Pakistani Girls Forced to Settle Men’s Disputes

Khaleej Times

Friday 16 April 2004

PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Afsheen was just nine years old
when she was married to a man four times her age to
pay for a crime she did not commit.

Afsheen, 19, who was just nine years old when she was
married to a man four times her age in compensation
for the murder committed by her father, speaks to
Reuters in northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar
April 5,2004. Called ’Swara,’ such marriages take
place in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal region
inhabited by ethnic Pashtuns.

Her father had killed someone and she had to marry a
member of the victim’s family as compensation under a
centuries-old custom of Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtun
tribes.

Known as swara, the custom calls for a girl to be
given away in marriage to an aggrieved family as part
of settlement for murder perpetrated by one of her
relatives.

"This marriage has ruined my life," said Afsheen, who
is now a 19-year-old widow and languishing in a
shelter for women in the northwestern city of
Peshawar.

Peeping through a veil with just her eyes showing, the
young woman says her uncle now wants her to marry her
brother-in-law to settle another family feud - another
swara.

"It is a terrible custom. It does nothing but destroy
the life of a poor girl. It must be abolished," she
said.

The top court in the North West Frontier Province
declared swara illegal in 2000 but the custom is still
prevalent in the semi-autonomous tribal regions where
Pakistani law seldom applies and where jirgas, or
councils of tribal elders, settle disputes the old
way.

Marriage of young girls in the settlement of disputes
also takes place in rural parts of central Punjab
province where the practice is known as vani.

In 2002, eight young women, including two sisters aged
two and four, escaped vani marriages near the Punjab
city of Mianwali after the Supreme Court of Pakistan
said the practice violated the law and norms of
civilised society.

"These are un Islamic practices," said Anis Ahmed, a
scholar at the International Islamic University in the
capital, Islamabad.

Islam provided for pardon, killing for killing or
blood money as three options to settle murder, he
said. "There is no other way and swara or any other
such practice has no basis in Islam."

Fire of revenge

But the tribesmen who favour swara argue that it
averts bloodshed between Pashtun tribes who are known
for their ferocity and obligation of revenge, or
’badal’, for any insult to individuals or the tribe.

"Swara is the only option to keep the fire of revenge
out," said tribesman Alam Afridi.

But human rights activists say using girls to settle
men’s disputes is unjust.

"It is very cruel to suggest that women should be
sacrificed and sent to hell for life to make peace
between the men," said Afrasiab Khattack, former head
of the private Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"Why do they use women as a commodity?" asks women’s
rights activist Rakhshanda Naz.

Most girls married under swara spend their lives in
torment because their in-laws consider them symbols of
a rival family, activists say.

"They are treated like enemies," said Samar Minallah,
an anthropologist who produced a documentary
highlighting the plight of women married under swara.

Entitled "Swara - A Bridge over Troubled Waters",
Minallah’s documentary is based on interviews with
swara victims.

In one scene, a middle-aged women sits beside her
eight-year-old daughter, Norina, whose father has
promised to give her away in swara after she reaches
maturity to settle a dispute.

"Daughters are helpless," says Norina’s mother,
looking depressed. "Sons are never given away in
settlement because we women folk are easy target," she
says as Norina looks on.

"What could I do? I could not do anything. I am sad. I
am sad," Norina says, tears trickling down her cheeks.

There are no reliable statistics for how many girls
are given away in swara or vani every year in
Pakistan. Rights activists say most cases go
unreported in the conservative tribal communities.

"The victim of such practices is voiceless and
helpless because the two parties involved in the deal
are too powerful to be challenged...by the girl," said
Khattack.

"They get away with it because there is local communal
consensus," he said, and called for joint efforts by
the government and civil society to stop the practice.

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