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Unformatted text preview: POLYGYNY IN ISLAMIC LAW
AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE Charles Lindholm
Boston University The Pukhtun of Swat in Northern Pakistan refer to Islam to justify their practice of
polygamy and female subordination. However, Islamic law is far more egalitarian than
Pukhtun practice. Using case studies and statistical evidence, this article argues that
husbands in Swat take second wives mainly in a spirit of revenge, reflecting the endemic
hostility between spouses that exists within this strongly patriarchal segmentary lineage
organization in which romantic love is ideally reserved for chaste extramarital
relationships. An ideology of the primacy of paternal blood underlies the misogynistic
attitudes characteristic of Swat, and prevalent elsewhere in the Middle East and the
Circum-Mediterranean region. (Polygyny, Islamic law, patriarchy, misogyny) In 1969, when I first visited the Pukhtun people of Swat, in the Northwest Frontier
of Pakistan,1 some men had more than one wife. Polygyny was explained as permitted, and even favored, in Islam. But it soon became apparent that there was much
more to polygyny than a religious injunction. A local proverb which goes, “I may
be a fool, but not such a fool as a man who has two wives,” indicates that marrying
more than one woman is the self-destructive act of a fool. Yet a substantial portion
of Swati men, especially the wealthier and more powerful, were nonetheless polygynous. This essay explores the disjuncture between Islamic law and Pukhtun practice,
and considers why Pukhtun men want to be polygynous even when they realize the
practice is not only foolish, but can also be dangerous. It concludes with some speculations about the possible sources of Swati polygyny.
Swat is a beautiful valley surrounded by the jagged snowy peaks of the Hindu
Kush Range. The rushing cold waters of the Swat River bisect the valley, and round
grey river stones are used to build the tightly packed villages and the houses where
extended families share cramped space. In the late 1970s the population density here
was high, and it is higher today. Despite the fertility of the soil, famine is always a
threat, so that struggles for land and power are literally a matter of life and death. No
police force or government authority controls these struggles. Rather, the area is
organized politically and spatially on the basis of a segmentary lineage system that
divides land among patrilateral relatives, and so pits them against one another. The
term of reference for the father’s brother’s son (a man’s closest neighbor, nearest
relative, and major rival) is tarbur, which also translates as enemy. The term of
address is the much friendlier vror (brother). Political relationships of alliance and
antagonism in this tightly packed system are flexible and adaptive, based upon a
combination of two basic and well-known principles: “I against my brothers, my 181
ETHNOLOGY vol. 47, no. 3, Summer 2008, pp. 181–193.
ETHNOLOGY, c/o Department of Anthropology, The University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA 15260 USA
Copyright 2009 by The University of Pittsburgh. All rights reserved. 182 ETHNOLOGY brothers and I against our cousins, my cousins, my brothers, and I against the world”
and “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
In this contentious setting, marriage would seem to be primarily a political act,
an effort to secure alliances in a world of potential enemies. Therefore, a simple way
to account for polygyny would be that men maximize their power by maximizing
their marriage relationships. But this does not fit with the reality of polygynous
marriage, which, as I will demonstrate, usually creates enmity, not solidarity,
between in-laws. Nor does this explanation account for the ambivalence the Pukhtun
feel about polygyny. To better understand the nature of polygyny in Swat, it must
first be contextualized in the Quran and Islamic traditions (hadith), since these are
the texts to which the Pukhtun refer when explaining their marital practices and
MARRIAGE RELATIONSHIPS IN ISLAM
It is true that the Prophet Muhammad, who was an enthusiastic polygynist,
practiced plural marriage for political reasons. He eventually contracted 12 official
marriages, using his marital alliances to cement his relationships with rival groups
and with his own followers (the first five caliphs were his in-laws). In so doing,
Muhammad exceeded his own revelation, as expressed in the Quran, that a man may
marry four wives. However, although many of the Prophet’s marriages were purely
political, it is often forgotten that he was steadfastly monogamous for 25 years,
remaining faithful to his much older first wife, Khadija, who used her money and
position to support her husband’s prophetic mission. Muhammad's ambivalence
