Watta satta involves the simultaneous marriage of a brother-sister pair from two households. In some cases, it involves uncle-niece pairs, or cousin pairs. This form of marriage in Pakistan is typically endogamous, with over 75% marriages involving blood relatives, and 90% of the watta satta marriages occurring within the same village, caste or clan (jaat, biraderi).
In rural parts of Pakistan, watta satta accounts for over 30% of all marriages. Watta satta is more than just an exchange of women from two families or clans; it establishes the shadow of mutual threat across the marriages. A husband who ‘mistreats’ his wife in this arrangement can expect his brother-in-law to retaliate in-kind against his sister. Watta satta is cited as a cause of low domestic violence in some families, and extreme levels of reciprocal domestic violence in some families of Pakistan.
The rationale for watta satta custom has been theorized as an environment with generally low and uncertain incomes, weak or uncertain legal institutions of the state, watta satta may be the most effective means available to the poor to prevent marital discord, divorces and domestic abuse. It enables a form of social pressure and reciprocity, wherein a man who abuses his wife is expected to be deterred by the possibility that his own sister will suffer from similar or more severe retaliation by the brother of his wife. Thus, watta satta, in theory, provides a non-institutional ex-ante provisions to reflect the interests of the wife and her family in deterring or mitigating ex-post malfeasance on the part of the husband. In practice, in addition to peace in two families, extreme forms of escalating, retaliatory domestic violence have been observed.
Bride exchange between two families is also seen as an informal way to limit demands and consequences of dower (brideprice, Mahr) and dowry disputes.
Watta satta is implicitly an endogamous form of marriage. In practice, Over 50% of watta satta marriages are within the same village; on a geographical level, over 80% of women either live in the same village of their birth or report being able to visit it and return home in the same day. Over 3 out of 4 women in watta satta marriage, are married to a blood relative, mostly first-cousins with a preference for the paternal side; of the rest, majority are married to someone unrelated by blood but within the same zaat and biradari (a form of caste in Muslim communities of Pakistan) or clan.
In Islamic communities of Sudan and Mali, bride exchange between two families has also been observed. It is locally called falen-ni-falen. The practice is presently prevalent in rural parts of Yemen as well.
Shighar is the practice of exchanging brides between two Arab families, where the girl and dowry of one family is exchanged for a girl and dowry from another family. This is prevalent in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries. This practice is often a means to reduce or evade dowry, preserve wealth between two families, and leads to arranged child marriages.
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