One thought comforted him: No one would know – it was not the sort of thing that she would speak about — The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy
This line from a Victorian era novel illustrates how the novel’s protagonist, described as an erotomaniac and a wife-beating brute, asserts his marital rights. It is a scene depicting the aftermath of marital rape. It hints at the contractual consent theory originated in works of Sir Matthew Hale, who stated, “The husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife…” thus granting legal immunity to sexual assault within the wedlock.
Much later, in the face of fierce opposition, the American feminist movement of the 1970s rallied to make societies aware of the stark reality and brutality of spousal rape. British, American and many other western democracies, have come a long way since, and gotten rid of the spousal rape exemption.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, men can legally force themselves on their wives. In fact, if the current jurisprudence is to be relied upon, the wife is bound to be submissive when “summoned to the couch”. The nikkah, then, is a sacrosanct marriage contract with the nikkahnama being a legal instrument (or rather a license), which confers, among others, the right to rape your spouse. If a raped spouse is to stand in court, they will most likely be told that the institution of marriage grants implied and irrevocable consent for sexual intercourse.
The underlying logic here may not be very different from that of California State Senator Bob Wilson’s, who once jeered at a group of women: “If you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?”
Male chauvinists and extremists in our country champion similar views, with much legal backing. Even if victims are speaking up about the issue, abusers in Pakistan comfort themselves by the fact that our country is one of 36 jurisdictions around the world where spousal rape is yet to be criminalised.
Even if victims are speaking up about the issue, abusers in Pakistan comfort themselves by the fact that our country is one of 36 jurisdictions around the world where spousal rape is yet to be criminalised.
Misinterpreted religious ideologies play a pivotal role in sustaining and defending the concept of marital rape. Muslims rely on Surah Nisa 4:34 that is construed in a way that outlines the method to punish disobedient wives. Many Islamic scholars term this as the most misused and misunderstood verse of the Holy Quran.
Fundamentalist Christians share similar views and rely on the biblical text in 1 Corinthians 7:4, which is understood in a way that the husband has authority over the wife’s body and vice versa, denouncing belief in spousal rape. Hindus consider the concept of marital rape to be alien to their religious values. Ironically, Indian Minister for Women’s Welfare and Child Development Maneka Gandhi recently argued that marital rape cannot be applied in the Indian context due to “myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs and mindset of the society which treat the marriage as a sacrament”.
Perceptions about marital rape matter. Only one case of marital rape has been reported in Pakistan so far. The Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act, 2006 redefined rape as sex without a woman’s consent. Some legal experts believe this could pave way for prosecutions but whether marital rape could fall within its ambit, is highly ambiguous.
A few years back, a victim who went through a nine-year ordeal at the hands of her husband noted that she kept quiet because the crime he committed against her is not even considered a crime. Talking about the social taboo and family pressures surrounding the concept of marital rape, she reportedly said, “They thought something was wrong with me. They said you have to fulfill his needs and that he has a right over you.” In a recent case, a marital rape survivor from Karachi got a divorce on grounds of domestic violence, because she was advised that rape cannot be considered as valid grounds for separation.
Last year, a study, titled Knowledge and Perception of Marital Rape in Pakistan, conducted by academics at the University of Karachi concluded that the concept of marital rape is rarely known among women living in the country’s largest metropolis. Women had little or no knowledge about their sexual or reproductive rights.
Intimate partner violence is rampant in our society, which includes marital rape, but activists do not speak out as assertively on this as other issues. The act of rape is absolutely antithetical to ideals of both a happy companionate marriage and gentlemanliness.
A 2018 study, titled Marital Rape In Pakistan: A Framework for Analysis and Prevention identified certain individual effects of marital rape which included entrapment, health consequences in terms of reproductive, gynecological and psychological problems, social consequences in terms of economic isolation, lack of participation in regular activities and the inability to work.
Intimate partner violence (IPV) is rampant in our society, which includes marital rape but activists do not speak out as assertively on this as other issues. The act of rape is absolutely antithetical to ideals of both a happy companionate marriage and gentlemanliness. There is a fine line that separates the deterioration of masculinity and monstrous masculinity. In such a backdrop, international rights groups have renewed calls for including marital rape as an agenda item in Pakistan’s feminist manifesto.
Until marital rape becomes a penal offence, abusive husbands in Pakistan, who misuse religious teachings to justify domestic violence, must also be reminded that marriage is the most sacred of social institutions. It is the most sacred trust which is governed by the Law of God as the Holy Prophet (PBUH) articulated in his last sermon:
“You brought your wives to your homes under the Law of God. You must not, therefore, insult the trust which God has placed in your hands.”
The author is a student of Law at University of Sindh.