Culture and Religion - by Amna Sheikh

Updated: Oct 15, 2021

In the history of Pakistan, the way culture and the religion of Islam have integrated into each other has created a distorted image of the two domains. It is often hard to understand whether a certain practice or a societal norm is coming from the religion itself or from the cultural image of the religion. In fact, it is saddening to see that people pick and choose religion according to what aligns with their culture, be it family culture, community culture, or national culture.

To be more specific, I aim to highlight some common practices in our country that are attributed to religion to gain authenticity, whereas in reality, they have evolved from our culture. Let’s take the example of marriage. Islamic scholars have addressed in multiple sermons that every sane adult has a right to marry by their choice and the consent of the two parties involved is crucial. There are numerous examples indicating that a woman must not be married without her consent. However, a very common practice that we have seen in most Pakistani households is women being pressured to marry where their parents wish them to be. Additionally, cousin marriages are fixed at an early age when the two adults have not yet reached puberty, in the honor and benefit of the families or their community. What parents use to justify this is the statement that religion has given parents guardianship so they 'know better' and possess the right to marry off their children wherever they think is appropriate. This tradition is so widespread and acceptable in our society that rebellion leads to homelessness of young adults, exclusion from inheritance and the cutting of blood ties.

Another common example is women who are occupied with household chores are told that it is their religious duty alone. Women pursuing their careers after marriage becomes a question of religion for many. However, this practice has more of a cultural significance than a religious one. Women are held accountable for doing something that is perceived as almost equivalent to being a sin, whereas men are specially instructed not to enter the kitchen because it is only a female’s role. Religiously, it is completely disregarded since the Prophet SAW at his time also used to do his chores himself and so would his other companions in Islamic history. Giving women a choice to stay at home or pursue their career is different than imposing upon them to take care of the house because it is 'only their responsibility' according to religion. This distorted view of religion coming from many religious and educated families has further blurred the line between culture and religion. Many patriarchal societies in history have supported this notion and often attributed it to the religion itself, whereas it was actually their cultural interpretation of religion.

Moreover, the concept of living in a joint family system again comes from culture, rather than religion. Even married women who choose to stay at home are required to take care of the entire family and cook for them. However, religion gives woman the right to ask for a separate living from her husband. This becomes even more important when the household has a toxic environment. Women, in most cases, are under the threat of cultural and religious taboos which don’t let them accept their rights, let alone advocate for them. More so, they are given instructions on how Islam requires them to live within the husband’s extended family under all conditions. Even when a man decides to provide his wife with a separate living, they both are asked to cut off ties with the family. It becomes more of an ego issue for the elderly if their children ask for their rights given by religion itself.