toward polygyny is indicated as well in his stipulation that the marriage between his
favorite daughter Fatima and his cousin Ali (the fourth Caliph) had to be strictly
monogamous. The Pukhtun too do not want their daughters to enter into polygynous
unions, even though they may be keen to take plural wives themselves.2
Despite the complexity of Muhammad’s example, many commentators have seen
the Islamic legal permission for plural marriage as misogynist (e.g., Mernissi 1991,
1975). Mernissi (1975:14) writes: “The whole Muslim social structure can be seen
as an attack on, and a defense against the disruptive power of female sexuality.” Yet,
a closer look reveals that the family law and marriage practices ordained in the
Quran and enforced by Islamic jurisprudence very often directly challenge traditional
male prerogatives and affirm the humanity and equality of women, who had previously been oppressed in pre-Islamic patriarchies (Kandiyoti 1991, 1992; Tillion
1966). Islam proclaims that both men and women have eternal souls and are destined
to fill their God-given complementary roles in the universe: men in the public
sphere, women in the private. The Quran also explicitly repudiates the previously
normative practice of female infanticide and profoundly alters the pre-Islamic legal
status of women who had been regarded as chattel owned by men, to be inherited
and disposed of at will. Under Islam, women are legal shareholders in the decedent's ISLAMIC LAW AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE 183 estate, with rights of inheritance that cannot be abrogated by their own kin or their
Many other aspects of Islamic law that may seem misogynistic when viewed in
isolation are less so when understood in context. For example, the legal rule that a
woman is entitled to only half of the amount inherited by her male relatives is more
than balanced by the dowry of goods, money, and sometimes land that a girl is
legally entitled to receive from her family when she marries. According to Muslim
legal codes, this dowry, augmented by a substantial bride price (mahar) from her
husband's household, becomes her own property to use as she pleases, though both
are usually integrated into the common household resource base.
Women’s rights to property are derived in part from the way marriage was
conceptualized in Islamic law. In contrast to the sacramental bond of Christian
family law, Muslim marriage is viewed as a witnessed legal contract between equals,
transacted, bargained over, signed, sealed, and reversible, in which the woman (or
her guardian) exchanges her sexuality and her reproductive capacities for a bride
price and for a guarantee of permanent protection and maintenance. If the agreed
upon terms are not met, the contract can be legally annulled and the bride price
returned to the spurned or estranged wife. The Muslim wife's jural and personal
independence is graphically symbolized in her retention of her own family name
after marriage, and expressed concretely in her legal capacity to earn and keep her
own money and run her own financial affairs.
However, while Islamic law gave women rights and privileges, it also took away
some freedoms. Polyandry was abolished, while polygyny is permitted. A Muslim
man is allowed four wives at any given time, but under Islam only those with enough
economic resources to provide adequately for all the wives can marry polygynously.
Furthermore, a polygynous husband is religiously obligated to care for all his wives
equally and pay equal attention to each. Inheritance is divided equally among all a
man’s children, including the children of slaves. In these ways, Shari’a law balances
male power in plural marriage and guarantees women’s rights. It should also be
noted that in contrast to the polygynous Mormons depicted in this volume, in Islam,
polygyny is only permitted, not enjoined.
CULTURE AND MARRIAGE IN SWAT, NORTHERN PAKISTAN
The Pukhtun believe that their religious faith and traditions are seamlessly
united. They assume themselves to be devout Sunni Muslims, following the precepts
of the Quran,3 but this assumption is incorrect. A number of local practices enjoined
by Pukhtunwali (the custom of the Pukhtun) fly in the face of orthodox Islamic law,
particularly in regard to women’s rights. For example, Pukhtun custom denies
inheritance to women, enforces strict female seclusion, appropriates women’s bridewealth, and absolutely prohibits divorce, regardless of circumstances.4 Many Islamic
rules for the protection of women are overturned in practice. This coincides with the
general male outlook toward women which holds that they are naturally ignorant, 184 ETHNOLOGY treacherous, and likely to be promiscuous (except for a man’s mother, who is
unstintingly honored and loved). Pithy local proverbs convey the masculine perspective. “Women belong in the house, or in the grave.” “Women have no noses. They
will eat shit.”
