Rasm over rights: Why is the nikkahnama woven with inequality towards women?

Published: August 4, 2017
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Bride signing nikkah papers. PHOTO: PINTEREST

Shaadi (marriage) is perhaps the most cherished tradition in Pakistani culture, a gathering of levity and simultaneous importance and an event which many deem to be the most significant in their lives.

For women in Pakistan, the latter is often the case since marriage bounds them to a contract that is deliberately created to disadvantage them.

The institution of marriage has been weaponised by the male-dominated religious lobby in Pakistan to systematically disenfranchise women into a life that is decided by their significant other. The most integral part of this system is the nikkahnama (marriage certificate). For many married couples, the nikkahnama is at best an afterthought in the marriage festivities, a document that must be hastily signed before dinner is served. According to an article from 2014,

“In Peshawar, more than 50% of women can’t read their nikkahnama; 74% women aren’t consulted before the filling of marriage registration forms and 40% married women don’t even know who had filled them, says a recent study done by the Provincial Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW). According to Suhail Farooq, survey conductor for the PCSW sponsored by the Aurat Foundation and USAID said, usually family elders filled marriage forms. We didn’t come across a single woman during the survey who filled her marriage certificate form for herself.”

This complete ignorance of the nikkahnama, wilful or coerced, harms women the most. The writer of this article was able to obtain a certified English translation of the nikkahnama from the website of the Pakistan Embassy in the United States. The contract reveals the intricacy with which discrimination has been woven into marriage.

The second question about the bride, the first being her name, reads as following:

“Whether the bride is virgin, married or divorced.”

It is interesting that no such question is asked of the groom. Do the groom’s past fidelities hold less relevance in a marriage of equals?

It is equally interesting to note that an unmarried woman is automatically assumed to be a virgin. Even if adultery is a crime in Pakistan (as morally problematic as that is) where is the due process for those women who have been tried, convicted, served their punishments and now want to marry? Even if some obscure legislation for this exists, it should be specified in the contract. Nothing in Islam bars adulterers from marriage.

These queries are followed by questions on haq mehr, an obligatory payment to be made by the groom or his family to the bride on the occasion of marriage. A Sustainable Development Policy Institute study from 2016, titled ‘Socio-economic and Cultural Factors of Violence against Women in Pakistan’ states,

“At the time of nikkah (signing of marriage contract), the sections where a woman can demand haq mehr (legitimate amount of money to be gifted to the bride at the time of her wedding) are crossed out beforehand and it is considered socially unacceptable to criticise it.”

This is even more problematic considering the intricacies of the haq mehr rule. Haq mehr is divided into mawajjal (deferred/promised) and mo’ajjal (at the time of the nikkah ceremony). Not specifying these amounts can lead to serious issues in legally pursuing the right of haq mehr later on in the marriage if the amount is not received at the time of the nikkah. Even if elders in the family have privately discussed amongst themselves a suitable sum for haq mehr, this must be decided by the person who is most likely to be affected by it – the bride herself.

Of course, many argue that there is at least one fail-safe if the marriage goes south – divorce. Unsurprisingly, the nikkahnama is at its most discriminatory when it comes to the sections on divorce. Here is how the question is presented to women and men respectively:

“Has the groom given the right of divorce to the bride. If given, then on what conditions?”

“Is there any restriction on the right of divorce on the groom?”

The different ways the questions have been presented are clearly indicative of inequality. The groom seems to be afforded the right to divorce by virtue of being a man, while the bride must gain her right of divorce from someone else, a blatant violation of Article 8 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which guarantees the protection of life, liberty, body, reputation and property of an individual.

Of course, this is if the bride even finds the aforementioned question on the document.

In a 2016 article from the Express Tribune, according to Mariam Riaz, who is part of a group of lawyers and students decoding the nikkahnama), various sections of the nikkahnama are removed before the couple gets to see the document. As per Riaz,

“These sections include a woman’s right to divorce her husband. This is separate from khula and could help women in vulnerable positions. Other privileges include restricting a man’s right to divorce his wife and the opportunity for spouses to impose conditions on the marriage.”

Women who have not been afforded the right to divorce must pursue khula, which prevents them from receiving a fair share of the family’s wealth, virtually making it impossible to escape an unhealthy marriage.

These are just a few issues associated with the marriage contract. There are far more issues expounding upon the problems related to fees, witnesses and most importantly, child marriage. However, steps can still be taken to counter the problems identified.

The writer of the aforementioned article suggests simple recommendations for these problems. First, to make it legally obligatory for both the bride and groom to give express consent to each term and condition of the contract – this can be done before the nikkah event itself, to allow for proper time to be given to the nikkahnama. Although elders and other individuals may be present, they must at best operate in an advisory capacity. If any duress on part of the family is noticed by the marriage registrar responsible for the arbitration of the contract, they must be reported to the local union council immediately as forced marriages (swara) are void under Islamic law.

