Suffering in Silence – Marital Rape in Pakistan

January 5, 2023

Marital Rape is a type of domestic violence and sexual abuse in which an individual is subjected to non-consensual intercourse by a spouse, which could either be practiced through force or threat of force. Although it is not uncommon for men to be victims of marital rape but majority of the victims all around the world are women. Until the 20th Century, forceful sexual relations with one’s wife weren’t regarded as a crime, as it was considered the right of a partner to indulge in any form of sexual act with their spouses who were deemed as their properties and thus marital rape was validated by the institution of marriage itself. The criminalization of marital rape gained momentum in Western countries in the late 20th century. During the 1960s and 1970s, the emerging feminist movements in the west challenged the traditionall2y held beliefs about rape within marriage and worked towards the liberation of women by highlighting the right to self-determination of their bodies. In Pakistan, the subject of marital rape still remains a taboo, often brushed under the carpet. Most people don’t even acknowledge the idea of consent of a girl in marriage let alone sexual interactions. In these circumstances it becomes pertinent to ask why does marital rape go unnoticed in Pakistan and what are its implications on married women’s lives?

This article aims to analyze different attitudes that revolve around marital rape, which eventually leads to the ineffectiveness of criminalization of marital rape in Pakistan.

Global Perspective

The American philosopher Ann J. Cahill in her book Rethinking Rape (2001) observes, “Rape, in its total denial of the victim’s agency, will, and personhood, can be understood as a denial of intersubjectivity itself. The self is at once denied and … stilled, silenced, overcome”.[1]

During the 1970s feminist movements played a significant role in changing attitudes towards rape, by classifying rape as a violent crime rather than a mere sexual misconduct. By the 1980s mass campaigns about rape awareness were raised all across the United States.[2] Prior to these movements, stranger rape was still regarded as an offence but marital rape was not even acknowledged. It was not until 1993 that all 50 states of USA declared marital rape a crime.[3] The criminalization initiative taken up by the US was a huge leap forward but exemption provisions in some States serve as loopholes in legal prosecution. The criminalization of marital rape in other parts of the world does not necessary mean that these laws are enforced either. Common reasons include lack of public awareness, as well as reluctance or outright refusal of authorities to prosecute. For instance in Columbia marital rape was criminalized in 1996. Originally it was treated as a lesser offence than other forms of rape, until this was reconsidered under the new penal code. Despite these measures, statistics indicate up to 44% out of 5.3% rape cases were marital in the country.[4]

South Asian Perspective

In their book Marital Rape (2016), authors Kersti Yllö & M. G. Torres argue that marital rape is common across different cultures and is regarded as a locally recognized social violation. Despite so much cultural variation the underlying purpose of this violation is similar across most cultural contexts, which is to impede women’s agency and empowerment. They say, “women across many cultures do experience the violation of rape in marriage—even if the way that such violations are experienced and understood differs from culture to culture”[5]

Writer and academic Saptarshi Mandal highlights the issue of marital rape as perceived in the Indian society. Indian state laws regarding marriage are dictated by classical religious tradition. The act of marriage is thus considered sacred and divinely ordained rather than a contract between two individuals. According to this pretext, the regulation of criminal law is not applicable to any act that takes place within a marriage, which is why marital rape cannot be deemed as a crime under any legal provision.[6]  While religion and tradition influence Indian State Law, according to The Hindu Marriage Act, 1995 an individual who identifies as a Hindu cannot practice polygamy, which is in direct contrast to the classical Hindu texts in which Lord Krishna is said to have multiple wives. The Act and Hindu religion also prohibits a Hindu person either male or female from taking divorce from a partner[7]. Under these circumstances if a Hindu woman is stuck in an abusive relationship she cannot legally leave her husband. The Act does not factor in any form of abuse or rape within the bounds of marriage. This shows the grim attitude of the Indian society towards domestic violence or marital rape.

According to the non-profit Population Council Organization, forced sexual relations among married young couples in developing countries is a common practice. Qualitative studies from Bangladesh, various parts of India and Nepal highlight the vulnerability of newly married adolescent girls who undergo arranged marriage, and are neither familiar with their husbands nor informed about sexual matters. Interviews that were carried out with women who were married off in their teens or preteens, point out that early sexual relations with their husbands were not only forceful but also traumatic. Various testimonies from young women in South Asia reflect their fear and helplessness during such incidents.[8] These studies draw attention to the larger conversation around women’s rights in South Asia and their limitations within the context of a patriarchal culture. Taboos on subjects that have a direct relation to women’s development, including their sole right over their bodies, have a lasting impact on factors such as gender inequality, women’s economic or political participation or even their decision-making powers within the domestic sphere.