The negative and fearful attitude toward women correlates with the patrilineal
segmentary system in which first marriages are arranged in order to maintain the
solidarity of the lineage. Men from elite landholding warrior lineages (khans) very
rarely marry into inferior landless clans, and only reluctantly exchange their women
with other elite lineages. The favored wedding is with the father’s brother’s daughter
(FBD)—the sister of the tarbur, the “close enemy.” Failing that, marriage is with
distant groups that can, ideally, provide backing in cases of conflict. Female seclusion (purdah) is strict among the khans, who must take blood revenge in cases of
seduction or infidelity or else lose their honor. Murder of women suspected of breaking purdah is celebrated in song and legend, and does sometimes occur.
Within this androcentric system, there are distinct gender differences in attitudes
toward marriage. For women, marriage is the sole possible route to success and
prestige. It is in marriage that all a woman’s hopes are invested, and it is in marriage
that those hopes can be realized. While the woman’s road to success is narrow and
hard, it is not impassible. If a woman can produce many strong sons, if she can
outlast her mother-in-law and become dominant in her extended family household,
controlling her sons and their wives, then she has lived an ideal life. At the same
time, girls are quite realistically fearful that marriage will lead to a lifetime of subservience to a cruel husband and his demanding mother in an alien compound. But
the greatest fear of a khana is that her husband will humiliate her by marrying a
second wife (ban).
While girls place all their hopes in marriage, a boy’s status rests primarily on his
abilities to gain allies and defeat enemies in the contentious masculine rivalries of
the public sphere. Marriage is only one part of his strategy. Its purpose is to tie families together and to produce sons who can carry on the lineage name as well as
daughters who can be married off to create new relationships between men. But the
marriage relationship itself is regarded as a trap for a man, binding him forever to
a woman from a rival family. The wife is an enemy within the husband’s household,
gaining the loyalty and love of his sons and plotting with them against him for her
own ends. In this setting, men generally avoid their homes, where women rule, and
spend the majority of their time gossiping in the all-male environment of the mens
house (hujera). For them, marriage is a necessary evil, not an end in itself.
Although over time a degree of companionship, respect, and conjugal love may
develop between marriage partners, affection between them can never be shown or
admitted in public. Men must always refer to their wives and the wives of others as
“the house.” Even in private, it is considered improper and dangerous for a man to
share his thoughts with his wife, since she cannot understand his thoughts or sympathize with his feelings, but instead will exploit whatever she hears to gain advantage.
In the same vein, it is believed that a man who is kind to his wife will grow old ISLAMIC LAW AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE 185 before his time; and both marriage partners are quick to point out any weaknesses
or signs of aging in their spouses. Both combatants in the marital battle say—partly
in jest, partly in earnest—that they hope for the early death of the other, and both
sincerely fear that the survivor will "laugh over my grave." Though there are notable
exceptions, marriage in Swat is a fraught relationship in which each partner struggles
to maintain power and gain the upper hand. It is more a kind of warfare than a love
match. But each spouse’s strategies are different. Her heart's desire is to move from
a position of weakness to one of authority within the household, while a husband's
hope is to free himself entirely from his wife’s power. She wants to control him, he
wishes to escape (Lindholm and Lindholm 1979).
POLYGYNY IN SWAT
Pukhtun khans who have the wherewithal often marry a second wife. Their stated
aim is not overwhelming attraction to another woman (because of purdah they will
rarely have seen or spoken to the woman they seek to marry), nor is it a desire for
alliances with other lineages (although a second marriage forges a bond with the new
wife’s family, it irremediably strains the tie with the family of the first) but rather the
desire to defeat and mortify an aggressive and demanding first wife by taking a
second one. “Women, as incoming wives, seek to retain their lineage honor and to
gain a position of dominance in their new home. For men, the task is to subdue the
wife or, failing that, to humiliate her. The husband has the trump card in this battle,
since he can take a second wife, thereby shaming the first and all her lineage”
In Swat, voluntary polygyny (as opposed to the compulsory polygyny resulting
from the levirate) is more or less confined to the elite khan class, whose first
marriages are arranged to cement alliances, and who can afford the expense and
tribulation of arranging a second. When I traced the marriages of the leading clan in
the village, the Malik khel, over the five previous generations, 115 Malik khel men
married 150 times; 21 had two wives and 7 had three. These were by far the majority
of polygynous unions in the village. In contrast, the poor and landless do not have
the same political ambitions as the elite, and can barely support even one wife.
