By Saman Shafiq
Love comes with challenges in any part of the world. In South Asia, these obstacles are even more pronounced, with barriers of caste, race, gender, religion, and ethnicity.
The recent case of Pakistani woman Iqra Jeewani, 19, and Indian Mulayam Singh Yadav, 26, is an example of the kind of barriers faced by cross-border couples in the region. Having met online and fallen in love, the couple married in Nepal, and then entered India. Iqra didn’t have a visa.
A few months later, the Bengaluru police got wind of her presence — likely due to her frequent WhatsApp calls to her family in Pakistan — and imprisoned, then deported her. Yadav remains in prison for helping a Pakistani enter the country illegally.
If such border crossings weren’t criminalised, the couple wouldn’t have been imprisoned and then separated. Iqra wouldn’t need to be deported. “Why can’t South Asia be like the European Union?” asks Beena Sarwar, senior journalist based in Boston.
She was kickstarting an online knowledge-sharing discussion, ‘Celebrating Love: Beyond Borders and Boundaries’, on 26 February organised by the Southasia Peace Action Network, Sapan, that she co-founded.
The vision behind the event, said Sarwar, was to explore the experience of love in the region, introspect on the barriers built against it, and be inspired by those who persist in following their hearts.
Sapan’s monthly discussions typically begin with a presentation of the organisation’s Founding Charter, in this case shared by Shailaja Rao, board president of Tasveer South Asia Film Festival, Seattle.
“Victims of the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria and the ongoing Ukraine war are in our thoughts,” said Dr. Fauzia Deeba, a physician from Quetta based in New Jersey, presenting Sapan’s In Memoriam section commemorating the visionaries whose work Sapan takes forward, besides eminent persons lost over the past month.
There was a special mention for the late human-rights activist Sabeen Mahmud, assassinated in Karachi in 2015, a beloved social entrepreneur who had spun off the popular quote at the back of trucks in Pakistan: “Faasla rakhein, kaheen pyaar na hojaye” — Keep your distance, lest there be love.
, Mahmud rephrased it to: “Faasla na rakhein, pyaar hone dein” — Don’t keep a distance, let there be love.
Love is a personal affair, but in our region it has many social and political ramifications, commented Aekta Kapoor, Delhi-based journalist and founder-member of Sapan, who moderated the panel where several activists from across the region shared experiences and insights about love, marriage, and the challenges involved.
In a cross-community marriage herself, Kapoor talked about how in South Asia, the community is given precedence over individual happiness. “In the process of suppressing individual happiness over centuries, we have encouraged agents of hate, discrimination, and violence,” she added, noting that inter-community marriages “continue to be the exceptions and not the rule” in South Asia.
The Special Marriage Act of 1872 is a colonial-era law still in place in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh for interfaith couples, noted Asif Iqbal, co-founder of Dhanak of Humanity, a nonprofit organisation that offers shelter and legal assistance to interfaith, intercommunity, and same-sex couples in Delhi and across India.
India’s civil law permits people of the same faith to marry of their own will, while interfaith couples have to go through the Special Marriage Act. Unlike Pakistan and Bangladesh, India amended the Act in 1954 to discard the clause that provides for interfaith couples to renounce their faith.
India also requires a 30-day notice period before the marriage can take place, and some states require the couple to remain in the jurisdiction of their official residence for more than one month before they can apply for a marriage license. This poses problems for those working or travelling elsewhere. It also allows hardline community members to intervene and create obstacles for couples.
Dhanak believes that no individual should have to change their name or religion for marriage, said Iqbal.
The right to love is linked to the right to equality, said Rubab Mehdi, a lawyer, interfaith leader, and human-rights activist in Pakistan and the UK. “Love is about the freedom to choose who you want to be with. And this freedom to choose and to think for yourself often scares people from acknowledging love. But once love gets normalised, equality gets normalised because love speaks a universal language. It tends to go beyond boundaries of race and religion”.
Mehdi also highlighted Pakistan’s rich history of love, immortalised in popular folklore where the rebels fought for love, not hate. Some towns in Pakistan like Prem Nagar and Kot Radha Kishan were named for love. “Today, if you look at South Asia, it’s pretty much like the old Venetian culture where marriage is divorced from love. Marriage is based on land and financial interests,” she added.
The situation in Sri Lanka is relatively better though there are communities that demand conversion upon marriage, said award-winning poet Malinda Seneviratne. A former editor-in-chief of The Nation, Colombo, he noted that there is occasional violence, “but the attitudes towards love are generally easy and liberated” in his country.
He made a distinction between the forces of state and community when it comes to defining accepted ‘rules’ for love and marriage – both are not always the same.
The story has two sides, said Kathmandu-based journalist Namrata Sharma, former president of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Nepal. While people have become more open and liberal following the restoration of democracy in 1990 and Nepal’s establishment as a republic, couples continue to be occasionally ostracised for marrying outside their culture, religion, and caste.
“We counsel young couples, we help them get married”, said Jagmati Sangwan, feminist activist, volleyball champion and vice president of All India Democratic Women’s Association, who has been working around honour killing and crimes for over 30 years particularly inter-caste marriages.
“We are parents of so many of them for the purpose of marriage and have been able to get many perpetrators of violence punished,” she added. While the state-mandated safe houses for couples set up in Haryana have become a template for other states in India, they also face backlash from extremist groups and currently also from the ruling establishment.
Violence against couples in south India is often based on caste identities, said Vincent “Kathir” Raj Arokiasamy, co-founder of Tamil Nadu NGO Evidence. After caste, there are issues of patriarchy and class too, but the violence is not confined to these three aspects, he explained. “The perpetrators of violence see a woman’s body as an institution of caste purity.”
Many see marriage within their caste as essential to protect their community. They view women as inferior, but also a way to protect and produce caste. This forms the foundation of arranged marriages based on caste rather than a woman’s consent.
South India’s history of honour killing is not widely known, said Kathir. In addition, there are “honour suicides” that are hidden from the public eye. “The virgin goddesses of our land were actually women who were killed for honour.”
Kolkata-based Bangladeshi environmental activist Natasha Ahmed spoke about her cross-border marriage and the challenges she faces living in India with her husband and children. Her sister is married to a man of Pakistani origin. They face many complications meeting each other’s families due to the visa restrictions between India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
“Ironically, it is exactly these three countries that were one country at one time. But it’s like we’re constantly punishing each other!” commented Aekta Kapoor.
In conclusion, it is clear that while some communities and governments create challenges for people, others support couples and lift them up, said Kavita Ramdas, New York-based advocate for gender equity and justice, and a former director of the Women’s Rights Program at the Open Society Foundations. It is important to recognise and support those that are creating a positive impact, she added.
“What Sapan is trying to do is crazily impossible — imagine a South Asia that would be visa-free,” she said. It is a dream she and her family buy into, given that her Pakistani husband cannot visit her parents in India due to visa restrictions.
“But I think we have to have crazy impossible dreams because without them we never get to change our reality. Maybe our next generation will have some better opportunities because of the work that people like yourselves and so many others are doing.”
“May we take these messages of love and poetry and possibility to heart. I think it’s very important to keep dreams alive.”
Saman Shafiq is a digital journalist, visual storyteller, and researcher based in New York. This is a Sapan News syndicated piece.