Hours before her wedding ceremony, Aisha Sarwari, then a recent graduate of an American university, was called into a room full of men: her brother, her uncle, a marriage registrar and her fiancé. The registrar asked three times if she consented to marry the groom. She said yes. Then he told her to sign a contract she had never seen, with her name and a thumb-print. She said yes to that, too. “It didn’t even occur to me that I should look at the document,” she says now. That document, known as a nikah nama, is a marriage registration and a pre-nuptial agreement all in one. It determines all sorts of things that may end up being of critical importance to the bride, in particular, from the way in which she may seek a divorce to the division of property if the marriage comes to an end.
Yet many wives-to-be in Pakistan sign their nikah namas without reading them. Plenty do not know what they are signing. In Peshawar, a city in the north-west, nearly three-quarters of women, many of them illiterate, say they were not consulted on their marriage contracts. But asking for a say in the drafting would be fraught, anyway. At best, women who do will be accused of bad manners (for not trusting their new husband) or of courting disaster (because it is unlucky to talk of divorce before the marriage has even started). At worst, it would be seen as inexcusable uppitiness that might put the wedding in jeopardy. In some cases, marriage registrars, who are often imams, take matters into their own hands, simply crossing out bride-friendly clauses on the contracts. Even though such changes are illegal, an analysis of about 14,000 nikah namas in Punjab province found that 35% had been amended in this way, according to Kate Vyborny, one of the researchers involved. “It’s ludicrous,” says Ms Sarwari.