Even after 10 years of marriage, 30-year-old Kareema Bibi cannot predict how her husband Javed Ahmed will treat her.
“Many days he is fine, but some days he suddenly hits me or is verbally abusive,” Kareema told IRIN. She links these apparently irrational mood swings to developments in another household in the Punjab town of Sheikhupura – that of her older brother, Muhammad Sultan, whose wife Aneesa, 27, is Javed’s sister.
“Whenever Aneesa complains of mistreatment by her husband, my husband punishes me,” she said.
The two couples were wed in a watta satta exchange. The tradition, which literally means ‘give and take', or 'throwing a stone and receiving something back’, refers to the exchange of brides between families.
In watta satta, one brother and sister are married to another pair from another family – often close relatives. More rarely, an uncle-niece pair, or two cousins, may be exchanged by one household – but this is relatively unusual, and practised only when siblings in the right age brackets are not available.
About a third of all marriages in rural Pakistan are carried out on a watta satta basis, according to research. The rate is higher in some parts of the country, such as the southern Sindh province.
The tradition is intended both to exert some control over the money a girl takes out of her own family on marriage, and the amount that comes in with her brother’s bride.
“We can negotiate such matters equitably in cases of such marriages, and avoid tensions over dowry and so on. Both sides agree to give equally,” explained Rubina Bibi, 45, whose eldest son and daughter got married in a watta satta exchange two years ago. She is eager to arrange a similar exchange for her younger children, also a girl and boy.
In Pakistan, a largely conservative society of 158 million inhabitants, the woman’s dowry is often an immense financial burden for families.
However, while the tradition has been criticised, some findings show it may not always work against the interests of women.
A study conducted by the World Bank, entitled ‘Bride Exchange and Women’s Welfare in Rural Pakistan’, released early in 2007 and based on a survey sample of 3,100 women in 171 villages in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, said the practice helps reduce the probability of domestic abuse.
International Women's Day
“The likelihood of marital discord is lower in ‘watta satta’ arrangements as compared to conventional marriages,” said the authors of the paper, Hanan Jacoby and Ghazala Mansuri.
A married woman returning to her own home as a result of marital discord is seen as deeply ‘dishonouring’ and it is thought the ‘watta satta’ arrangement may help prevent this.
Some women are happy to marry in this fashion.
“The arrangement brings our families closer, and there is no tension over my visiting my parents since they are also the in-laws of my husband’s sister and she is there too living with them,” Shaheena Kausar, 24, who lives in Shahdara in Lahore, told IRIN.
Suffering in silence
But rights activists, including Saira Ansari, in charge of the women’s desk at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, disagree.
“These marriages treat women as a commodity, and tension within one household also affects the other. Sometimes women simply suffer in silence to avoid their brother’s marriage being affected,” Ansari said.
Some watta satta arrangements have led to violence. In December 2006, in the southern town of Lodhran in the Punjab, an 18-year-old girl, Kausar Bibi, who did not agree to the marriage, was kidnapped from her house by 10 people. The abductors included her older brother, who said that at the time of his own marriage, it had been agreed his younger sister, when of age, would marry his wife’s brother.
Like other forced marriages, watta satta exchanges would be banned if a new bill tabled in the National Assembly becomes law. However, implementing laws has always proved harder in Pakistan than devising them and ending a deeply engrained practice such as watta satta may not prove easy in the prevailing social and cultural environment.