The Case of Pakistan

Writer and academic Rubeena Zakar in her book, Intimate Partner Violence Against Women and Its Implications For Women’s Health in Pakistan, explains that Pakistani society is patriarchal nature, which is why most socioeconomic spheres are controlled and dominated by men. This gives them a better standing in society as compared to women who are dependent on them, which is why most men tend to believe that women are their property and that they can utilize them any way they want.[9] The controlling behavior of a husband is closely associated with physical and sexual violence committed against women. In the context of Pakistan, the circumstances of women vary depending on social class, level of education, working status and geographical location, all of which can influence their freedom and personal autonomy. A generalized perception exists that husbands carry out sexual violence and mistreat their wives because of their subordinate and dependent status, but on the contrary, even in cases where women aren’t solely dependent on their husbands, they are still subjected to sexual and other forms of violence, indicating that the issue goes beyond one of financial dependence.

Zakar, Zakar & Krämer carried out research regarding Women’s Coping Strategies Against Spousal Violence in Pakistan. The data they collected showed that a majority of the women used emotion-focused strategies, especially spiritual therapies, which somehow reduced the impact of violence and provided them with psychosocial solace.[10] Nonetheless, these strategies incurred some costs, such as the consumption of scarce resources, time, and emotional energy. Another aspect that their data highlighted was that few women opted for problem-focused strategies, such as seeking help from formal institutions, as these strategies could lead to overt confrontation with their husbands and may result in divorce, the outcome least desired by most Pakistani women, which is why they continue to suffer in silence.[11]

Apart from lack of awareness about the concept of rape within marriage, the fear of public humiliation and loss of family honor play a key role in ineffectiveness of criminalization of marital rape in Pakistan. The legal provision against rape in the Pakistan Penal Code[12] doesn’t explicitly mention marital rape but still the provision recognizes sexual intercourse insides the bounds of the marriage as rape if it takes place against the will of the wife.

Theoretical Frameworks explaining Marital Rape

Feminist Approach

According to feminist theory, patriarchal structures dictate social phenomena of most societies. In this perspective marital rape is an outcome of this structure and is practiced to keep women in servile positions.[13] The feminist view also holds that until women are seen as other than subservient, compliant victims, little will change. It is a deeply embedded social problem that has to be addressed by social change.

Radical Feminist Approach

Adding weight to the Feminist theory, Radical feminists see marital rape as a part of the patriarchal constructions of gender and sexuality within the context of broader systems of male power, and emphasize the harm that rape does to women as a group.

Thus according to the radical feminist approach marital rape is in actuality the elimination of a woman’s bodily sovereignty, which reinforces male control over the sexual and reproductive uses of women’s bodies as a central defining element of patriarchy.[14]

Evolutionary Approach

According to this perspective the desire of men to control women through sexual coercion is rooted in the evolutionary process, the ultimate goal of sexual behavior is to maximize the likely hood of passing one’s genes. Thus it can be stated that husbands practicing marital rape are acting out of evolutionary impulses.[15] This theory is highly criticized, as it tends to justify sexual violence against women.


Factors that perpetuate Marital Rape

Religious and Cultural Factors

Religions all around the world expect its devotees to adhere to a set of traditional values laid out by that religion. In Pakistan, the majority of the population is Muslim. Apart from the cultural stigma associated with divorce, the religion of Islam also discourages divorce, although it does allow it particularly when a partner is violent. Women also have the legal right to divorce in Islam, however interpretations of the religious mandates are often a result of cultural perceptions and within the Pakistani society have led to attitudes that make it very difficult for a woman to even consider ending a violent relationship. Women tend to believe that they would commit a sin by dissolving even an abusive marriage.[16]

Lack of Awareness and Legal Provisions

Many victims in Pakistan remain unaware of the crime being committed against them in the form of marital rape. The idea of consent of a wife remains unacknowledged, as it is expected of her to satisfy the sexual desires of her husband whenever and however he pleases.

The Pakistan Penal Code, in section 375, provides the comprehensive definition of rape:

  1. Rape: A man is said to commit rape who has sexual intercourse with a woman under circumstances falling under any of the five following descriptions,

(i) Against her will.

(ii) Without her consent

(iii) With her consent, when the consent has been obtained by putting her in fear of death or of hurt,

(iv) With her consent, when the man knows that he is not married to her and that the consent is given because she believes that the man is another person to whom she is or believes herself to be married; or

(v) With or without her consent when she is under sixteen years of age.[17]

Although not mentioned explicitly, in principle it can be said the marital rape is criminalized in Pakistan but this information in not common public knowledge, which gives rise to a lot of confusion on police’s and judiciary’s part. Moreover, most cases of marital rape go unreported.

No Reliable Statistics

According to the Aurat Foundation in 2012 an estimated number of 820 rapes and gang rapes were reported in Pakistan but a distinction between marital rape could not be drawn from these reported cases.[18] The statistics for overall rape in Pakistan are not accurate let alone the statistics for marital rape, which is hardly ever reported. The sphere of sex within a marriage is considered an extremely private matter, thus publicizing one’s bedroom life is regarded as a strong taboo in a conservative society like Pakistan. The aspect of shame that accompanies with reporting marital rape hinders many women in bringing this issue forward even to their own family members in the first place.

