“Consenting” The Social Change

The Nation

October 26, 1996

To marry or not to marry that is the question. More precisely the question is whether a young Muslim lady, being sui juris, can or cannot contract marriage of her own free accord and without permission of her Wali (parent/guardian). This question has assumed international significance and the full bench constituted by Honourable Chief Justice Mr. Justice Khalil-ur-Rehman Khan compromising capable and outstanding Judges like Mr. Malik Muhammand Qayyum, Mr. Jstice Khalil-ur-Rehman Ramday, and headed by another outstanding upright and independent judge Justice Ihsan-ul-haq Chaudhry has already concluded hearing. The Bench has shown remarkable patience in the wake of repetitive and even provocative arguments put forward by one side which went on to term marriage “between two men” in Pakistan as a purely personal question and, therefore, outside the purview of scrutiny by Court.

After the parties concluded their submission, the court has reserved the judgment which shall be announced in due course and shall definitely resolve this controversy, one way or the other, after addressing the issues raised by the parties over these months. The issue of legitimacy of marriage being subjudice comment on the legal aspect is being avoided, but the question can still be seen in the perspective of a collective social responsibility.

In my view, quite apart from the legality and legitimacy issue, people of Pakistan and those shouldering responsibility of the family have a right to satisfy themselves regarding welfare of a young girl who may have attain ‘Puberty’ or the age of ‘Majority’ keeping in view not just her age but also the question as to whether she has acquired a full legal right even to consent to a contract which may spell her disaster.  Such incidents despite being frequent and may be one in the thousand assume importance when our women liberation moment leaders raise such issue at home and at international for a. therefore, the issue needs an answer which must satisfy collective conscience of the society which ultimately rises or falls on account of sufferings that are perpetrated on its segments, whether such segment was itself responsible for itself or not.

Mrs. Asma Jahangir, who claims to have pioneered a movement for liberation of woman in Pakistan since the “repressive Martial Law regime” of Gen. Zia-ul-Haque is also not excused from providing explanation to those who fear that in the name of libration of the women, innocent and gullible young girls are being exploited to their own department, and after they are received by the parents/husbands, they become further exposed to untold misery, distress and disrespect.

The (clear) objective of this liberalization of women’s campaign prima facie appears to be to break or at-least to weaken the family nucleus which has survived all upheavals over the past fifty years.

The family has serve as the oldest unit almost in all societies known to have emerged on the face of this planet. Invariably all societies have endeavoured to protect and preserve their structure. Fall of the family has always been linked up with the fall of the civilization by historian and anthropologists.

It is not very long that the bonds of the family were equally strong in Europe, America and other societies. The present chaos in those parts of the world was marked with similar social changes that are being sought to be brought in Pakistan. There was a time in the western and other parts of the world when the family unit is as strong as it continues to be in some of the Muslim societies and the parents were considered as the ultimate welfare watches of their children. Their consent to the suitable matches was always considered as sine-qua-non after the explosion of the family unit particularly after the second world war, the fabric of the society suffered a serious set back which again was compensate by the welfare governments, the religious establishments and other social welfare societies who took over the role of guardianship.

The social change which is being thrusted upon Pakistani society is somewhat similar to the one which is seen to have prefaced the subsequent explosion of the family unit in other societies. Some of the facts and the statistics as to the contemporary phase of “social change” in those societies reflected from the following statistics.

Household Sizes; More than a quarter of households in Great Britain in 1994-95 consisted of one person living alone, almost double the proportion in 1961. This is due to increasing elderly population who lives alone and the increasing number of men living alone.

The average household size in U.K. fell to 2,4 persons in 1994-95 as compare to 2.9 in 1971.this is due to the increase in the divorce rate and the fall in family size. As the proportion of one-person households has been growing, the proportion of traditional one family households of a couple with children has been declining. In 1961 38% of households in Great Britain comprised of married couples with dependent children, this proportion fell by 13 percentage points to 25% in 1994-95.

Single Parent Families; The proportion of dependent children living in one-parent families in GB has tripled since 1972; 19% of children living with just their mother and 1% with their father in 1994-95. This reflects the increase in the number of live births outside marriage and the increase in the divorce rate.

The proportion of lone mother families increased gradually until the late 1980s, but has since increased more rapidly, so thatin1993 one in the five mothers with dependent children was a lone mother. Nearly two-fifths of lone mothers were single in Great Britain in 1994-95 while almost the same proportions were divorced. The gradual increase in the proportion of lone mothers until the mid 1980s was caused mainly by the increasing numbers of divorced mothers. Since then the proportion of divorced lone mothers has stabilized, but the proportion of single, never married, mothers has more than doubled.

