Traditional Kinship Patterns

Traditional Kinship Patterns

Pakistani social life revolves around family and kin. Even among members of the most Westernized elite, family retains its overarching significance. The family is the basis of social organization, providing its members with both identity and protection. Rarely does an individual live apart from relatives; even male urban migrants usually live with relatives or friends of kin. Children live with their parents until marriage, and sons often stay with their parents after marriage, forming a joint family.

The household is the primary kinship unit. In its ideal, or extended, form, it includes a married couple, their sons, their sons' wives and children, and unmarried offspring. Sons establish separate households upon their father's death. Whether or not an extended household endures depends on the preferences of the individuals involved. Quarrels and divisiveness, particularly among the women (mother-in-law and daughters-in-law), can lead to the premature dissolution of a joint household.

Descent is reckoned patrilineally, so only those related through male ancestors are considered relatives. The biradari, or group of male kin (the patrilineage), plays a significant role in social relations. Its members neither hold movable property in common nor share earnings, but the honor or shame of individual members affects the general standing of the biradari within the community. A common proverb expresses this view: "One does not share the bread, but one shares the shame."

In theory, members of a biradari are coresidents of a single village. In some areas, however, land fragmentation and generations of out-migration have led to the dispersal of many members of the biradari among various villages, regions, and cities. Patrilineal kin continue to maintain ties with their natal village and enjoy the legal right of first refusal in any biradari land sale.

Members of a biradari celebrate the major life events together. Patrilineal kin are expected to contribute food and to help with guests in the ceremonies accompanying birth, marriage, death, and major religious holidays. The biradari has traditionally served as a combined mutual aid society and welfare agency, arranging loans to members, assisting in finding employment, and contributing to the dowries of poorer families.

There is considerable pressure for patrilineal kin to maintain good relations with one another. Biradari members who quarrel will try to resolve their differences before major social occasions so that the patrilineage can present a united front to the village. People with sons and daughters of marriageable age keenly feel the necessity to maintain good relations because a person whose family is at odds with his or her biradari is considered a poor marriage prospect.

Although descent is reckoned patrilineally, women maintain relations with their natal families throughout life. The degree of involvement with maternal kin varies among ethnic groups and among regions of the country. The tie between brother and sister is typically strong and affectionate; a woman looks to her brothers for support in case of divorce or widowhood early in her marriage. In those regions where families maintain considerable contact with maternal kin, children, even though they are members of their father's patrilineage, are indulged by their mother s kin. Just as a family's relations with its biradari are considered in evaluating a potential spouse, so in these regions may the mother's kin be assessed.

Marriage is a means of allying two extended families; romantic attachments have little role to play. The husband and wife are primarily representatives of their respective families in a contractual arrangement, which is typically negotiated between two male heads of household. It is fundamentally the parents' responsibility to arrange marriages for their children, but older siblings may be actively involved if the parents die early or if they have been particularly successful in business or politics. The terms are worked out in detail and are noted, by law, at the local marriage registry.

Marriage is a process of acquiring new relatives or reinforcing the ties one has with others. To participate fully in society, a person must be married and have children, preferably sons, because social ties are defined by giving away daughters in marriage and receiving daughters-in-law. Marriage with one's father's brother's child is preferred, in part because property exchanged at marriage then stays within the patrilineage. The relationship between in-laws extends beyond the couple and well past the marriage event. Families related by marriage exchange gifts on important occasions in each others lives. If a marriage is successful, it will be followed by others between the two families. The links thus formed persist and are reinforced through the generations. The pattern of continued intermarriage coupled with the occasional marriage of nonrelatives creates a convoluted web of interlocking ties of descent and marriage.

A woman's life is difficult during the early years of marriage. A young bride has very little status in her husband s household; she is subservient to her mother-in-law and must negotiate relations with her sisters-in-law. Her situation is made easier if she has married a cousin and her mother-in-law is also her aunt. The proper performance of all the elaborate marriage ceremonies and the accompanying exchange of gifts also serve to enhance the new bride's status. Likewise, a rich dowry serves as a trousseau; the household goods, clothing, jewelry, and furniture included remain the property of the bride after she has married.

Marriage also involves a dower, called haq mehr, established under Islamic law, the sharia. Although some families set a symbolic haq mehr of Rs32 in accordance with the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, others may demand hundreds of thousands of rupees.

A wife gains status and power as she bears sons. Sons will bring wives for her to supervise and provide for her in her old age. Daughters are a liability, to be given away in an expensive marriage with their virginity intact. Therefore, mothers favor their sons. In later life, the relationship between a mother and her son remains intimate, in all likelihood with the mother retaining far more influence over her son than his wife has.

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