Polygyny among them is rare and almost always due to the levirate. An exception
is poor widowers who may marry a widow with sons, to add some helping hands to
the family. A khan would never enter into such a marriage, as it would mean bringing a rival bloodline into his household. For the same reason, adoption does not
occur among the khans.
As the proverb cited at the beginning of this paper indicates, the Pukhtun khans
clearly recognize the potentially destructive consequences of polygyny. They know
that a second wife is a financial burden (a strict moral prohibition on divorce means
a deposed first wife must be cared for as long as she lives), that polygyny causes
animosity from his first wife’s family, and, worst, creates a never ending uproar
in the household (since in the cramped environment of Swat, the jealous and 186 ETHNOLOGY quarrelsome co-wives usually share compound space and the cooking facilities). The
answer, according to conventional wisdom, is for a man to marry once more. “This
is because the two wives will make his life so miserable that he hopes to drive them
both from his home by bringing in yet a third woman, and starting all over again
with just one wife. In this, he will be encouraged by his first wife, who wishes
nothing more than to shame her rival as she has been shamed” (Lindholm 1982:146).
That solution worked only in the past, if at all. Today men cannot afford to maintain three wives. Instead, the problem of internal fighting is dealt with by having one
of the wives (usually the first) return to her natal household, either voluntarily or
because her husband does not invite her back after one of her visits to her parents.
(The husband must give his wife permission to leave and to return to his compound.)
In the village, nine women had suffered this humiliating dismissal, five among the
khans and four within the more numerous servant groups. These disgraced women
lost their status and became de facto servants in their own families. One mother who
never re-entered her husband’s compound after he took a ban raised her children in
her own father’s house. Her sons returned to their natal village when they reached
puberty, where they were treated with respect and eventually inherited their share of
their patrimony. Their father also arranged good marriages for the daughters of his
exiled wife. In this way, he fulfilled all his obligations toward his first wife’s
This is not always the case. Children of less favored co-wives often have
difficulty claiming their rightful inheritance from their fathers and, if they remain
home, are thought to be in danger of being “accidentally” killed by their vengeful
stepmothers. (Young orphans generally stay with the families of their maternal
uncles until they are old enough to defend themselves against paternal relatives who
want to be rid of them.) I know of no actual cases where children were killed or so
endangered, but I do know that the sons of repudiated first wives are resentful of
their fathers, and tales of the ban’s hatred of her stepchildren are the common stuff
of folktales and gossip. Nonetheless, custom and self interest demand that exiled
boys return to their natal household when they reach puberty. Resentful or not, it is
to their advantage to support their father in any struggle with lineage rivals.
Furthermore, the father retains authority to arrange marriages for all his daughters.
These marriages establish important alliances, and also bring money as bride price.
So even in marriages where a co-wife has returned to her own family, there are still
instrumental ties between the spouses over their children. Although fathers might
dislike the children of repudiated wives (usually reciprocated), the relationship is still
one of mutual advantage. Similarly, a mother’s status derives in large part from the
successes of her children, which can only be achieved through the father’s intercession. The same uneasy combination of antagonism with allegiance, so characteristic
of the segmentary system, pertains for the children of co-wives as well. Real brothers
are emotionally closer than stepbrothers, who often squabble, fight, and sometimes
even kill each other. But all unite in defending family honor, from which they gain
their own. ISLAMIC LAW AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE 187 In this context, antagonism inside a polygynous family is increased by the sense
of honor that is characteristic not only of Pukhtun men, but of Pukhtun women as
well. For a khana, the greatest insult possible to her and her lineage is the arrival of
a second wife, and she will do anything to redeem her own reputation, while the
incoming ban will battle with equal vigor to achieve domination. Overt fighting, as
well as the covert use of magical spells against rivals, are women’s weapons.
