Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat- In Pakistan, an act is taking place in certain provinces that deprives a Muslim woman of her social rights. This act is the so-called marriage to the Quran [known as Haq Bakshish], a practice that is widespread in the Sindh province in the south of the country.
In this type of marriage, young girls are asked to dedicate themselves to memorizing the Holy Quran. Their families then hold a ceremony to marry the girl to the holy book. A girl places her hand on the Quran and takes an oath that she is married to it until death.
The phenomenon has caused much controversy throughout Pakistan as the government is seeking to ban such practice. However, some families encourage “marriage to Quran” to prevent a woman from marrying any person.
Women who are married to the Holy Quran are not allowed to have a relationship with a man or to marry anybody. Moreover, men fear being cursed if they have a relationship with a woman who is married to the Quran.
The trend is more notable amongst the rich and feudal families in Sindh. It was first devised to deny women their rights of inheritance and out of fear of property being passed on to outsiders through the daughters or sisters [i.e. their spouses or children]. According to independent sources in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, approximately 10,000 girls are married to the Quran in the Sindh province.
Pakistani scholars and intellects have stated that in cooperation with the government, sociologists and political activists in the Sindh province, they have exerted much effort towards eliminating this kind of marriage. They point out that such practice aims to exploit religion to hinder women from their natural rights to marriage, children, inheritance and even life.
Pakistan separated from India in 1947 that was colonized by Britain for almost two centuries. The partition took place on religious bases. India was home to a number of religions, denominations and races; however, Muslims and Hindus were the main points of conflict in old India because these were the largest religions in terms of numbers. Due to the mix of religious societies, a number of Hindu traditions have remained amongst other communities even after the sovereign Islamic state of Pakistan gained independence and some argue that the practice of marriage to an inanimate holy object, in this case the Quran, emerged from Hindu practices. However, this is a point of contention as the opinions of historians differ over the roots of this phenomenon. It is likely that this practice is part of the traditions of Sindh rather than Hinduism. In Sindh, which is so far dominated by the system of tribal chiefs or a sophisticated tribal system, a tribal chief owns a large piece of land and has the right to determine the destiny and future of farmers considering that he owns both the land and its people.
Since control and dominance are measured in terms of ownership of the land, the issue of inheritance is very difficult for these leaders, which has brought about odd customs in the province.
Experts have reported that men fear marrying women who have been married to the Quran lest they should be cursed. Accordingly, a girl married to the Quran is destined to remain single until death.
The Pakistani government, particularly President Pervez Musharraf, has spoken strongly against this phenomenon within Pakistani society. Following the government’s amendment of the prescribed penalties as part of the Women’s Protection Bill, General Musharraf promised that a new law would be passed to ban and incriminate all those involved in such marriages.
Observers see that the absence of active state influence by the judiciary and executive authorities has allowed individuals to exploit women’s rights. In Karachi, the capital of the Sindh province, it was reported that a girl was married to the Quran; however, she later fell pregnant and gave birth to a child. Asked by relatives to account for the incident, she had to hide the fact that she had had [sexual] relations. She claimed that she did not know what had happened. In the eyes of the locals, she was similar to the Virgin Mary and people would visit the newborn for blessings, treatment and to be closer to God.
Other kinds of unlawful marriages take place where women have fallen prey to solving tribal disputes and conflicts in all provinces and in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan in particular. It is often the case that a woman is married off to a man who she has never met and is not given any dowry payment or legal rights. This can take place during reconciliation between two disputing tribes, where girls are chosen from a tribe and married to men from an opposing tribe without any consideration to age differences and the concept of the dowry is not applied appropriately. Provinces differ from one to the other in this regard. In the Punjab, neither party to the marriage is subjected to paying a dowry. This region is dominated by other traditions that maintain the rights of women. For example, a man can only marry more than one wife to have children or in cases of illness or death. In fact, families that demand over-the-top dowries are not considered noble. In the NWFP, which is home to the Pashto minority, the culture here is closest to the Islamic Shariah; however, the dowry is not paid to the wife but to her father. In Baluchistan, a dowry is paid to the bride herself and is seldom paid to her father or guardian. Nevertheless, only symbolic amounts are applicable. The Sindh province is similar to the Punjab province [in terms of dowry] however the dowry is paid in the form of land and property as a guarantee.
In Pakistan, there are local traditions that prevent a man from divorcing his wife or practicing polygamy. A polygamist is criticized harshly by society and can be subjected to tribal conflict [because of polygamy]. Pakistani courts apply the prescribed penalties against those who violate Shariah but when such punishments are not applied appropriately, locals choose to take the law into their own hands and solve the issues themselves. In what is known as ‘Karo-Kari’, men and women who have committed adultery are killed by tribal chiefs often in the meeting place [of the adulterers] to warn others from taking part in such illicit acts.
There are no such penalties in the Punjab; however, if a man and woman are discovered to be having an affair, they are made to marry. However, there are some rare cases of killings or family disputes. In NWFP, particularly in the tribal regions, those involved in affairs are separated and are never allowed to marry each other. When such an illicit relationship is established, those involved are killed immediately in all cases. The same applies to Baluchistan.