Pakistan: a story of culture and religion

Pakistan is a country famed for its religious extremism and less known for its geographical, historical and cultural diversity. My country gained independence from ruling British government and majority Hindu population in 1947 and since then has fought three major wars, seen three Martial Laws, experienced an unending political turmoil (which only seems to end at 2008 when the first democratically elected government completed its term in 2013 and was replaced by another democratically elected government) and a long tiresome war against terrorism. But the history of my country starts from 5500 BCE with rise of Indus Civilization; then transcends to Taxila (1) and transcends to Kartar Pura which is the place of origin of Sikhism (2).

In this moment, while sitting at a stone near the university campus lake, if I close my eyes the first memory that comes in my mind is of the childhood house in Mirpur City where all the cousins, both first and distant ones, lived together in supervision of our one elder brother, our Bhai (which is brother in urdu), who, after completing his education, was working with the government. Now when I relate it with the China Culture class, I perfectly understand the analogy of trees that become tall and benefit everyone with its shade. Thus, that house is the perfect example of a collective cultural society where one cousin’s responsibility was the education of all younger siblings and cousins who respected his authority.

«There, houses never had boundary walls; court yards were always considered a shared property»

The second memory is when I used to visit our village. There, houses never had boundary walls; court yards were always considered a shared property. All the kids of the village played in the corn fields all day long and parents never once worried for their safety. I distinctly remember my mother, Ammi jee, never even tried to find where I was in the village during the day. Whereas, now a days my 4-year-old niece does not have this liberty. Now all the homes in village have a boundary wall. Now rarely any distant cousin will live at your house.

How do these transitions take place? Let’s start from my grandfather, who was youngest of two brothers and had three sisters. Like my childhood house, they also lived with all the distant cousins in Jammu (a city in Indian administered Kashmir) under the supervision of my grandfather’s elder brother, who at that time was working there as sub inspector and took the responsibility of educating the whole clan. There, my grandfather proved to be an outlier and rather completing his higher education he joined the Army.

Getting married in my culture was and is a family matter; family ties could either be strengthened or destroyed over such matters. Thus, marriage was arranged in a way that it extended the family amongst different villages. This was the very fact why both his elder brothers, despite being highly educated, married within the family honoring the will of their elders. Where in this case also my grandfather proved to be divergent, as he fell in love with his maternal cousin, lucky for him! Had she been someone out of family then this story would have been an entirely different one. This first love marriage did shake the very foundations of the whole family, but since it was a case between two families, this sin was easily forgiven as this marriage helped strengthen the family ties with a very distant ancestral village, both in generation succession and longevity.

«My grandfather’s elder brother was martyred in combat, and the rest of the cousins also lost their lives»

Little did rest of the Jammu clan know what fate awaited them, when they faced 1947 Jammu Massacre (3) amidst of independence struggle. My grandfather’s elder brother was martyred in combat, and the rest of the cousins also lost their lives; only two boys were able to escape and reached back to tell the story to the rest of family. This was a major setback for the entire valley as all the educated lot was wiped out over a night.

I remember there were three married men who lost their lives in Jammu Massacre and their young widows spent their whole lives mourning over their death, living their lives in full compliance with the culture of the time. I wonder why they never remarried. Although the doctrine of Islam encourages remarriage (4), the culture of that time said “when you go to your husband’s house then only your funeral can come out of there”, because culture always supersedes religion in matter of practice. Who knew at that time, only after two generations, women of the family will have voice to get divorce and remarry within their free will?

They say that new born girls were buried alive in Arab world before the advent of Islam, it liberated Arabs from this brutality. But the Muslims of my valley were not free from this baggage and girls were still seen as a burden and fathers cried on the birth of a daughter. My grandfather proved to be different in this sense as well: he celebrated the birth of all his three daughters so that they were always welcomed to stay at their father’s home even after getting married. In fact, he made a house for his beloved younger daughter near his home so that she could live in front of his eyes. A move which was rebuked by whole family, but my grandfather was not amongst the people who cared much about others opinions.

«This interwoven web of cousin marriages is so complex that every first person in the family was somehow my cousin-sibling»

All the marriages amongst this second tier of the generation also took place within the family. This interwoven web of cousin marriages is so complex that every first person in the family was somehow my cousin-sibling. Even the wife of my maternal uncle from the lineage of my father is my cousin-sister but she is also my aunt; and so, this complex relationship continues with my cousins who at one end are my first cousins and from another end I am their aunty. Even amongst these cousin marriages my father married out of love, just like my grandfather. When elders were deciding to marry my mother, my Mama jani, with the elder brother of my father, he showed his interest for her and that’s how my parents got married.

Since my father like his father before him never pursued higher education and left for United Arab Emirates to try his luck, he did not leave his wife behind and thus my Mama jani became the first woman of the family who traveled internationally and went abroad to live with her husband; that’s how I was conceived 6 years after the birth of my elder sister.