Because the incoming wife is bound to be attacked, mahar is sometimes larger for
a second marriage than for the first, further increasing the fury of the first wife. Also,
second wives are usually from a lower social order than the first, since fathers are
reluctant to send their daughters into a situation bound to have conflict. This is in
contrast to the situation described by Slonim-Nevo et. al. (in this issue), where
second wives are often of a higher status than the first. Only the promise of a higher
social status or a high bride price can overcome paternal reluctance. But any disjuncture in status also is deeply felt as an affront to the first wife and her lineage.
Finally, incoming ban are usually much younger than the first wife (another slur in
this age-graded society where elders are due deference). In revenge for all these
insults, the first wife may sometimes attempt to reclaim her mahar, a legal action that
is in accord with Islamic law but disgraceful within Pukhtunwali. In other instances,
the enraged first wife flatly refuses to return to her parents and causes so much strife
that the man may be the one obliged to flee his village, leaving his rejected wife and
her children under the uncertain care of his father and brothers.
This was so in another instance of polygyny. The husband, a charming but prodigal son of a powerful clan, had arranged to marry a woman from a very prestigious
lineage. His wife was a strong figure in her own right, intelligent, intransigent, and
quite capable of returning his blows with her own. The marriage was full of insults
and tension, with the wife often gaining the upper hand. The furious husband gained
his revenge when he surreptitiously married a girl from an inferior non-khan group,
whose parents were willing to take the risk of putting their daughter into a contentious situation for the sake of gaining some of her suitor’s high status. But the first
wife refused to allow the new girl into her home and was supported by her husband’s
family, who were ashamed of the lowly background of the ban and angered by the
husband’s irresponsible behavior, which threatened a strategic marriage alliance. The
embittered first wife kept her house and raised her children in the village of her inlaws, while the husband moved away, living first with his new wife in reduced
circumstances, and later migrating to find work outside the valley.
In other cases, taking a co-wife may actually be physically dangerous for the
husband, since a repudiated woman can be tempted to revenge her honor by means
of poison. For this reason, polygynous men who die of cholera are often thought to
have been poisoned by their first wives. This is what was said about the death of my
close friend. Unlike the case of the reprobate recounted above, his prestige, character, and authority made him a good catch, even for a second wife, and he married
a ban from a respectable lineage. Soon thereafter, he died rapidly with cholera-like
symptoms (also the symptoms of arsenic poisoning) without having any children by 188 ETHNOLOGY the second wife. Rumors spread, but nothing was done because of a lack of proof
(cholera is common in Swat, and people die of it regularly) and because no one
wished to arouse the enmity of the first wife’s family. She continued to live in her
husband’s village, raising her only son to be his sole inheritor.
Of course, a woman prefers not to take such extreme measures. Her best hope
to avoid being dispossessed by a co-wife is to bind her husband to her emotionally,
so he will have no desire to bring another woman into the household. Women have
magical means they can employ to accomplish this. For instance, a Pukhtun girl is
taught by her mother to always speak first to her husband when he arrives home and
to sleep with her hand behind his head. Such commonplace acts, women believe, will
make him accustomed to her presence, keep him attached to her, and allow her to
have authority over him. There are other magical measures, such as putting the water
used to wash the body of a dead leatherworker in a husband’s tea. A man who drinks
this concoction falls helplessly in love with the woman who administered it, and she
can then render him begherata (without honor). Besotted by love, he will not restrain
her natural inclinations to promiscuity and may even become a bedagh (passive
homosexual). In these narratives, a woman triumphs over her husband and defeats
her rival ban, but by her behavior and their father’s emasculation she also destroys
her own heritage, as her sons are disgraced (Lindholm 1981).
Ironically, the same conditions that are said to cause male impotence can also
lead to a high birth rate, as the rival wives enter into a competition to see who can
produce the most sons. By having more children, one wife can dominate the household and perhaps eventually drive the other wife to her natal home in shame. As a
result, polygynous households in the village are said to be more prolific than monogamous households. My census records confirm this belief.