Cohabitation; The proportion of unmarried women aged between 18 and 49 who were cohabiting in Great Britain almost doubled between1981 to 23%. Among single women, 33% of those aged between 25-34 were cohabiting in 1993-94.

Between in 1993, the UK had the proportion of non-married men cohabiting increased by 10 percentage points, so that 21% of men aged between16 to 59 were cohabiting in 1994-95.

Divorce. In 1993, the UK had the highest divorce rate in the European Union, at almost twice the average, differences in the European Union rates may be attributed to the affects of religion, culture, and social differences and legal requirements.

Marriage and Divorce Rates. E. C. Comparison 1981 and 1993

Rate per 1,000 of the population.

Marriage rate       Divorce rate

  1981 1993 1981 1993
United Kingdom 7.1 5.9 2.8 3.1
Denmark 5.0 6.1 2.8 2.5
Finland 6.3 4.9 2.0 2.5
Sweden 4.5 3.9 2.4 2.5
Belgium 6.5 5.4 1.6 2.1
Austria 6.3 5.6 1.8 2.0
Netherland 6.0 5.8 2.0 2.0
France 5.8 4.4 1.6 1.9
Germany 6.2 5.5 2.0 1.9
Luxembourg 5.5 6.0 1.4 1.9
Portugal 7.8 6.9 0.7 1.9
Greece 6.9 6.0 0.7 0.7
Spain 5.4 5.0 0.3 0.7
Italy 5.6 5.1 0.2 0.4
Irish republic 6.0 4.4    
EX AVERAGE 6.1 5.3 1.5 1.7

The number of first marriages in the UK fell be two fifths between 1961 and 1993, in contrast there were nearly 7 times the number of divorces in 1993 compared with 1961.

More than one third of all marriages in 1993 were remarriages. Divorce and remarriage rate increased rapidly in early 1970s due to the Divorce Reform Act, 1969, that became in force in 1971.

More than two and half times as many divorces were granted to woman as men in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland in 1993 (120,000 compared to 47,000).

Families. The proportion of live births outside marriage is 32% in 1993-94 (in the 1960s the figure was 5%). Over the last decade the proportion of live births outside marriage has almost doubled.

A third conception outside marriage resulted in abortion in England and Wales in 1993. The number of abortions has increased by 43% between 1971 and 1991 in GB, but has since fallen by 6%. In 1990 there were 69 conceptions per thousand women aged under 20 in England and Wales.

(Source.“Social Trends”, 1996 Edition published by the British Central Statistical Office (e.g. government agency).

  1. ONE PARENT FAMILIES. There is no internationally recognized definition of a one-parent family; each country has its own definition. The standard definition used by most Member States is the following: “Parent living without a partner, with unmarried children, and living either alone or with other people”.

The rules on dependent children vary from one country to another, particularly with regard to age limits. Some countries such as the Netherland set no age limits for dependent children   . In France, a dependent child is one aged under 25. Most member states i.e. Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal and Sweden set an age limit of 18 for entitlement to allowances and specific assistance for single parents. In Austria the age limit is 19. In Spain and UK the age limit is 16 (19 in UK if child is in education). Other countries set an age limit below 16. The age limit for a dependent child in Iceland is 15.

Percentage of one-percent families in Member States of EU based on years 1989-1993.

Norway                 21%

United Kingdom   19%

Sweden                18%

Ireland                  18%

Denmark              18%

Luxembourg        17%

Germany              16%

Austria                  15%

Finland                 14%

France                  13%

Switzerland            12%

Netherland           12%

Belgium                11%

Portugal                10%

Spain                                9.5%

Italy                         6%

Greece                   5%

Details on UK. In 1971 the UK one-parent family figure was 8%, in 1985 it was 14%, in 1989 . it was 17%,  in 1991 it was 19%.

UK one-parent families can be broken down into:

35% unmarried parents, 7% widowed parents, 58% divorced or widowed parents.

In the EU, the UK holds the record for the number of young unmarried mothers, 80% of them are under 30 years of age and the majority of these lone parents are unemployed. 66% of applicants for income support are one-parent families (1992). 60% of these families live below the poverty line (1990-1992).

(Source. “One-parent families in the Member states of the EU”, 1996 Working Paper for the European Parliament).

3.Statistics on U.S.A.