In addition, questions of divorce must be removed altogether and amendments should be made to Articles 7 and 8 of the Family Law Ordinance in such a way that it is assumed that women have an inalienable right to pursue divorce in all circumstances. The marriage registrar must also stress on particularly significant clauses such as those involving haq mehr and divorce, and must be adequately qualified to explain the legal intricacies of such questions.

The Punjab government’s internationally acclaimed Strategic Reforms Unit has been applauded on the passage of the first Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act and the establishment of the Violence Against Women Centre. This shows that the government possesses both the infrastructure and will to create more space for women in society. Many more reforms may be undertaken, but that can only happen once society recognises that the nikkahnama is the single most important element in marriage.

Festivities can only last for so long, but a mutually agreed upon contract with equal rights is most likely to serve as a solid foundation for marriage.

Hamza Tariq

Hamza Tariq

The author is set to start a BSc in International Relations degree at the London School of Economics. He worked as an intern under Ambassador Haqqani at Hudson Institute and under Dr Ishrat Hussain at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He tweets as @hamzataq (twitter.com/hamzataq)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Parvez

    You have asked a good question …… In Islam marriage is a contract, so the nikkahnama is like any other contract subject to negotiation. If the girl or girls side refuses to a acknowledge this ….who’s fault is it ? What seriously needs to be done and done in a big way is to spread awareness on this subject……possibly even lobby to modify the nikkahnama format…..but I doubt much will happen because one of the biggest obstacles is the apathy that exists on the ‘ girls side ‘ for various reasons.Recommend

  • Mustafa Mirza

    In Islam husband and wife and partners in the service of Allah and in their love for each other and their families. Marriage is not a battleground which modern society has made it out to be where each side takes positions like armies on a battlefield. RasoolAllah(saw) said that the man who does not provide the mahr before having relations with his wife will be raised as an adulterer if he dies in this state. Mahr is a gift joyfully given by the husband to his wife rather than being negotiated down by the husbands family and negotiated up by the wifes family. Marriage is contract which is initiated by the men and hence divorce right is with the man too. Men have extreme physical and physiological desires for women and hence they would go towards divorce only in extreme cases naturally. However, we have a culture of demeaning women in rural areas and so on which comes from contact with hinduism. We need to be working against THAT, reminding men of the Prophet(saw) love and compassion towards all the women in his life. THAT is what the focus should be on instead of working to give women divorce rights which islam has not given them and limiting the rights of men which islam has given them. Instead of modifying the islamic system to suited our screwed up society we need to go back to the pure version of Islam which will create heaven on earth inshallah. We need to work to educate people to move closer to the injunctions of islam rather than further and further away,Recommend

  • Reader

    “Nothing in Islam bars adulterers from marriage.” Please look into things further before writing, its very easy to type words. See what is the punishment in Islam is for individuals found guilty of adultery. I think re marrying is the least of their issues.

    Making a big deal of that first question is not necessary, it makes some sense, if the bride circles “married” then the whole contract is void as she can’t be married to 2 husbands. and other two don’t down grade her in anyway. Maybe I missed something

    Regarding the nikkahama you found in English that is interesting as I go married 2 years ago with a Certified English nikkahnama and there are no restrictions regarding divorce for either party. If the copy you have is real then it should definitely be removed

    Also going back to the PCSW survey –
    “We didn’t come across a single woman during the survey who filled her marriage certificate form for herself.”

    It would be interesting to do a survey on how many men actually fill their own nikkahnama or are able to read etc… Maybe its not as heavily one sided. Survey creators always have their own agenda and sometimes push for the result they want to show…

    Overall yes if there are inequalities present that do not have any substance then they should be removed. The nikkahnama is a contract more specifically created to protect the bride more than the groom. Its makes him obligated to take her responsibility and provide for her. Thus the Mehr is also present. I agree that we don’t as a society show much importance towards it, when in reality it is something the groom owes the bride (a heavy due on him) and a must to be give per her demands. If not completed can actually make the marriage void and religiously he would also bare the burden of the sin.Recommend

  • vinsin

    That would be good for women rights.Recommend

  • Wajeeha J. Zaidi

    Such an informative article.. Keep it upRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    First understand what thesewords mean. Shadi is Persian word, which literally means pleasure. Nikkah is Bedouini word which literally means contract. Native words such as Vivah and Lagn needs to be understood. Lagn means Ascendance, especially spiritual one of two beings. ViVah means Vishesh Vah, carrying forward responsibility imposed by universe. Sapt Padi or Sapt Phera is for integrating Seven Chakras of two beings. Recommend

  • vinsin

    There are hardly any Hindus in Pakistan. Hindus women also dont migrate to Pakistan compared to Pakistani Muslim celebrities. Recommend

  • Ahmar

    Here is a copy of the Nikah Nama in Urdu

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/dd7f4a19194aee82a4df761f23e69e49cbc615931dc70e3d8b023e2b46c1d5ad.jpg

    As anyone can read, the wording in point 5 is “Kanwari” which should translate to “single”. The nikahnama is questioning the woman’s marital status not her past sexual conduct.

