Daily Times (Lahor), March 13, 2007
Seven years ago, Zubaida Ali witnessed a bizarre ceremony in her ancestral village in Sindh where her cousin Fareeba was married to the Holy Quran.
“It was extremely odd and, of course, very tragic. Fareeba, who is a very pretty girl and was then around 25 years old, was dressed as a typical bride, with red, sequined clothes, jewellery and mehndi patterns on her hands and feet but over all this she was draped in an enveloping dark chaddor. There was music and lots of guests but no groom,” Zubaida, 33, was quoted as saying by IRIN, the UN information unit in a report.
The tradition under which Fareeba was ‘wed’ is known as ‘Haq Bakshish’, which literally translates into giving up the right to marry. Families use Haq Bakshish to prevent property leaving the family when a girl weds someone who is not a relative.
Fareeba, who can now never wed a man, spends most of her time studying the Holy Quran or stitching. She is a ‘Hafiza’, or one who knows the Holy Quran by heart.
The Haq Bakshish tradition, most common in Sindh, but also followed in parts of the Punjab, is most often practiced by feudal families, often ‘Syeds’. Syed families are often reluctant to allow women to marry into non-Syed families, in a kind of a caste system that sees such families as being lower in status.
Moreover, in cases when no match deemed suitable exists within the family for a young woman of marriageable age, rather than have property leave the family when a woman weds outside it and takes her share of the property with her, it may be decided to preserve it by marrying her to the Holy Quran.
But the practice, frowned upon by almost all religious scholars and much of mainstream Islam, is generally practiced in secret. It has been reported that even the families of prominent political leaders from Sindh have engaged in the custom, but this is usually denied by the persons concerned.
“It is not at all Islamic and in fact violates religion. We are moving to ban this cruel practice,” Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, the president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, said. Hussain has recently introduced a bill in the 342-member National Assembly under which such marriages, as well as other forms of enforced marriage, would be banned. The bill is currently being studied by a parliamentary committee and is likely to be debated in the National Assembly over the coming few weeks.
For similar reasons, the marriage of women to trees, or sometimes to small boys or old men, has also been reported as a means to protect property. Many of these practices, however, remain shrouded in secrecy within families and it is difficult to determine precise details or the exact numbers.
But writers and researchers on cultural practices in Sindh believe that such marriages are not uncommon. The tradition, which is thought to have existed for centuries, gained greater prominence after a novel, ‘The Holy Woman’, based on the practice was published nearly six years ago. Written by Pakistan-based British writer Qasira Shahraz, the novel narrates the story of a young woman married in this fashion.
Despite this and other campaigns, many of Pakistan’s 160 million inhabitants remain unaware that such traditions even exist at all. “I did not believe this happened here. I had heard in my village that some women devoted their lives to religion, but I did not know it was forced upon them in this manner,” said Zubaida Ali, who like most other women and many men, fiercely opposes the practice.
Many provisions of the repressive Hudood ordinances, a set of Islamic laws brought in under former President General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 under which many women were jailed as punishment for alleged adultery or other ‘moral’ crimes, were finally changed late last year. But even in Pakistan’s current climate of change, it remains to be seen how successful the struggle to end traditions such as Haq Bakshish will prove.