A shorter version of this ran in The Nation earlier.
Over a decade back, while working for an ad agency in Islamabad, I met a recently divorced young woman. The woman had grown up in the US but had submitted to her parents’ wishes when it was time to marry. Soon after the wedding, however, she discovered something amiss. The marriage could not be consummated—her husband was gay. It would be four years before she was allowed to drop the pretense and ask for a divorce.
In traditional society, marriage is a fraught prospect. It is more than the union of two individuals: for the political elite, it’s an influence multiplier; for the economic elite, it’s a corporate merger; and for the have nots, it’s a bid to have. The personal, as it were, is the political—and the social—and the economic.
The transactional character of these unions is rarely acknowledged. Material concerns are sublimated into the concept of ‘honor’, which masks marital dysfunction and serves as caveat emptor. Divorces, consequently, are rare, and divorcees disdained. Many women endure bad marriages for fear of the stigma that attends divorce.
Central to Rafia Zakaria’s The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan is the story of her aunt Amina, who, after her husband takes a new wife, decides to stay in a polygamous marriage rather than suffer a divorcee’s fate. Distraught and humiliated, Amina initially returns to her parents and contemplates divorce. But her parents’ anguish and community pressure eventually make her submit and she returns to the indignity of her husband’s divided affections.