When does a child stop being a child and become a woman? This rather obvious question leads to all kinds of murky dead-ends in Pakistan.
With the Aamir Liaquat Hussain saga gripping the country once again, the question has once again been thrown into relief. If Dania Shah is a hapless child, she would be worthy of public empathy and help, however, if she is a woman, she would not be a victim any longer but be viewed as an opportunistic man-eater. Dania claims she was only 15 when she married Hussain, and that her former husband helped her fabricate documents to contract the marriage, and make it legal under the marriage laws of the country.
Actor Ahmed Ali Butt took to Instagram on May 17 to denounce Dania, and said, “You very well knew what you’re getting into when you married him and used every opportunity to be in the limelight.” He thinks Dania is an equal stakeholder in this situation, a woman, not a child, who understood full well the situation she was getting herself into – and, therefore, is not deserving of any compassion.
A few weeks ago, in the Dua Zehra case, the courts decided that the 14-year-old had contracted a marriage of her own accord, and not out of coercion. The court allowed her to live with her “husband”. Whereas the current law does not consider marriage under age 18 legally binding, there is a loophole that states that if a minor contracts marriage of her own free will, it cannot be disregarded as null and void.
There is a running theme in both these cases — an obsession to see a female child as a woman. The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), for instance, has famously always failed to condemn child marriage, making space for its legality within their narratives. Why are we as a country intent on sexualising female children, and seeing them as fully functioning adults — adult enough, that is, to get into marriages with predators on the Internet or predatory television personalities, but not adult enough to have human rights and entitlements?
Why is it that when children like Dania come forward and bravely testify to their experiences, we have such little sympathy for them? There is a need to decide the question of adulthood on the basis of their legal age and not their sartorial choices, their body or traces of puberty — that is a completely flawed and highly dangerous logic.
The female children of this country are being let down by its public, courts, and media personalities, with protections that childhood affords within the court of law or the court of public opinion being snatched away from them prematurely. It seems that the public is not overly concerned with if these are minor girls or adults as proved by legal documents, but the appearance of adulthood, and its physical markers. It seems that if a child is being exploited, they need to look like an exploited child, lacking in aspects of puberty, and adult physiology, they need to exhibit childhood in their manner, in their body, in the way they carry themselves. Dania Shah had not behaved enough like a child. She had made “videos from her bedroom” in the words of Butt, and as such deserved “zero sympathy”. Dua Zehra, in her public appearance, wore an abayya and a scarf, perhaps knowing full well the way in which the Pakistani public decided the question of adulthood and childhood — by way of appearances alone. She needed the public to believe that she was a grown-up in a legally binding marriage. So, she took on the sartorial choices that would best exhibit that she was an adult woman.
Qandeel Baloch, the slain social media star had said that she had been married off as a child, at age 17, and endured an abusive marriage for a number of years. But I do not recall this ever creating any ripples within the public sphere or creating any kind of pressing issue. Because, she appeared to be a “woman” and a deviant one at that through what met the eye, she had the physiological markers of puberty, and as such, her marriage was viable as per our Pakistani logic, and she wasn’t a victim. An abusive marriage has a much shorter name in our country: it goes simply by marriage.
Instead of creating laws and culture, in which we fail the female children of this country by allowing them to be sexually exploited by men double or triple their age, we need to be asking ourselves why so few protections exist for children? Why is it that when children like Dania come forward and bravely testify to their experiences, we have such little sympathy for them? There is a need to decide the question of adulthood on the basis of their legal age and not their sartorial choices, their body or traces of puberty — that is a completely flawed and highly dangerous logic. And even if someone is found to be a teenager at the time of marriage, within the legal ambit, the question of ethics still comes up. Is it morally sound and ethical to allow a vulnerable teen to contract a marriage with someone who is her father’s age?
It might be legal. But it is not correct. Rather, teen girls should be given other opportunities to achieve upward social mobility that does not involve having to bed predatory men in a relationship in which the power relationship is so blatantly not in their favour and egregiously lopsided. Teen girls still deserve our compassion, they still need a way out of their predicament, and they need resources to be able to achieve financial and emotional independence away from the patronage of lecherous men and exploitative parents.
I read cursorily somewhere on Twitterverse that Aamir Liaquat Hussain had given respect to Dania by making her do the rounds on the media, and even taking her to the Prime Minister’s house and in return, she had disrespected him by leaking private video on the Internet. In my opinion, that is faulty thinking. Respect and respectability are a gendered territory in Pakistan — oftentimes men are seen as the subject of respect, and women are supposed to give this respect, respect is too easily given to the powerful, and too often robbed off the marginalised. So I feel uncomfortable discussing the scenario purely from the lens of respectability politics.
Teen girls should be given other opportunities to achieve upward social mobility that does not involve having to bed predatory men in a relationship in which the power relationship is so blatantly not in their favour and egregiously lopsided.
In my mind, making her visible next to him and using every possible platform to parade Dania around seems like an attempt to normalise such unequal marriages with young teen girls/female children, to make them more visible in the public eye and entrench them firmly in the imagination, such that the sight of a powerful older man and a young female child, draws revulsion, concern or disgust — but elicit congratulations.
I think about the kind of opportunities teen girls have the world over, and what their lives are like, compared to what happens in Pakistan, and it makes me sad. Our girls need to be educated about the world, their bodies, and their rights before they are legally tied to men. We need sounder laws to protect them from sexual predators wherever they may be — in the online realm or in their own homes. We need to be able to see children for what they are — children.
We need to work on ourselves to see where judgment towards teen girls comes from, to get a working understanding of why we are so hard on the female adolescents of this country. We need to be able to spot power relationships even in legal marriages. There is unequal class, caste, religious, ethnic, and gender privilege in certain marriages and this warrants a serious conversation — a young girl from South Punjab is not at the same level as a well-established political and televangelist. Both parties should not be considered equally liable because both parties are not equal.
Finally, we need to learn to love our girls. They deserve more, surely.