Image Description: A photograph of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. There is a flag of Pakistan, made up of a green field with a white vertical stripe, a white crescent and five-pointed star, hoisted on top of this building. This was photographed by the author (Rida Tahir).
On November 23rd, 2021, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah of the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SC) delivered the judgment in Haseen Ullah v Naheed Begum. This judgment held that a husband is obligated to provide ‘maintenance’ to his wife under Islamic laws so long as she is faithful to him and fulfills (or is willing to fulfill) her matrimonial obligations. The Arabic word for maintenance is ‘Nafaqah’, which can be defined as ‘an amount spent by a person over his family’. According to Muslim legal scholars, maintenance can include anything, which is essential to lead a life such as, food, clothing, and residence.
The brief facts of the case are that Naheed Begum (Respondent) filed a case in the Family Court against her husband (Petitioner) for maintenance for herself and her five minor children (three daughters and two sons). The Petitioner had contracted a second marriage and was living with his second wife. The Family Court decreed her case to the extent of her claim for the maintenance of her minor children but rejected her claims for her own maintenance. Subsequently, she filed an appeal to the District Court, but her appeal was dismissed.
Thereafter, the Respondent invoked the constitutional jurisdiction of the Peshawar High Court (PHC) under Article 199 of the Constitution of Pakistan against the judgments of the lower courts. On March 9th, 2020, the PHC allowed her constitutional petition and reversed the judgments of the lower courts. The PHC decreed her maintenance. Subsequently, the Petitioner filed a petition to the SC against the judgment of the PHC.
In coming to its judgment, the SC referred to the Holy Quran. The SC placed reliance on Chapter 4 verse 34 of the Holy Quran, which states that: ‘’Men are the caretakers of women, as men have been provisioned by Allah over women and tasked with supporting them financially.’’ Further, the SC stated in paragraph 9 of the judgment that the Holy Prophet (PBUH) had instructed “Muslim men to provide their wives with maintenance in a fitting manner and declared it to be the right of the women.” The SC held that under Islamic law, a wife’s right to receive maintenance from her husband is absolute where she remains faithful to him and fulfills her matrimonial obligations. The SC also held that a Muslim husband is bound to maintain his wife even if no terms in this regard were agreed to between them at the time of marriage or if she is able to maintain herself through her own resources.
Pakistan is a patriarchal society. While women are placed in reproductive roles, men are placed in productive roles as breadwinners. The State thus fails to provide sufficient educational, and employment opportunities to women and girls. Women’s economic dependence on men exacerbates conditions of oppression for women and children. In 2022, Pakistan ranked 145 out of 146 countries on the gender parity index. For instance, over 70% of women in Pakistan are unable to enter into employment because their husbands or fathers do not allow them to. In lieu of entering the workforce, Pakistani women are instead expected to perform unpaid domestic labour.
Given the current conditions of gendered labour in Pakistan, the SC’s judgment reinforces patriarchal societal norms. The ruling asserts that men are obligated to provide ‘maintenance’ to their wives in exchange for them performing their matrimonial obligations. Though the SC did not define or explain what a wife’s ‘matrimonial obligations’ include, in Pakistan these obligations usually encompass bearing and rearing children and household chores. Matrimonial obligations prevent women from enrolling in higher education, joining the workforce, and achieving financial independence. As a result, women rely on men for material support, a dynamic that further reinforces patriarchal norms.
Pakistan should take initiatives to redress these gender imbalances, such as gender sensitive budgetary allocation in all sectors—especially in health and education. Such investments would allow women and girls to achieve economic independence and rise from their subordinate status in the household—ultimately reducing gender inequality across Pakistan.