Rape is a sexually violent act in which the victim gets caught up in a trauma vortex that takes years and years to escape. A single incident of rape has the potency to deeply affect its victim at multiple levels; with short-term effects and long-term ones that encompass a constellation of drastic and chronic, physical and psychological effects.

Marital rape is an act of sexual violence in which the victim is engaged in non-consensual sex by the spouse; who is the perpetrator in this case. The most alarming element of marital rape is that firstly, it is never perceived as rape and secondly, proving it in a court of law—if one does find the courage to report—is next to impossible. Marital rape is like any other rape in Pakistani law and is punishable with death by hanging or up to 25 years in prison.

To date, there has only been a single incident of a case against marital rape that was filed in the entire history of Pakistan.

I almost hold my breath when I imagine the horror a woman is exposed to in a relationship which she hopes to be a safe harbour for her. What is even harder to digest is that many women are not even aware that they are subjected to forced sex and that they have a right to say no.

It shakes me to my core when I think of what a woman endures, imperilled to sexual viciousness day in and out by none other than her trusted partner. The magnitude of the implications of being raped can only be fully experienced and felt by the whose rights to her body is exercised by her spouse.

Marital rape comes in the realm of domestic violence and there are many women, who along with being physically and verbally abused, are also subjected to sexual violence. But today, I want to throw light on marital rape, which in our culture, in a marriage that doesn’t include physically hitting or verbal abuse, is believed to be a ‘spousal right’ and not a form of abuse or a breach of the wife’s basic rights. Sex is considered to be an integral part of a marriage and there are many women who are expected to consent to having sex whenever their spouse feels the need to. Saying no is considered as an unforgivable act of defiance to the prestigious institution of marriage and being pursued by a man for intimacy is believed to be a privilege bestowed upon the wife that she is obliged to honour. The choice to say no to having sex is unacceptable and there is no room to manoeuvre around this choice.

It is the man who is responsible for raping his wife but the ground that is set for that act to happen is instigated by many stakeholders. When women are getting married, most of them, especially in our society, are explicitly told by their mothers that the spouse has a license to touch their bodies as often and however they like, and saying no amounts to it being a sin and a recipe for an unhappy marriage. It is the wife’s responsibility to honour her husband’s physical needs even if it is against her wishes.

What alarms me is how other women, on hearing such stories, romanticise this sexually violent crime as an act of love and a testament to how deeply the wife is desired by one’s spouse.

The issue is that there is an invisible thin line between consensual and non-consensual sex in a marriage. Many factors that influence rape include social and cultural factors, religious beliefs and the society’s mentality. The factors are systemic and part of a complex field that includes the relationship between the husband and wife and then at the family and societal levels, and all these factors play their energetic role in affecting the lack of awareness in women about their sexual freedom, a right to choose and the knowledge that being sexually engaged without consent is rape. Unfortunately, most women would not label it as that, because it is difficult to integrate the idea of rape by a spouse.

I implore women to start listening to their body which screams in protest and yet they participate in an unwanted sexual act as ‘it is my husband and he has a right and he doesn’t want to hurt me.’

Own up to your body today. Self-care. Self-love. For today, take one small step and that can simply be saying no to your spouse. Say it once. Say it again. Say it every time. Remind yourself every day that no one, not even your spouse has a license to touch your body without your consent.