Marriage as Warfare

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

The young man who served as the authors’ guard: he is dressed in his best clothing, with a flower in his lapel.

Cherry Lindholm

 Although they continue to squabble, the husband and wife are actually quite fond of each other. Each admires the other’s resolute pride and fighting ability. But the man cannot show his affection, for to do so would give the wife courage to dishonor him. A man who displays affection to his wife is indicating weakness, which the woman will immediately exploit in the battle for domination. She may begin leaving the house without permission, confident the loving husband will not punish her. Then she will start having affairs with other men, thoroughly dishonoring her weakling spouse. Therefore, a man must avoid laughing with his wife or showing her any tenderness, in spite of his feelings for her. "Instead of a kiss, he gives me a bite," says the wife, baring her teeth. But if he did give her a kiss, she would begin to feel he had become emasculated.

The husband carries his feigned indifference to his wife into public life, never mentioning her to his friends. Nor do they inquire after her; to do so would be a breach of etiquette. Instead, they merely ask him, "How is your house?"

The wife is not so constrained. Confined to the compound, she spends much of her time complaining to visitors, to servants, and even to her children about the activities of her husband. Gossip about the wrongdoings of their men is the major subject of women's conversations. "All Swat men are rotten," they say. That is the nature of men. The wife's solace is hearing the tribulations of other women and anticipating the power she will wield in her later years. By that time, her husband will be a tired old man, without the energy for fighting, her sons will be grown, and their wives will be living in her house under her rule. She will control her domestic sphere like a real matriarch, and the purdah compound, her former prison, will become her court. Indeed, the Western image of the docile purdah female is an inaccurate picture of the Pakhtun woman of Swat.

This story is representative of the marriage relations among the Pakhtun. Perhaps a particular couple will fight less than usual because of extraordinary meekness or compatibility. Fortunate couples may reach a sort of wary, joking understanding in old age. But, in general, the marriage relation is one of strife, violence, and struggle.

This pattern of hostility and rivalry derives from the social model of the society, which is technically termed a segmentary lineage system. This means that the Yusufzai Pakhtun trace themselves, through the male line, to a common ancestor, Yusuf, the progenitor of the entire clan. All consider themselves equal, and all have rights in the family land. Despite this ideology of equality, however, those who are strong force the weak from their land. To be a landless Pakhtun is to lose one's birthright and become a member of the servant class. Thus, each family seeks to protect itself and subordinate others.

Life in the Yusufzai village is largely a contest to determine dominance. A man's chief rival is his father's brother's son, who has a claim on the land of the common grandfather. This cousin is often one's in law as well, since marriage with the father's brother's daughter is greatly favored in Swat. By marrying their female patrilineal cousin, the Yusufzai hope to gain control over their main political rival, but to no avail, since such marriages are notoriously hostile.

The term for the father's brother's son is tarbur, a word that means enemy. But the tarbur is also an ally, for only he can be counted upon to come to one's aid in case of an attack by a more genealogically distant adversary. Groupings occur on the basis of patrilineal kinship and only take place when there is an external threat. When the British attacked them, the Yusufzai Pakhtun forgot their internal enmities and united to expel the invader.

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