Effects on the Victim

Marital rape was also found to be associated with depression, as it may lead to a feeling of degradation, negative self image and cause shame, guilt and fear which are known predisposing factors for depression. Some women with history of marital rape report flashbacks, sexual dysfunction, and emotional pain for years after the violence.[19]

Marital rape may be even more depressing than rape by a stranger as victims of marital rape may experience additional trauma of betrayal from their own partner. Intimate sexual violence can be significantly related to poorer physical and mental health conditions.[20] Many victims suffer pre traumatic paralysis and/or dissociation—that is, conditions at the time of trauma that render them unable to protest or resist.[21]

This lack of resistance at times might be taken as consent whereas the victims are undergoing a process of detachment as a coping mechanism because they are unable to escape the circumstance they are in.


Conclusions and Recommendations

Marital rape is a serious crime and a social problem that needs to be addressed. Rape within marriage is not infrequent but the lack of sufficient data in Pakistan fails to show the severity of the matter. Under these circumstances it becomes increasingly difficult to reach out to the victims who often choose to remain silent on the pretext of family honor and morality.

How can things change? 

  • NGOs that serve as mediators between the unaware victim and the legal authorities should be formulated. These NGOs should enlighten the victim with possible legal actions that can be taken. Organizations like Aurat Foundation, Shirkat Gah, Homenet Pakistan, War Against Rape and ActionAid are already working with victims of rape, domestic violence and abuse in Pakistan. These NGOs can expand their work to include the area of marital rape. They can create awareness, and empower women through skills and financial support so they can gain independence from their abusive husbands. The state also needs to support the work of these NGOs by providing them necessary funds, infrastructure and cross-sectoral communication required for their work, for instance with medical centers at the local level.
  • A clear division between stranger rape and marital rape needs to be drawn within the legal framework. Punishment for both the cases should be made more severe and stricter.
  • The government must adopt innovative and effective ways of collecting data on violence against women. In order to improve and encourage reporting of such violence, there needs to be a demonstration of successful cases of criminalization and penalization of perpetrators. The judicial system in collaboration with the bureaucracy needs to build public confidence on the rule of law and justice, particularly for victims of sexual abuse and rape.
  • Religious reforms need to be brought about that highlight the significant status of the wife as an independent individual and not just a mere object. Religious leaders and community leaders have an important role to play here.
  • Parents should provide an encouraging environment for their daughters to speak up against crimes like these. Empowering girls and women will have multiple positive impacts on the Pakistani economic and sociopolitical system and that empowerment needs to begin at home. Information campaigns, the news media and entertainment platforms—all need to pledge alliance to the cause of curbing violence against women and this can come through government-led initiatives but also public-private collaborations.
  • Curriculum reform: Boys and girls alike need to be sensitized about the role of women in society, their economic and social contribution through their formal education. Civic education that promotes women as dignified members of society that need to be respected and supported needs to be developed across all education levels through seminars, workshops and as part of their mainstream academic programs. Non-formal education programs that promote women as individuals that have economic, social and political rights need to be expanded with support from the public sector, private sector and civil society organizations.


About the author

Neesa Abbas is co-editor of Student’s Quarterly and is currently a student of MPhil Public Policy at CPPG. Her research interests include identity politics, social activism, institutional reforms, and women & minority rights.



Ali, F.A., Israr, S.M., Ali, B.S. et al. Association of various reproductive rights, domestic violence and marital rape with depression among Pakistani women. BMC Psychiatry 9, 77 (2009).

Anderson, Michelle J. “Negotiating sex.” S. Cal. L. Rev. 78 (2004): 1401.

Bergen, Raquel Kennedy. “Marital Rape: New Research and Directions. National Online Resource Center On Violence Against Women.” (2006).

Cahill, Ann J. Rethinking rape. Cornell University Press, (2001).

Hofeller, Kathleen H. Battered women, shattered lives. Palo Alto, CA: R & E Research Associates, 1983.

Mandal, Saptarshi. “The impossibility of marital rape: Contestations around marriage, sex, violence and the law in contemporary India.” Australian Feminist Studies 29, no. 81 (2014): 255-272.

McCaughey, Martha. Real knockouts: The physical feminism of women’s self-defense. NYU Press, 1997.

Ganju, Deepika, William Finger, Shireen J. Jejeebhoy, Vijaya Nidadavolu, K. G. Santhya, Iqbal Shah, Shyam Thapa, and Ina Warriner. “Forced sexual relations among married young women in developing countries.” (2004).

Pakistan Penal Code. “Protection of Women”, Penal Code Pakistan (1860)

Report. “Violence Against Women in Colombia”, OMCT. (2003)

Whisnant, Rebecca. “Feminist perspectives on rape.” (2009).

Yllö, Kersti, and M. G. Torres. “Understanding Marital Rape in Global Context.” Marital Rape: Consent, Marriage, and Social Change in Global Context. Oxford (2016): 1-8.

Zakar, Rubeena. Intimate partner violence against women and its implications for women’s health in Pakistan. disserta Verlag, 2012.

Zakar, Rubeena, Muhammad Zakria Zakar, and Alexander Krämer. “Voices of strength and struggle: Women’s coping strategies against spousal violence in Pakistan.” Journal of interpersonal violence 27, no. 16 (2012): 3268-3298.