    But I agree. There is a need to change the Nikah Nama.

    For a start, the concept of Haq Mahar is outdated. It reeks of a patriarchal culture.

    As we all know, a modern day woman is independent. Empowered. Self-sufficient. Haq e Mahar should be completely removed. A woman marries a man for the relationship. For a bond of love and friendship, I will have you know. Not for his money, good Sir. This idea of money for “Haq e Zojyat” is misogynistic and should be abolished right away.

    I also agree that women should be given a complete right to divorce men just as men have the right to divorce women. But then again, women do have the complete freedom to get Khula in Pakistan. So they have the complete freedom to escape an unhealthy marriage. I think?

    What was that? “Taking Khula prevents women from receiving a fair share of the family’s wealth”

    Why Sir. I am shocked. Are you implying that our modern, empowered, independent women care more about “family’s wealth” than escaping an unhappy marriage? Are you saying that women stay married because they are in it for the money?
    I will have you know that our strong, independent woman can earn their own, rather than rely on some man, for his wealth. The Nikah Nama should be changed on divorce laws that either party can file for separation at any time without taking into consideration the “wealth” of either the bride or the groom. The separation should take place immediately without money transferring from the man to the woman or the other way around as that will just complicate and delay things.

    We need to get women free from the shackles of this..”patriarchal bond” known as the NikahNama, right away. Freedom for our independent woman. Now!Recommend

  • http://vidpk.com/ Masood Malik

    AA, Mr. Hamza you discussed a very sensitive issue very intelligently. Recommend

  • Hassan Mirza

    There is Pakistani mind set which is towards them there is some body else Responsibility but them self or they are in this world to correct others but them self. If Pakistan is Islamic state which Pakistani then tell me what is the meaning of Friendship between man and women?Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Marriage = Arrangement for Merriment. Word came from the Romans who made the enslaved natives to call their fairer sex, a woman ie Man with Womb. Yes, womb which will give new freshly minted slave.

    Shadi=Pleasure. A Persian word more popularized by Bedouins who enslaved the Persians. For traders and desert highway bandits it was Nikah ie a contract. If there is no binding of contract then indeed it was Shadi for invading and enslaving Bedouins.

    Native Indian words, Lagn and Vivah are much more divine words.Recommend

  • Mustafa Mirza

    Are you a hindu?Recommend

  • Mustafa Mirza

    There were a lot more hindus in pakistan before partition, and muslims migrating from india were also heavily influenced by hindus which again influenced the culture.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    All of us in the subcontinent are Hindu by culture, by DNA, by ancestry. My ancestor converted under duress to save his familyRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    M A Jinah’s marriage also failed with Ruttie who was 24 years younger than him and was born Zoroastrian. People need to be educated to be a good husband and father … a good family man. Sending kids to farms to work with their own hands will help. It will teach them real love, compromise and patience.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Instead of alien Rasm, for successful marriage and well being of off springs, genetic testing & DNA compatibility for well being of off-springs. Hindu Gotra system (lineage to 20 or so sages/Gurus) naturally filters out incompatibility by not allowing same Gotra marriages. This wisdom was lost in copying alien culture and Rasm. https://tribune.com.pk/story/1477295/pakistani-infant-underwent-successful-heart-surgery-india-dies-back-home/ Gotra system does not allow cousin marriages. https://www.google.com/amp/mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idUSBRE9621FL20130703Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Kumari literally means virgin in Sanskrit and was the name of the goddess Durga as a child. Shakti is worshiped as a virgin.
    Kanwari is Punjabi corruption of original Sanskrit/Hindi. Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    No native needs alien book to tell how to behave definitely not natives who gave so much to humanity. Coming back to the subject at hand, the native converted crooks can easily misinterprete the book for their interests because of the language & cultural barriers.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=F0diSwvtqjs&t=12m38sRecommend

  • Salim Alvi

    The culture, the spirituality needs to be appreciated. Listen to Khurshid. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=I9aR_xfm-gE&t=3mRecommend

  • Ahmar

    Well I don’t know about Sanskrit but the word is used for “single” in Urdu.

    Kanwari = Single woman
    Kanwara = Single male

    Unless there was a virgin god named Kumara in Vedic literature as well? I can assure you the word Kanwari is used for single women in Pakistan not virgin. I am not sure if there even is a word in Urdu for virginity.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Urdu literally means Turki army tent. So let us not call Hindi with lot of Persian and Arabi words, Urdu. Sex without marriage did not happen in native populace. Kumar etymologically means one with unending or long life, Cheeranjiv. So by addressing one as kumar & kumari the boy & girl are being given blessings.Recommend

  • Mustafa Mirza

    I hope you didn’t just call the Holy Quran an alien book. Because if so….I might have to call you an idiot.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Alien to most natives. Recommend