Pakistani families don't like airing their dirty laundry; tradition demands that family conflicts and disagreements should be kept away from public scrutiny. Most Pakistanis have grown up with the phrase "Log kya kehengey" ("what will people say?"), used to blackmail them into silence and secrecy when marriages are in trouble, or darker problems such as domestic violence or abuse raise their heads.
So when Faryal Makhdoom, British boxer Amir Khan's wife, turned to social media to share her marital issues with the world, alleging that her husband's family was bullying her physically and mentally, some praised Makhdoom for speaking out, while others condemned her for her indiscretion. Makhdoom herself stated that she'd had enough of their bullying and had decided to speak out on behalf of other girls and women facing the same – or worse – circumstances.
Khan's parents and siblings claimed that Makhdoom was not telling the truth, or exaggerating her claims. One of his sisters, Mariya, posted her own picture with the caption "Do I look like I can beat someone up?". Amir's father Sajjad denied accusations of violence, but admitted that they had addressed Faryal's attire. Yet Amir admitted there were grounds forcomplaint when he said: "Since I've been married I've seen how my family and siblings have treated her. It wasn't fair." However, he added: "I'm not happy that it's come out. It was a private matter and should've kept private."
Makhdoom refused to back down and on Tuesday (13 December) posted a picture on Snapchat of her brother-in-law sleeping "naked and drunk" in a bed. She claimed that she was being abused by her in-laws because she didn't dress the way a proper Muslim woman should, and posted the photo to illustrate the double standard. This prompted her husband to issue a statement apologising for Makhdoom's Snapchat photo, with reports that he would leave both his wife and his family if they continued their row in public.
The "scandal" has obviously been very painful for all the family members involved, with the "he-said-she-said" approach to this issue being counterproductive. Amir, a man willing to take a beating in the boxing ring, seems to feel that being in the middle of a family conflict is a far worse ordeal. But it has done one very useful thing: it has blown the lid off the the bullying of daughter-in-laws, which is horrifically common in South Asian culture, among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians.
While we can't comment on the details in the Khan family, South Asian mother-in-laws openly speak of looking forward to the day that their sons will marry so that there will be someone in the household to "help" with all the domestic chores. But often the new member of the family will be treated like a servant, unable to refuse any demands or defend herself against any abuse because of deference to their elders. Beatings and other forms of physical violence are commonplace. Bride-burnings or dowry deaths occur in South Asia and even Iran, where a family will harass or abuse a daughter-in-law in order to get her family to hand over more dowry.
Bride-burnings or dowry deaths occur in South Asia and even Iran, where a family will harass or abuse a daughter-in-law in order to get her family to hand over more dowry
We mistakenly think of domestic abuse and bullying of daughter-in-laws as a problem for the poor or the uneducated, but is not the essential element. It is a power dynamic fuelled by a patriarchal system that designates the husband's family members as the enforcers of authority over women's lives.
Mothers, fathers and siblings are expected to police young women, who feel they have no choice but to bow their heads and obey. Traumatised, they dream of the day when they will have a son and his wife under their control – and so the cycle continues.
By speaking out about her situation, it seems Faryal Makhdoom has committed the biggest sin: refusing to take part in this cycle of behaviour, and refusing to keep quiet about it. Posting her brother-in-law's "naked" photograph on Snapchat certainly wasn't the right way to raise awareness about this issue, but at least it got everyone's attention.
So now that the dramatics are out of the way, let the real conversation about domestic abuse of daughter-in-laws begin.
Bina Shah is a writer based in Karachi, Pakistan. She is a frequent contributor to the International New York Times, the Dawn, Al Jazeera, and Newsweek Pakistan. Her novel, A Season For Martyrs, takes place in the last three months of Benazir Bhutto's life. Twitter: @binashah