«Later, she became the first girl of the family who traveled alone to another city to study medicine and eventually became a doctor»

Now, the story of my elder sister is a pivotal point which changed the course of history for girl’s education in our valley: when my sister was young she started going to a local school in our village. During playtime she had a fight with another girl but this fight became a matter of shame for two families, so my mother’s elder sister, my Ammi jee, who was living in Mirpur, intervened and decided that my elder sister would not study in that school anymore and she would go to a school in the city, which is how my sister joined the league of my childhood home where all the cousins lived together for education (how that house became my home is a different twist that will be explained later). Later, she became the first girl of the family who traveled alone to another city to study medicine and eventually became a doctor, a step for which my father had to fight everyone in the clan to take, and yet it paved the way for other girls to go out and study.

As per custom, during her journey my sister also got engaged within the family after finishing her High School education. However, when my father saw her studies will take a longer time and family members pressed him to marry his daughter, he took another bold move and broke the engagement. He bravely faced the rebuke from family but never did he falter once.

Since my father grew up in a household where he saw his father showing a great deal of love and respect for his wife and daughters, he adopted the same values. Not only he grew up loving his mother and sisters but also dearly loved his wife and three daughters to the level that his only son sometimes felt jealous of it. His respect for women was not limited to his closed family as he also respected his cousin sister and the only elder sister of his wife, my Ammi Jee.

«That’s how instead of Esha Zahoor (Zahoor is the name of my real father) I became Esha Iqbal.»

This respect of elders and extended family members is the only logical explanation with which I can explain my adoption story: Yes, I was eventually adopted by my maternal aunt. The narration of my adoption that was given to me was that my mother visited her sister’s house with me and my younger brother and on her way home, my same cousin-brother, my Bhai who had taken the responsibility of the education of rest of the family took me away from mother and into another room, which meant that that would to be my home now. My mother went back home crying. That’s how instead of Esha Zahoor (Zahoor is the name of my real father) I became Esha Iqbal.

The interesting thing is that my father respected this decision and never took any action but continued to provide my living and educational expenses. When I analyze it from the perspective of culture it makes perfect sense: how could my mother, Mama jani object in front of her elder sister, Ammi jee, who did not had any children of her own and how could my father go against his wife or his elder cousin-sister? What would have family members said? That’s how my biological mother became my Mama jani, whereas my mother who adopted me and had a deep influence on my personality became my Ammi jee.

«(…) my Ammi jee who had an unfulfilled, childless life became a philanthropist and natural care giver of the entire family.»

My Ammi jee got married to one of her maternal cousins at a very young age, Muhammad Iqbal. He spent all his life in England and never once tried to take her with him as this forced marriage was also one of the cultural baggages placed on his shoulders which he could not accept until his last days; he passed away in 2013. Yet all my life I have seen my Ammi jee faithfully serving his family. To an extent that my Bhai, the cousin brother in my childhood house who eventually helped in my adoption, was actually the nephew of Mr. Iqbal whom Ammi jee generously took in and helped in his education. Thus, my Ammi jee who had an unfulfilled, childless life became a philanthropist and natural care giver of the entire family. She took in all the cousin siblings in her household for education. Everyone who ever got sick in the village came and stayed at our home in Mirpur.

By doing this not only she was able to live a content life despite her misfortune but this also earned her a very powerful status within the family. Everyone respected her decisions and she was considered the head of delegation in all family counsels convened to take major decisions of marriage and resolving conflict amongst family members. She became and still is the iron lady of the family and I feel so blessed to be chosen to be her daughter. My name Esha Iqbal is again against the doctrines of Islam i.e. a child should be called by the name of his or her biological father to protect their identity (5), but my parents did it just to give their sister happiness of having her own child.

«I went to my real parents’ home to further continue my education since it was one dream that my Ammi jee had planted deep into my heart.»

To further strengthen the relations, Ami jee married my Bhai with the daughter of her elder brother. But this strategic decision never paid off well, as her daughter in law, her own niece, became jealous of the respect he gave to her aunt and eventually it led up to the separation of our family. Because of the marriage they moved to Bhai’s home, but then my Ammi jee, in all her dignity, went back to our village and renovated the old house. I went to my real parents’ home to further continue my education since it was one dream that my Ammi jee had planted deep into my heart, as a child I was not a very bright student.