Marriage rate in 1993                                 9.0               per 1,000 population

Divorce rate in 1993                                   4.6               per 1,000 population

(Source: 45 issue Demographic Yearbook, United Nations 1993).

In Pakistan the family as a unit takes responsibility for welfare of its members. A girl married and later detached by her husband, even with many children, it taken back in its folds by parents or responsible brothers/others who may be incharge of the family, as they do not blame her for this misfortune. They had themselves married their girl therefore they must assume responsibility. Even otherwise there is no alternative to the family patronage.

A nation which spends just one percent of its GDP on the educational needs of 130 million people and a little more on health care cannot afford social security covers for those deserted by their husbands. Nor are there any other such institutions which may have been raised for looking after the needy and destitute. Luckily there are some places which provide shelter to the run away teenagers ladies who escape their families and its pressures for marriages, but despite efforts no statistics are available to quote regarding existence or service of institutions which may look after the thrown away ladies, sometimes with pregnancies and children.

A survey has revealed that majority of these women had contracted marriage without consent of their parents or guardians and when they got thrown out by their paramours, admittance back in family was refused. The families generally score off such members who had brought public shame and humility and do not take them back in their folds.

Such reaction of an aggrieved family cannot be dismissed as senseless or unreasonable, but the result is that the family gets bruised and suffers cracks. On the other hand the poor wretched soul which had left house with sweet dreams of marry making till ends of the times, discovers shortly after the honey moon period, that the passions have cooled off and pretexts are found to get rid of the run away beloved. This time there are no Dastak’s available to shelter and feed them. If children happen to appear, the suffering multiplies. Invariably and in the absence of a social security set up, many of these innocent dupes find their way to brothels, thanks to the liberalized and congenial run away environment and absence of requisite and proper timely guidance.

I would readily agree with the chairperson of Human Rights Commission that we are at the verge of a social change. I would not hesitate to say and term this social change as a social disaster.

The question one may like to ask the leader of women liberation movement is as to what is the social change that we are seeking to introduce in our beloved society. Is it necessary to break or at least weaken the family nucleus in order to achieve the liberation objective?

A country which has been eaten up to its bone marrows by everyone  having access to its resources, wealth, and assets, divided by sharp political polarization standing at the runner-up position of the most corrupt nations, and failed by its bureaucrats, bankers, engineers, teachers, other professional groups and above all the politicians, will it be in a position to withstand the breakdown of its nucleus? Why the family is being targeted by champions of the liberalization movement? What wrong has this poor family done to any one?

In the last week of August I was very close to Chicago where Democrats [Bill Clinton’s Party] held their election congress. I heard every word of the speech made by two American Ladies, the 2nd Lady Mrs. Al Gore and first Lady Mrs. Hillary Clinton. Both speeches were very moving and the theme of both speeches was the “Family”. Hillary Clinton did not speak of politics, she did not say a word about any of the policies that were pursued by her husband’s Govt. she only said “Clinton was with me when I was in my family way, he was holding my hand when I was in labour pains. He was with me always in looking after Chelsea. In order to raise a family, a happy family, a confident family, it needs a family, it needs a village, it needs a society, it needs a president and, it needs Bill Clinton”.

The response to this touching speech was also very moving. For one moment it appeared that the “evil empire” of United States of America is within reach of its lost paradise. It has achieved the position of being  the sole power but is feeling hollow and deficient because of collapse of the family nucleus. A nation with a very high parentage of one parent family has launched a movement for re-affirming family life, which has become a major election slogan. How strong is the quest for family in societies which provide on social covers to its citizen!  Then why are we out to destroy this nucleus? Is it directed to achieving some objectives? What are those objectives?

To me it appears to be the scheme of some sinister intelligence bent upon punishing people of Pakistan, who have during the past five decades refused to throw away the “religious yoke”. Religion is a soft belly, therefore, direct assaults thereon are imprudent. Yes this objective  can also be achieved through breaking the family units by increasing the number of run away girls, by encouraging marriages which are fragile and are not considered binding and by promoting secular value system which guarantees ultimate break down of this otherwise stubborn phenomenon i.e., the family.

All religions of the world have exhorted people to be indulgent to orphans, widows and destitute and Islam has taken this social care aspects to extreme perfection. It mandates the whole society and its foremost units, particularly the family, to take charge of the situation. Treat less privileged and unequal segments of society with such kind care that deficiencies are made up and inequalities are reduced.

More than 2.3rd of the world, after break down of the family life, has not been able to dress the wounds and scars of such breakdown. There is a world wide desire of regaining this “Lost paradise”. Why are we struggling to loose it???