Bartered in marriage: The bride exchange in rural Pakistan
Bartered in marriage: The bride exchange in rural Pakistan
Your urban feminist sensibilities (even if you are a man) may be offended to learn that two economists from the World Bank have determined that women married in watta satta (barter) marriages face less marital discord than the rest in rural Pakistan.
Barter marriages involve the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister pair from one family to a sister-brother pair in another family. Thus, when a man marries a woman, his wife’s brother simultaneously marries the man’s sister. The practice is common in rural Pakistan.
Barter marriages are often despised by the urbanites, who consider the practice to be a reflection of tribal customs common among illiterate and low-income households. There are numerous reported cases of women (and men) married off in watta satta exchanges against their will, and who were later subjected to domestic violence. The literature on gender equity holds a disparaging view of barter marriages and considers such unions a violation of womens’ basic human rights. How then can two leading economists from the World Bank, Ghazala Mansuri and Hanan Jacoby, conclude that the likelihood of marital discord in barter marriages is lower than in non-barter marriages?
Jacoby and Mansuri published their findings in the prestigious journal, American Economic Review. The authors also made available the data and algorithms on the journal’s website for others to explore their findings first hand. Yours truly could not resist the temptation, and downloaded the data to determine under what circumstances barter marriages are likely to be preferred.
A systematic review of Jacoby and Mansuri’s data however reveals conflicting trends where women in barter marriages appear to have a higher likelihood of marital discord. It is only after subjecting data to advanced statistical methods that women in barter marriages appear better off than the rest.
Jacoby and Mansuri collected data from over 3,000 households in which one in five women reported being subjected to physical abuse by their husbands. Women in barter marriages reported a slightly higher rate for abuse than the rest. In addition, one in five women had once been estranged from their husbands. Again, women in barter marriages reported a higher rate of estrangement.
According to their data, 36 per cent of all unions are barter marriages in rural Pakistan. However, the practice is more frequent in some areas than others. For instance, watta satta unions accounted for as many as 65 per cent of marriages in Nawabshah, Sindh, and about half in Larkana, the hometown of the Bhutto clan, but a mere seven per cent in Attock, Punjab. The practice seems more prevalent in Sindh and the Saraiki belt than in Punjab. With such a wide variation in barter marriage rates across Pakistan, one should hesitate to generalise conclusions for the entire country.
In order to understand the practice, one may want to speculate about the motivations of parents (fathers mostly) who force their daughters (and sons) into barter marriages. The most commonly held belief is that such marriages ensure instinctive reciprocity that allows a father to manage the welfare of his daughter by linking it directly with the welfare of his son-in-law’s sister. If the daughter is mistreated or forced to return to parents’ home after a quarrel with her in-laws, her parents would dispatch their daughter-in-law back to her parents’ house in a quid pro quo.
The above rationale for barter marriages may sound primitive, but watta satta marriages appear to be the antecedent to, and a little different from, a modern military strategy: Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which is recognised by defence strategists as being an effective deterrent to hostilities.
Whereas poor illiterate parents may choose watta satta marriages for their children for economic reasons, the landed rural gentry may also choose similar unions in order to maintain their land holdings intact. By marrying off their daughters in barter marriages, the landed gentry can ensure that neither side demands land in inheritance for their daughters. Also, some parents may use their daughter as the bait to get a mate for their son, who may not be fit for marriage in the first place.
Parent’s literacy and land holdings are instrumental in decisions regarding barter marriages. The data reveals that illiterate fathers who own more than 100 kanals (12.5 acres) of land are most likely to wed their children in barter marriages. On the other hand, literate fathers (with primary education or higher), who own less than 100kanals, are least likely to force their children into barter marriages.
The demographic composition of the household is also instrumental in barter marriages, which are more common in households where slightly older unmarried brothers are available for the barter. Women married in barter marriages on average have more brothers than other women. Similarly, women in barter marriages had fewer sisters than the rest.
Watta satta marriages are yet another manifestation of endogamy. Whereas almost 77 per cent of women in the sample were married to men who were their blood relatives, 86 per cent of women in barter marriages reported the same.
Interestingly, while consanguineous marriages are decried by geneticists for having a higher rate of congenital diseases among children resulting from such unions, Jacoby and Mansuri data revealed some side benefits of such unions for women. Women married to cousins were less likely to be subjected to physical abuse from their husbands than the rest. In fact 33 per cent of women in barter marriages who were not married to cousins reported physical abuse compared to 20 per cent of women who were married to their cousins.
While numerous tabulations derived from their data show that women in barter marriages report a slightly higher rate of estrangement and physical abuse, Jacoby and Mansuri rely on advanced statistical techniques (accounting for endogeneity in endogamy) to conclude the contrary.
The men and women bartered in marriage perhaps would not care much for the calculus that shows them to be better off than the rest. Their fundamental right to choose a spouse is denied in barter marriages. The barter of free will for a small benefit in welfare is never a fair deal.
Those poor, rural parents who are motivated by the desire to insure their daughters’ welfare by forcing them into a barter marriage need to be advised that such unions may not offer the safeguards they covet. As for women who may be forced into barter marriages by their parents for selfish reasons, e.g., to preserve land holdings for their male offsprings, the State should offer legal protection and shelter to those women who choose not to be bartered in marriage.
Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org