In the Swat village I know best, there are several possible trajectories that may
occur in a polygynous marriage, which I believe are quite typical of the region and
of the rural Pukhtun generally. A man may force his humiliated first wife into exile
or, if she is strong enough, he may be forced into exile himself. If the co-wives stay
within his compound, the whole family will suffer from their constant bickering.
Children of different wives are at odds with each other and are maltreated by their
stepmothers. In the worst cases, the outraged first wife may even poison her husband. A polygynous marriage is generally miserable for all parties, and the outcome
is sometimes tragic. I only know of one man with two wives who was, if not happy,
at least peaceful. When he was obliged by the levirate to marry his dead brother’s
wife, he coped with his new responsibility by treating both women absolutely
equally, as Islam requires. He accomplished this by spending all his time in the
refuge of the local men’s house, and his wives, abandoned to their own devices in
their shared compound, became good friends.
Despite the perils of polygyny (which are only the amplified perils of monogamy), my informants claim that men take the risk because of their dislike of and
desire to dishonor their first wives. Attraction to a younger, more pliable woman
is certainly a factor, but it is not given as a major cause. The political reason (to ISLAMIC LAW AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE 189 increase a man’s alliances) is nonsensical, since polygyny alienates the first wife’s
family and the second marriage is usually to a woman from an inferior clan.
Evidence for revenge as a motive for polygyny is mostly anecdotal, but it is borne
out by one empirical finding. The Swati khans favor parallel cousin marriage to the
actual FBD. Patrilateral parallel cousin marriage, common throughout the Middle
East, “has the effect of diversifying the agnatic group, and creates small nuclei
within” (Peters 1967:274). In FBD marriage, agnates are turned into affines, and
lines for fission are drawn between the closest patrilineal relatives. As a result, it
becomes “almost impossible to isolate a solidary in-group, and groupings are continually being activated or redefined through struggles that may even pit members of
the nuclear family against each other” (Murphy and Kasdan 1959:20). The animosity
of these intermarrying tarburan is heightened due to their rivalry over rights to the
abutting plots of land they farm. It is precisely this endemic conflict that FBD marriage is supposed to mute Instead, the result is usually the opposite, increasing the
rivalry and jealousy among the cousins.
According to local discourse, FBD marriage is notoriously prone to polygyny
since both partners are from families of equal status and are also inherently in
conflict with one another. This combination is said to lead to virulent hatred within
the household, which drives the husband to seek a second wife in order to humiliate
the first and shame her lineage. Tracing FBD marriages suggests that this folk
wisdom is correct. Among the 115 Malik khel marriages in the previous five
generations, four of the eight men who had FBD marriage took second wives, while
19 of 107 who did not marry their FBD took a second wife. In the present generation, two of the three men marrying FBD married another wife, while only two of
39 who did not marry FBD became polygynous, one involuntarily by the levirate.
As these polygynous marriages are within the same khan group, who all have
relatively equal access to resources, it seems that it is the contentious marital relationship that drives these men to seek second marriages, despite the unhappy
ROMANCE AND PATRIARCHY
Of course, there are gradations in the attraction and affection a polygynist feels
for his wives. People recognize that a man will be drawn toward a younger, less
prestigious and more pliable ban, a woman who was not forced on him by his parents. But a young woman’s subservience is hardly eternal. As her husband ages and
weakens, she is likely to assert herself more and more. So, even in polygynous
marriages with younger, more dependent women, romantic idealization erodes as the
conflicting interests of wives and husbands inevitably drive them to battle with one
another. Another factor undermining the potential for romance in marriage is the fact
that men can gain honor by pursuing sexual affairs with women in rival lineages.
