Bistar khud garam karlo; Appraising Marital Rape in Pakistan

No slogan at the Aurat March bore the brunt of Pakistani male rebuke more than the one on a placard declaring “khana garam kardoongi, bistar khud garam karlo” (I will warm your food, but warm the bed yourself).

Whilst last year’s “apna khana khud garam karlo” received similar backlash and outrage for challenging rigid and fixed gender roles, this year’s spinoff arguably hits a deeper societal nerve: Women aren’t the sexual property of men.

Unsurprisingly, the picture of the slogan made rounds on social media, eliciting angry, often abusive, responses from ordinary Pakistanis. The purported vulgar and indecent language was condemned for being “against Pakistani culture and ethics”.

Notwithstanding that “culture” and “ethics” usually only apply against women, the reality is that the placard provocatively sheds light on a central feature of Pakistani women’s experience of oppression; sexual submission. The slogan bluntly exposes and challenges a social structure wherein men control women’s sexual urgency and autonomy. Hidden in the depths of a woman’s gendered domestic duties of cooking, cleaning and mothering is perhaps the most important duty of all; sexual obedience towards the husband. Contextualised this way, the placard cuts deep.

Sexual submission is affirmed and reaffirmed throughout a Pakistani woman’s life; she carries the burden of her family’s honor between her legs till her marriage — after which she becomes the husband’s izzat (respect).

Izzat here is nothing more than a synonym for a sexual property. This is why marital rape has remained completely unrecognized as an offense in Pakistan; social and religious norms dictate that through a valid nikah, the husband holds complete ownership over his wife’s sexuality.

The slogan bluntly exposes and challenges a social structure wherein men control women’s sexual urgency and autonomy. Hidden in the depths of a woman’s gendered domestic duties of cooking, cleaning and mothering is perhaps the most important duty of all; sexual obedience towards the husband. Contextualised this way, the placard cuts deep

The scant stats on marital rape in Pakistan are revealing. In a 2003 domestic violence survey published in Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences (PJMS), nearly 46.9 percent of married women living in Islamabad and Rawalpindi reported to having non-consensual sex. Another 2000 study published in PJMS reported that 77.1 percent of the 70 men interviewed admitted to having nonconsensual intercourse with their wives. Only 35.4 percent of married women ever told anyone about their situation.

Before 2006, the Hudood Ordinance, 1979 defined rape as non-consensual sexual intercourse without a valid marriage, thereby explicitly excluding marital rape from the legal definition of rape. For 27 years, the law in Pakistan legitimized and protected marital rape, formalising a wife’s status as sexual property of the husband.

The enactment of Protection of Women Act, 2006 allowed a possibility for the criminalisation of marital rape by removing ‘without a valid marriage’ from the definition of the offense. Nevertheless, to date, there have not been any prosecutions or reported cases involving marital rape. This is a natural consequence of a social structure based on women’s sexual submission—reinforced through cherry-picked religious injunctions that warn the “disobedient” wife of the curse of angels upon her.

Why did she marry him in the first place? Leave him if you don’t want to fulfill his sexual needs. Questions like these are often asked by Pakistani men in conversations regarding marital rape, as they struggle to grapple with the radical and bizarre idea that, sometimes, a wife may not want it. What is even harder for them to comprehend is that sometimes, a wife can’t ‘just leave’.

It is in those situations that coercing her to fulfill your desires is wrong. It is a violation of her personal space, her dignity, her sovereignty and in essence, is no different from any other kind of rape. Yet, both legal and social structures in Pakistan protect and reinforce the husband’s coercive powers over the wife. Be it economically, socially or physically. The wife then has no choice but to submit. Is that really ‘consent’?

Gendered norms that demand women stay within the chaar dewari (home) translate into women being less than 25 percent of the labour force and owners of only 3.6 percent of the total landholdings. Women are kept in a vicious cycle of economic and social dependence in a marriage. For a wife stuck in such a marriage, the situation is eerily akin to sexual slavery.

Consequently, it is truly absurd to assert that in a society where many women don’t even have the right to decide basic and mundane things such as whether to go out or what to wear, somehow the same women have the freedom and ability to ‘just say no’ or marry and divorce at will. Whilst no statistical data exists in Pakistan, in the United Kingdom, Pakistani communities rank first in instances of forced marriages. According to World Health Organisation, 21 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18.

Marriage, therefore, is not a choice for many women in Pakistan and having been indoctrinated since birth to submit to their husband, neither is sex. Put simply, the slogan bistar khud garam karlo— far from being provocative or vulgar—represents the lived experience of a very large number of Pakistani women.

It is a reality that may make many of us uncomfortable, but it is a reality that can no longer be ignored.

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