BY: HAROON KHALID
This is the story of two of my friends. Let us call them Salman and Ayesha. When the story starts, it finally seems as though Salman’s and Ayesha’s relationship is heading somewhere. They had been together for two years, but their future was uncertain. At 23, Ayesha’s family was eager to get her married, having completed her graduation, whereas Salman, also 23, was planning to leave for his Masters degree soon, with marriage not fitting into his plan. However now that it had dawned upon Salman that he would be moving away for two years, he realised how much he would miss Ayesha. He was finally getting serious about her, and was thinking about talking to her mother about their relationship.
Both the families knew each other well. They were neighbours in the highly secluded army housing in Islamabad. Salman’s father was a general when he was murdered by the Taliban. Ayesha’s father was a serving General. Ayesha’s mother was looking for suitable suitors in other army families. Ayesha had also decided that it was time that her mother was told about her relationship, so that she could help convince her father. Ayesha was making plans with Salman over the phone when her mother walked in and overheard the conversation. All hell broke loose. She told her husband. They both decided that Ayesha has to be married off as soon as possible. A son of a fellow general living in Australia and working in an accountancy firm seemed like a perfect fit. Ayesha had not even seen his picture. When she refused her mother threatened to commit suicide. Her father told her that he would kill her if she ever talked to or met Salman again. They took away her phone and barred her from leaving the house. She was ordered to quit her job in a couple of months: a job that she had recently taken up and loved. The next day Ayesha was taken to the house of the Australian boy and engaged to him in his absence. She would be marrying him in December and moving to Australia, the first time she would ever be leaving the country and living away from home. She still hasn’t seen his picture. The love story of Salman and Ayesha comes to an end.
The most amazing part of this true story is not the forced marriage. When you grow up in Pakistan such practices are somewhat of a norm. What is intriguing however is that why Ayesha couldn’t be married to Salman. He is also from an army background, lives in the same vicinity and his family enjoys the same social, economic and political status in the society that Ayesha’s does. I found the answer in a Pakistani movie called Mirza-Sahiban (1947) based on the Punjabi folk love legend of Mirza and Sahiban. The movie depicts both the lovers to be first cousins, Mirza being the nephew of Sahiban’s father. Growing up together they fall in love and want to marry. However the union is opposed by Sahiban’s brother and mother, even though the father is sympathetic. They want Sahiban to marry another cousin, who happens to be the nephew of Sahiban’s mother. The objection that they have is not with Mirza but at their audacity to fall in love with each other outside wedlock. Being from Muslim families these cousins would have been eligible to marry each other, but that could not have happened once the society found out about their love story. That of course makes the relationship illegitimate. This is where the question of honour comes in. Had Sahiban’s brother not found out about his sister’s love affair with Mirza, would he have still objected to their marriage? Love, it would seem, is forbidden when disclosed.
Applying this to the situation of my friends, Salman and Ayesha, I also wonder what the reaction of Ayesha’s parents would have been, had her mother never found out about the relationship between the two. Would the family had still reacted and refused to allow them to marry? I have my reasons to doubt. Ayesha’s mother would have reacted differently had Ayesha told her about Salman, instead of her mother finding out. She even would have agreed to marry them off and promised to help with convincing the father. It would have been an acceptable love had it remained a secret.
It is amazing how a love legend that was composed generations go still has resonance with the realities of the lovers in the Pakistan of today. The issues brought up in these stories still plague our society. Ill-defined concepts of honour and dignity are played out on the woman’s body, where a simple act of falling in love is seen as an act of trespass against the patriarch. Despite tall claims of “enlightenment” and “modernity”, we still uphold the same “traditional” “moral” standards that were used to oppress individuality centuries ago and are still used to do the same.