Marriage as Warfare

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

A village woman at a funeral.

Cherry Lindholm

Because they are able to dishonor men, women are feared. On the other hand, the woman has only physical violence to fear from her husband. Even more than the male, she is accustomed to violence from childhood. Her personal pride is far more powerful than her fear of a beating. Although she is a prisoner in her husband's house, her position is in some ways stronger than his, for she holds the weaponry for his dishonoring, whereas he holds merely a stick with which to beat her. While the wife must live with her jailer, the husband is obliged to share his house with an enemy—and an extremely tenacious and able one.

Marriage thus begins as a hostile relationship. The young bride's apprehension and the groom's shame accompany the determination of each to dominate the other. Pakhtun marriage demands a precarious balance of power, and the young partners are ready from the start to fight each other to avoid being dominated and shamed.

It is now a year after the marriage—the bride has her place within her husband's household. In her eyes, she is treated like a slave. Her mother in law is impossibly demanding; the girl can do nothing right. Her husband takes no notice of her beyond the servicing of his sexual needs. Recently, she has begun having fits in which she is possessed by demons. During these fits, she rolls in the dirt and must be restrained from throwing herself into the well or the fire. From her mouth, demonic voices hurl abuse at her husband and his family. Exorcisms by a holy man, who puts sticks between her fingers and squeezes her hand painfully, are only temporarily effective. Finally, her father is asked to intervene. "If this happens again," he warns her, "I'll shoot you." The demons stop appearing.

Shortly afterward, she gives birth to a son, and her position in her husband's household improves. She is now respected, for she has contributed to perpetuating her husband's line. But her relations with her mother in law continue to be as unpleasant as ever.

As time goes by, the marriage proves to be as difficult as the young groom feared. Fighting goes on daily, over the wife's poorly made milk curd or over a piece of rotten meat the husband has foolishly purchased. The husband may strike out because his wife is nagging him to buy another piece of jewelry that she can show off to her neighbor; the wife may be irate because the husband, in a display of generosity, has depleted the family larder. Anything can cause a serious fight, and several times the bruised wife returns, with injured pride, to her father's house. There she is pampered by her relatives for a time, but she must go back to her husband upon his demand. She returns, and the fights continue.

Like all Pakhtun husbands, he severely beats his wife to break her of bad habits and make her submissive. The young woman nonetheless remains proud and fearless; far from becoming meek, she defends herself aggressively, clawing at her husband's face and tearing the shirt from his back. He strikes out, especially at her face, and sometimes uses a club or throws a stone at her. This is considered perfectly normal, and the wife is even. somewhat proud of her battle scars. She abuses her elder sister's husband, who rarely hits his wife, as "a man with no penis." Yet her own husband fares no better, as she frequently calls curses down upon him and abuses his lineage: “Your ancestor was nothing and my ancestor was great!”

The husband, becoming wearied with the constant effort to subdue and control his defiant female adversary, dreams of defeating her once and for all and for bringing in another, more tractable wife. He frequently threatens her with this ultimate humiliation, but is unable to implement his plan because he lacks funds. Despite the proverb that “a fool can be recognized by his two wives,” most men dream of a second marriage. Those few who can afford it, however, inevitably regret it, for with the arrival of a second wife, warfare begins in earnest. Each woman seeks, with magical spells and sheer contentiousness, to drive the other out. Sometimes, one wife will poison the other or, more commonly, the husband; sometimes the husband's throat while is slit while he sleeps. The first wife continually badgers the husband to bring in yet a third wife, in order to humiliate the second wife as she has been humiliated. The besieged hus¬band who has found the second wife is as  irritating as the first, futilely wishes he could turn back the clock.

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