Such affairs are celebrated much like victories in war, and, if discovered, can result
in death for both partners. Usually it is the woman who suffers. Less dangerous, but 190 ETHNOLOGY much more common for the khans, are sexual affairs with girls belonging to
dependent groups in the neighborhood, who have little power to resist. A woman
may try to coerce her lover into marriage by arriving at his compound gate carrying
his infant child in her arms. This strategy, while compelling, is so shameful for the
girl that it is practiced only by the most humble and desperate. More likely is maintenance of the affair clandestinely, although everybody knows that such and such a
boy or girl is the bastard child of the local khan.
The absence of romance in marriage does not mean that idealized love does not
exist among the Pukhtun. Quite the contrary. Romantic love is highly elaborated in
the Pukhtun belief. But it must be for a mysterious stranger or for a woman who is
betrothed elsewhere and so unavailable as a marriage partner, or even for a boy.6 As
elsewhere in the Middle East, Pukhtun lovers fall in love from a distance. In general,
sexuality is downplayed and the emphasis is on the spiritual qualities of the beloved
and the deep yearning of the lover. As the great warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattack
wrote to his beloved:
Your curls are a swing,
Your forelock a snare,
Your face a lamp
That draws the moth . . . .
If the world asks about my sickness
And the one who has stricken me asks not,
Then what use are all the others? (Khattack 1965, in Lindholm 1982:223) The ideal romance in Pukhtun verse and myth cannot be consummated, for
consummation means the end of the quest and the loss of the ideal. This is because
in sexual union the Pukhtun see domination and subordination. Sexual penetration
is an act of power; submission is acceptance of inferiority. This unequal duality
destroys the essence of the hoped-for relation; that is, complete reciprocal mutuality
and fusion. Since sexuality affirms separateness and hierarchy, romantic lovers cannot truly reach the ideal because that role can only be filled by someone who is not
sexually available, but who offers a higher form of relationship (Lindholm 1982).
Therefore, true love must end in the death of the chaste lovers, following the plot of
the classic Persian story of Layla and Majnun, where the lovers are only united when
the roses growing on their graves intertwine.
In real life, such chaste relationships are rare indeed. Yet, the ideal is dreamt of
nonetheless, even though it cannot be sought or even imagined in marriage, since the
marriage relationship is so intrinsically contentious and since sexual intercourse is
so tainted by the imagery of domination. For these reasons, polygynous marriage
also does not meet the ideal. The best men can hope for is the forlorn fantasy of
an affectionate and subservient co-wife who will replace his assertive first wife, and
who will never become assertive herself. Women have the more plausible dream of
becoming matriarchs in their own homes. But this hope is offset by fear of the
humiliation that would result if a vengeful husband brings a co-wife into the house. ISLAMIC LAW AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE 191 Swat Pukhtun patriarchal attitudes and social structures tend to negate Muslim
legal protections for women. Polygyny is pursued by khan men primarily as a way
to punish and humiliate their proud first wives who, as Pukhtun khana themselves,
refuse to submit meekly to their husbands. Only secondarily is polygyny a quest for
a younger, more attractive, and more pliable partner. Even then it is bound to fail,
since the interests of husband and wife are inevitably at odds. As the insightful
Pukhtun author and aphorist Ghani Khan writes, “Every Pukhtun thinks he is as good
as anyone and his father rolled into one. He is stupid enough to try this sort of thing
even with his own wife. She pays for it in youth, he in old age" (Khan 1958:47).7
CONCLUSION: SOURCES OF MISOGYNY
As polygyny and the subordination of women go hand in hand in Swat, how is
it possible to account for the causes of the patriarchal attitudes that prevail not only
there, but also throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, despite
Muslim and Christian legal restraints against the oppression of women? As shown
in this essay, the analysis of Islamic texts and jurisprudence confirms that women’s
oppression is not the message of Islam, which is mostly positive about women’s
rights. The causes for the marked disparity between law and practice appear to be
historical and cultural.
The negative orientations toward women and marriage in the Middle East are
possibly a result of the transformations that occurred when Islam grew from its
original tribal base and became an imperial venture, expanding governmental
authoritarianism, eroding Bedouin egalitarianism, and undermining the rights and
powers of women. The Persianized Abbasids, who vastly expanded the authority of
the central government in the early Islamic centuries, also interpreted the edicts of
their religion in a way that radically compromised women's independence, as symbolized by the terms for woman, slave, and sexual object becoming synonymous.
