Marriage as Warfare

After decades of ferocious fighting, the Swat wife usually triumphs over her beleaguered husband.

A farmer uses his homemade plough.

Cherry Lindholm

In sharp contrast to the romantic image of the friend and public display of hospitality, the Pakhtun's domestic arena, concealed behind the impenetrable walls of the purdah household, is the site of confrontations more akin to those of the battlefield.

As the drumming grows louder, the trembling bride remembers her mother's advice for a successful mar¬riage: “You must keep power over your husband. Always speak first when he enters, even if only to cough. Sleep with your hand behind his head. Then he will miss you and never be satisfied with any other."

The girl prays that her husband will like her and that he will not humiliate her and her family by taking a second wife. That would be the worst possible catastrophe. She is of a good family and her family pride is strong.

Now the time has come for her to leave. She clutches at the cot, but her elder brother pulls her hands free and lifts her onto the palanquin that will carry her to her husband's house. The embroidered cover is dropped into place, and the girl is carried into the narrow street. Men of the husband's house are waiting to join the procession. They help with the palanquin and triumphantly bounce it about. Village boys line the route and throw stones, hoping to overturn the bride into the muddy alley. In the past, serious fights sometimes erupted because of injuries caused by used by this ritual stoning, but in recent years the violence has lessened.

The procession continues through the village, led by the men carrying the bride and followed by a supply of household goods from her father's house. The drums of the groom are now heard as the procession approaches his compound. Men of his family gleefully fire their rifles, and small boys toss sweets to the crowd from the low rooftops. The drumming reaches a crescendo as the party enters the groom's house. This is a tense moment. Sometimes, the groom's family tries to deny entry to the men of the bride's party, and a fight breaks out. But today everything goes smoothly, and men of both houses carry the palanquin into the inner courtyard.

A village khan (leader), his dog, and some of his servants outside the one local store

Strong hands lift the bride onto a cot in the corner of the single room where she will live with her husband. The men then leave the house to begin feasting in the hujera. Totally enclosed in her shawl, the new bride presses tightly to her chest the Koran her father has given her. The women of the household surround her, talking incessantly and cajoling her to show her face. A young girl begins the drumbeat for women, and the groom's female relatives start dancing in the courtyard, celebrating the newcomer's arrival. Later, they will give her money, and in return, she will bow before them and touch their feet in token of future subservience. But, for the moment, the bride remains motionless on the cot. She will stay in this position for three days, rising only to relieve herself. On the third night her husband will creep into the house to consummate the marriage.

While the bride huddles nervously in her new home, the groom, a green-eyed man of twenty five, is fingering his mustache in the hujera of a relative, a different hujera from the one where the feasting is taking place. He is not permitted to join in the festivities of the marriage but must hide in shame at losing his bachelor status. Twenty years ago, young grooms sometimes ran away from their home villages and had to be coaxed back to their wives. But men's shame is no longer so acute. In those days, all men slept in the hujera and only slipped out to visit their wives secretly at night. Women also were shyer then, and a man might not see his wife's face for a year or more. But nowadays, with the curtailment of warfare and the weakening of the village khans, or leaders, most men sleep at home with their wives.
The groom is speculating about his new wife's appearance. He has never seen her, but he has heard reports that she is light skinned and fat—an ideal beauty. His own sexual experience has been with boys his own age who played the passive role and with girls of the servant class. For him, sexual dominance is an expression of power. He hopes that the youth and innocence of his bride will render her docile and respectful. However, he fears that the marriage will be a contentious one. That is how all marriages end up. "It is because our women are no good," he muses

For two more nights the groom stays in the hujera, pretending indifference to his marriage. Then, on the third night, he steals into his family's compound and opens the door of the room where his bride is waiting. He is slightly inebriated from smoking hashish. She is unveiled and afraid to look at him. Sometimes, the groom finds his bride repulsive and cannot have sex with her. Or he may have been enchanted by a male lover and rendered incapable of heterosexual intercourse. The bride has no recourse, for Pakhtun marriage is a lifetime contract. Moreover, the wife even follows her husband to heaven or hell, so that they are united for eternity.

In the room adjoining the nuptial chamber, the groom's sisters have bored a hole in the wall and are spying on the couple. The groom gives the girl a gold watch and some sweets. He begins to caress and tease her, but she is too terrified to respond, and the sexual act is rough and hasty. Thus the couple enter into married life.

The giving of a woman in marriage is a touchy business for the Swat Pakhtun. Historically, a weak lineage gave women to its stronger neighbors in order to form alliances, and victors in war expressed their triumph by taking women from the conquered. As a result, there is the suggestion that the wife givers are inferior to the wife takers—and any hint of inferiority is intolerable to a Pakhtun. Hostility toward marriage as an institution is seen in the ritual stoning of the bride's palanquin and in the fights between the bride's party and the groom's party. If divorce were allowed, no marriage would last for long.

The groom feels shame at his marriage because every Pakhtun man, not unlike the mythical American cowboy, seeks to present himself as completely self reliant, independent, and free of obligation. But the cowboy can always reject home and family and ride away into the sunset—an option the Pakhtun man does not have. Instead, he effectively hides his wife inside the privacy of the purdah household. Her presence is known to an outsider only through the tea she prepares. The Pakhtun woman must never be seen by men who are not close family members. She must never leave the compound walls without her husband's permission. By remaining a virtual prisoner inside her husband's house, she helps to uphold his honor, for she is a part of all he possesses and her behavior is a direct reflection of his power and control.

Years ago, if a Pakhtun woman was seen by a man who was not her relative, her enraged husband would cut off her nose as a punishment and as a means of cleansing his family honor, which her carelessness had sullied. While this custom has been abandoned, severe beatings are common. And a woman found alone with a man who is not a relative has committed a killing offense, for it will be assumed that the liaison is sexual. In such a case, although the husband may not actually desire her death, the pressure of public opinion, the code of Pakhtunwali, which demands vengeance, and his own sense of acute shame, would all push him to take action.

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