From here my personal story started gaining some momentum and I started to throw little pebbles in the changing water of our culture. When I took the decision of pursuing admission in Pakistan’s top University in the capital city of Islamabad, my father supported me. For my final year internship, I decided to do a project with an NGO in the remotest area of Kashmir where we did not even had telephones to connect back home. Both of my mothers were against this but my father allowed his daughter to go there for a month with a bunch of strangers. Even using the lens of culture, I cannot explain to this date how he took this decision. To understand his cultural dilemma let me explain how hard it was for him: when I came back after a month and he came to pick me with my maternal uncle I was all excited to tell him the stories of the place but he told me to stay quiet about my journey. Later I realized it was kept a secret even from my maternal uncle. After all, who could send their young daughter with strangers to an unknown place? I was 22 years old at the time.

«The very same people who once called names for my father now respect him deeply.»

In 2012 I got a fellowship to USA for three weeks and thus I became the first ever girl of the family to travel abroad for educational purposes. My father’s continuous support for his daughters helped the other family members to give this independence to their girls. Now, after years two other girls of the family were also allowed to go and study in a different city of the country. The very same people who once called names for my father now respect him deeply.

As I am currently sitting in China writing this story, I yet have to narrate one more account in this journey of transformation. In 2016, I was working in Lahore; a different city from my home town. My Ammi jee thought it was time for me to get married as I was now 27 years old. Overnight a distant cousin was discovered and I was asked to meet the gentleman to decide. In their minds it was again something new in our culture that a girl was allowed to meet the boy and was given an option to decide. This gesture later proved as a diplomatic symbol and this decision was pretty much imposed on me. I told my father that I wasn’t comfortable marrying this complete stranger. He gave me assurance that everything would happen as I wanted to. One thing he said was “just talk to your Ammi jee”. Here three powerful women of my family, Ammi jee, Mama jani and my sister (who gained the power when she became first doctor of the family) played a major role and, despite my resistance of one month, I ended up signing the marriage contract.

«Again, culture won over religion»

While looking back to that day only with the perspective of culture I can understand how and why my father who supported me all my life ended up betraying me. He had the pressure of not only his family but also from the women of his own household. When all the guests were gathered in our house how could I bruise my father’s honor by saying “no”?, though irrespective of the fact that doctrine of Islam gave me right to say no and chose a partner of my own choice (6). Again, culture won over religion and it was this culture that hit me on the face so hard that I could not comprehend how an educated girl could do this to herself.

I was broken and unhappy with this imposed relation which was not consummated by that time as I had only signed the contract and did not move to his house with him. I knew I was not as strong as Ammi jee was, to live with this bondage so I asked for a divorce. My family was shocked.

The events in between are not very pleasant ones: after a heavy struggle of a year and half I got divorced on 8th October 2017, eventually with the help and support of my family and father who by then were on my side and fully supported me. After closing this brutal chapter, it was clear that I would never bow again to any such pressure but it was also clear that I did not had any liberty to force my own desired partner on them.

«As marriage is not between two people it’s between two families, determining family compatibility was crucial.»

This decision again had to be implemented using culturally appropriate maneuvers. With the help and support of my elder sister I introduced my family to one of my colleagues who lived in another city, was from another caste system and was 3 years younger than me. First my sister and Mama jani met the guy to see if he was appropriate for me. Then Ammi jee and Papa Jani were taken in confidence. Then it took almost two years for both families to meet each other back and forth. As marriage is not between two people it’s between two families, determining family compatibility was crucial. Finally, I got engaged in August, 2019. It’s so easy to say in words but I know how far my family had to come to take this decision; from cousin marriages to giving a consent to a family from another caste system.

The world observes an event in isolation and tags it as oppression against women. Can I accuse my father and family for that forced marriage? No. For a fair amount of my life my Ammi jee, my father, my Mama jani and my sister had been and still continue to be the strongest pillars of my story and I will keep gaining strength from their presence in my life. In mere three generations, I saw the cultural shift of respecting women, higher education for women and flexibility of choosing life partners. This story is my personal tale of family and kinship ties, gender relations, culture and religion, and how they changed my life forever. It made me strong and it gave me wisdom: that to change culture you need to have patience and understanding rather being reckless and upfront.

Text: Esha Iqbal. Illustrations: Deisa Tremarias. Editing: Sahili Franco. Graphic design: Juan Miguel Hernández y Kael Abello


  1. Puri, B. N. (2020, April 3). Taxila. Retrieved from Encyclopedia Britannica. UNESCO . (1980). Retrieved from World Heritage List.
  2. Regan, H., Saifi, S., & Suri, M. (2019, November 8). India-Pakistan ‘peace corridor’ opens Sikh temple to tourists. Retrieved from CNN.
  3. Fareed, R. (2017, November 7). The forgotten massacre that ignited the Kashmir dispute. Retrieved from Aljazeera.
  4. Al Quran Chapter 2: verse 234.
  5. Íbid. Chapter 33 Verse 5.
  6. Islamic Relief Worldwide. (n.d.). An Islamic perspective on Forced and Child Marriage. Islamic Relief Worldwide.

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