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Is Marital Rape Really A Western Belief?

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Does marital rape exist? While the term surely does and its concept is accepted globally, somewhat in Pakistan as well as in other Muslim countries, it is a question which either mostly remains unanswered or is frowned upon. However, the issue has recently come under debate. The triggers are many, but the solutions being suggested are still vague.

Farhat Hashmi, a female Islamic scholar, Muslim televangelist and founder of the Al-Huda Institute in Pakistan was recently giving a usual sermon that ended up generating controversy. Over the decades, Hashmi has amassed a significant following and thus, wields much influence over her devotees. She is famed for preaching Islam in a non-traditional manner to the educated, and more importantly, to women belonging to the affluent class of the society.

It was during such a sermon, when a woman confided in Hashmi about a brutal sexual relation – in short, marital rape, forced upon her by her husband. In response, the scholar is said to have answered bluntly that “there is no such thing as a ‘marital rape’ and that it is the duty of a woman to ‘submit’ to her husband. She even regretted that working women these days are finding difficult to follow this ‘divine commandment.’

Hashmi’s statement seems to echo the belief that marital rape is a figment of imagination. Other scholars also seem to agree in the ‘non-existence’ of such a concept.

“The phrase marital rape is contradictory in nature, for the word ‘rape’ embodies two crimes, zina (adultery) and forced. When a husband maintains a sexual relationship with his wife it is legal,” explains Dr. Khalid Zaheer, a Lahore-based Muslim scholar.

The judicial system in Pakistan, which is largely based on the Islamic shariah, also refuses to recognise a crime which may be defined as marital rape. The Hudood Ordinance, 1979 defined rape as non-consensual sexual intercourse without a valid marriage, thereby explicitly excluding marital rape from the legal definition of rape.

“However, in 2006, as a result of the amendment in the law via Protection of Women (Criminal Amendment Act) 2006, the words, ‘who is not his wife’ were omitted, opening up the possibility of claims by wives against their husbands for committing the offence of rape against them,” explains Nida Usman Chaudhry, Chairperson of Gender Equality and Diversity Committee of Lahore High Court Bar Association.

But even with the amendment in law, this possibility was not explored.

“Marital rape is still considered to be outside the scope of definition of rape, as one-time consent upon marriage is still widely believed to be consent for all times in the society,” Nida gives further details.

However, whether the debate revolves more around the literal wording – marital rape, or not, it still cannot be denied that non-consensual sex can happen in case of married couples.

In an article in a Pakistani online magazine News in Store, few incidents have been mentioned in detail which women categorise as marital rape. Commenting on the physical relationship she shared with her husband, a victim complained that “He never cared about what I wanted or needed. He did not care about whether I was unwell or pregnant or had recently given birth to a child.” Another woman was quoted as saying that one of her aunts “was the victim of marital rape and lost her life in the aftermath.”

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While severe health issues due to forced sex in married couples may be lesser known or at-least, lesser reported, they do happen.

Reports on forced sexual contact reveal that such acts result in genital injuries and gynaecological complications, such as bleeding, infection, chronic pelvic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease, and urinary tract infections. And apart from physical ailments, mental abuse also occurs.

Researches conducted in Western countries – where marital rape maybe a recognised crime show that it may occur as part of an abusive relationship. Whether it takes place once or is part of an established pattern of domestic violence, trauma from rape has serious long term consequences for victims.

A widely held belief in Pakistan is that it is obligatory for a wife to respect her husband’s needs. And as far as sexual relations are concerned, ‘complying’ with a husband’s call is stressed upon to saving him “from entering into illicit relations.” In-fact, this is the argument given to support polygamy in Islam.

Could it be true, that a woman must submit to a sexual relationship with her husband at all times, even when she may not be willing or ready for it?

“A narrative is recorded by Abu Hurayrah,” Shahzad Saleem, Vice President of Al-Mawrid, a foundation for Islamic research and education gives a perspective. “He quoted the Prophet (PBUH) as saying:

‘When a husband calls his wife to bed, and she refuses and [as a result] the husband spends the night in anger, then angels curse the wife all night till dawn.’

But the basis of refusal by the husband or wife must also be taken into consideration. If either of them is tired, sick or simply not in the proper mood and in the appropriate frame of mind, then this does not entail any wrath of the Almighty. It is only when a spouse starts to deliberately evade such natural needs of the other that the attitude becomes questionable,” says Saleem.

“If a sexual relationship is forced upon the wife in the case she is not ready, it would entail pain which is not desirable,” Dr. Khalid Zaheer explains further. “A moderate approach should be used. If the wife is not in the mood, but her husband is, the wife can comply to his wishes. At the same time, if the husband sacrifices his sexual desire seeing his wife is not ready for it, it would be commendable.”

Pakistan is among those countries where 70 percent women and girls experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime by their intimate partners. This was stated by founder of Madadgaar National Helpline 1098 and national commissioner for children, Zia Ahmed Awan in a press conference in 2017.

In a 2003 domestic violence survey published in Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences (PJMS), nearly 50 percent of married women living in Islamabad and Rawalpindi only reported to having non-consensual sex.

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The barely disclosed figures may explain the reason behind one of the ‘outrageous’ and ‘unethical’ slogans carried on placards by women during this year’s rally to celebrate International Women’s Day. In the Aurat March of this year, one slogan read: khana garam kardoongi, bistar khud garam karlo (I will warm your food, but warm the bed yourself).

Not surprisingly, the placard elicited a plethora of abuse and criticism, from men and women alike. But the critics never realised, why was there a need for such a bold statement? It was not simply a bunch of words put together to gain attention. It was based on reality.

When any suffering woman is told that she is expected to ‘submit’ to her husband, she is given the message, that her husband is the decision maker, whether it involves any ritual in the family or a sexual relationship. That a woman’s fatigue, ill-health or simply unwillingness to have sex, does not matter. That in all circumstances, all she is expected to do, is to comply and act at the whim of her spouse.

One may argue over definition or the manner the act is addressed, but to say that there is no possibility of non-consensual sex in legally married couples, would be wrong.

How would you describe a situation, when a woman refuses an intimate moment with her husband due to ill-health or not feeling inclined, but the husband nevertheless, forces himself upon her?

How would you describe the physical relationship a child bride shares with her mostly aged partner, when she does not even have a clear concept or understanding of it? In that case, how can you say that she has given her willingness? How would you categorise a situation, when a woman maybe forced to nod in agreement to marry a man, not out of love, but for the restoration of her family’s honour and right after, bears the man solemnising the marital contract?

The bitter truth is, many women, in Pakistan as well as around the world, face marital rape or non-consensual sex, whatever name you use. And those who use arguments based on religion, forget the amount of respect and duty which is laid upon each partner for another.

Not to be able to report any form of abuse by a husband – be it mental, physical or sexual, undermines the responsibility which a man holds towards his wife. Even if non-consensual sex between married couples is not criminalised, it can at least be condemned. But the belief that any such abuse is non-existent and any wish of a husband, legitimate yet disrespectful, has to be fulfilled in any case, is akin to a crime in itself.

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