areas, women have an opportunity for economic autonomy, but the ability to make decision for the household is still similar to women in rural villages. Some data from this report supports abuse is more common in urban areas where exchange marriages are less common. I also noticed a statistic that indicated women of urban communities have less control over the number of kids they will have, which is a form of sexual oppression. This serves as an example that not only do exchange marriages ensure the safety of women but it may also prevent them from experiencing oppression that does not manifest until communities are urbanized such as increased rates of physical abuse.

    One article, that studied the reasoning for endogamy in the Middle East, argued that a group of Arabian camel nomads are responsible for the widespread practice of first cousin marriage. It stated that a specific gene allowed members of the community to survive on camel milk as opposed to water. Reilly states that the consanguineous marriage practice started to further develop that gene into their society. These tribes moved across the Middle East and influenced Islam communities as they traveled .

    Women all over Pakistan have had a husband chosen for them before they are of marriageable age even before they are born in some cases. This is considered the norm in much of rural Pakistan. Women are not supposed to fund interest in boys before they are married and if they do express their opinion against a marriage they would bring dishonor to their family, mostly their father. Exchange An article from 2010 noted one third of rural marriages were exchange marriages .

    Exchange marriages serve many purposes. It makes sense that most endogamous marriages are consanguineous as well. One main reason for this kind of marriage is to decrease abuse of the wife and this is most effective when the natal family (the family a woman was born into) lives in close proximity to the family the exchange was carried out with. This way there is mutual incentive to refrain from martial discord, as each husband knows his actions will most likely be reciprocated to his sister. This is common practice in wata sata marriages. It allows the elders of the family to apply pressure to the husbands and control their behavior.

    Marriage is more about survival than love. Some villages take part in exchange marriages to increase social security for a daughter as well as maintain power. It also acts as a good way to keep resources within a family and creates unification in times of crisis . There are several different forms of arranged marriages as well as many functions they serve.

    It is important to note that there are other factors related to consanguineous marriages such as depression and increased child mortality rates talked about in a study focused on this specific type of marriage in the Middle East. This is one way communities have developed that accomplishes a level of social security that can withstand conflict and prevent discord within the household. It is a way to solve major issues in a unique environment.

    All cultures are dynamic and constantly changing. The rural villages of Pakistan are no exception. Socioeconomic changes occur that cause changes in culture. Growing populations with inadequate resources forces the youth to move and seek alternate modes of livelihood. However, the social rituals set in place still “survive” . Increase in education, industrialization, and mass media in combination with lack of resources and increase in population, leads to different ways of living over the years. Market economy takes place and growing occurs. As rural Pakistan, specifically Punjab, becomes more industrialized there is a noticeable affect this has on historical village ideology. Although people are moving out of villages at higher rates than ever, we still find the exchange rituals being practiced.

    Education, but more importantly, a way for women to become economically independent, will increase social autonomy for women of rural Pakistan. There is evidence that education raises the average age of marriage for women, but it may seem educating men is a better option. One source noted that men who received a secondary education were less likely to arrange a marriage for their daughters. This is further supported in a study of women’s autonomy in rural Pakistan where the people from the rural villages in Central Punjab exercise a higher level of mobility than other urban areas with the same level of education. It is noteworthy that this same study that women from the semi-urban community were 20 percent more likely to have been beaten by their husband. It’s not education, but women in the workplace exhibiting economic autonomy and accumulating wealth that will enact social change.

    There are also mentions of legislation that some researchers believe is the only way to give women an opportunity to be independent. The article about Exchange Marriage and Muslim Family Law mentions legislation being in the works to give spousal freedom of selection. At the end of the day it is the large amount of social stigma that keeps girls out of school. Studies show it is not the lack of schools, but the lack of wealth that keeps girls from school . This being said, schooling would have a great effect in teaching girls to be independents and exercise their freedom of choice. Women in urban and rural Pakistan have similar expectations. Education may be a tool for urban women growing up, but it is not readily available to girls in rural areas.

    Exchange marriage has been referred to as “forced marriage” and “mutual hostage taking.” These terms fail to communicate the context that these exchanges take place in. Cultures are misunderstood greatly when people try to crowd too many different concepts into one category. Using a broad category to describe specific cultural rituals leads to misperception amongst differing communities and usually leads to violence. When a cultural perspective is taken, the consequences of an exchange marriage in a rural Pakistani clearly have some positive effects on the welfare of the wife.

    Lower, Middle, and Elite Class members all have the likelihood of being apart of an arranged marriage. Upper class citizens use exchange marriage in similar ways as rural citizens. Mostly it is used to gain power or wealth. Imagine a powerful businessman and a politician exchanging daughters. This would create a very powerful family. The same principles of gaining socioeconomic status and increasing access to resources apply from lower class to elite. Sometimes even for the survival of a village such as the Arabian camel nomads.

    It is possible that exchange marriages protect women in rural Pakistan from acid burning or being illicit for sex by their husband in return for financial gains. I found exchange marriages to work well in protecting the physical and emotional safety of the wife and consanguineous marriages might work even better. There are positive and negative effects of endogamous marriage practices for women in rural Pakistan. Most of these are between blood relatives, which has negative implications for health. Regardless, exchange marriages prove to enhance social security for women of rural Pakistan by improving their social and economic security as well as offering them a way to climb a social ladder in a time that education or other independent routes are unavailable.

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