Crucial in the development of this attitude was the widespread practice of taking
concubines by the conquering Muslim armies, which undercut the authority and
autonomy of their wives. For these new Muslim elite "acquiring a wife was a much
more serious undertaking than stocking up on concubines who could be discarded,
given away, or even killed” (Abbott 1946:67), while a wife had property rights and
could depend on family. Under these circumstances, slave women were increasingly
preferred as consorts while their independent freeborn sisters were relegated to
seclusion and marginality. Contemporary Middle Eastern attitudes toward women,
revisionist critics say, reflect the spread of this imperial patriarchal history of
enslavement and denigration (see, e.g., Ahmed 1992; Kandiyoti 1991, 1992).
Muslim legal rules protecting the legal status of women were trumped by a culture
of female inequality that emerged from conquest.
This historical change is undergirded by a negative attitude toward women
derived from a cultural notion of patrilineality founded on blood inheritance and
enhanced by Islamic precepts. Many aspects of matrilineality embedded within 192 ETHNOLOGY pre-Islamic Bedouin culture were eliminated by Muhammad’s Islamic revolution.
For example, the Quran allowed men to divorce their wives with ease, but prevented
women from doing the same. This was a change from pre-Islamic practice in Arabia,
where Bedouin women had the freedom to change mates as they pleased. Under
Islam, fornication was redefined to include formerly accepted patterns of temporary,
female-initiated sexual relations or wife “leasing” that were cited by al-Bukhari as
common in pre-Islamic Arabia. (Mernissi 1991:183–84). In these relationships, the
mother of a child could have some freedom in choosing the man she wished to
designate as its father, so pater was distinguished from genitor. With the patrilineal
blood ideology of Islam, these practices became capital crimes. Fundamental to the
worldview promoted by nascent Islam was the ideology that the pater and genitor
must be the same man: inheritance, honor, and lineage identity are all derived from
the actual transmission of a father’s blood to his offspring. This belief entails a
“structural contradiction between a patriarchal system and the [women’s] physical
reproduction of lineages” (Hammoudi 1993:8).
Across the Middle East and the circum-Mediterranean area, men have tried to
overcome this contradiction by portraying women as weak, stupid, and useless. At
the same time, the danger of women is recognized and feared; her sexuality
engenders the lineage, but her promiscuity can destroy it. Veiling, isolating, and
denigrating women are defensive reactions to women’s hidden structural and erotic
power. It is ironic that Islam, while ratifying women’s rights, also ratified a patriarchal blood ideology that inevitably undermines those rights, even though in
principle the latter is separable from the former.
1. I revisited the Valley in the early 1970s, and did anthropological fieldwork there in 1977. Most
of my account is from the male perspective since I did not have direct access to women, due to female
seclusions. However, my wife, Cherry Lindholm, who accompanied me in 1977 and spent time in the
women’s quarters, taught me about their lives. I am grateful for the openness and honesty of my
Pukhtun friends, who were kind enough to treat us as their guests.
2. For similar attitudes among Palestinian Bedouin, see Slonim-Nevo et al. (this issue), who
conclude that men, women, and children in polygynous families prefer monogamy.
3. Rustic innocence about religious precepts has recently been challenged by a new generation of
madrasa-educated mullahs and other religious figures (often lumped together as Taliban). When I did
my fieldwork, the confrontation between theology and practice was far in the future.
4. In the village where I worked there were only two legal divorces in a population of nearly 2,000.
5. It is true that these marriages are mostly among the relatively wealthy khans who can afford a
second wife. Still, it is significant that even in this group, those who marry FBD have a much higher
rate of polygyny than their lineage mates.
6. For homosexuality and romantic love in Middle Eastern classical literature, see Lindholm
7. For some classic studies on women’s conditions in the Middle East, see Papps 1993, Al-Khayyat
1990, Friedl 1991, Grima 1992, and Dorsky 1986. ISLAMIC LAW AND PUKHTUN PRACTICE 193 BIBLIOGRAPHY
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