Blood feuds and "compensation marriages"

Ashfaq Yuzufzai - IPS
Blood feuds trap girls in "compensation marriages"
11 April 06 - PESHAWAR - Rights groups are actively campaigning against a brutal custom that forces families to give away their daughters in marriage as compensation for murder and as settlement of disputes in Pakistan’s lawless north-west.

Much of the campaign involves voluntary groups holding workshops and meetings to raise awareness, and lawyers providing free legal aid to victims of ’swara’, the custom under which minor girls are made to pay for offences committed by their fathers or male relatives. The custom is also prevalent in adjoining parts of Punjab province where it is called ’vanni’.

Zainab Bibi was married at 13, divorced by 16, and has two children to look after. ’’I was married to a 50-year-old man. My brother had killed a man from that family. To settle the dispute, my hand was given in marriage— which ended in divorce,’’ she told IPS in the Mardan district of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Zainab remembers that the three years at her in-laws’ house was like hell. ’’Everyday, they beat me for petty issues apparently in revenge for the murder,’’she recalled in tears. Now on her own, she is raising her children with her father’s support.

"No honour" in the marriage

There are thousands of women like her in the NWFP, but their stories seldom make it to the media, says Rakshanda Naz, resident director of the womens’ rights group ’Aurat Foundation’ in Peshawar, capital of the NWFP. Neither does legislation provide relief to the victims, she added.

According to anthropologist Samar Minullah, director of the ’Ethnomedia’ organisation and maker of a hard-hitting documentary on ’swara’ in 2003, the practice is so deeply entrenched in Pakhtun and other tribal societies that it is difficult to raise a voice against it.

Policy makers who could have outlawed the practice have shown no interest in stopping ’swara’. It stigmatises a woman for life and there is little chance for happiness because there is no ’honour’ in the marriage.

The custom is as difficult to curb as the practice of ’honour killing’, widespread in Pakistan and other Muslim countries, in which a women may be put to death for actual or alleged immoral behaviour by her own relatives.

Yasmeen Hassan, author of ’The Haven Becomes Hell: A Study of Domestic Violence in Pakistan’, writes that the ’’concepts of women as property and honour are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of Pakistan that the government, for the most part, ignores the daily occurrences of women being killed and maimed by their families’’.

Under prevailing law, if a ’swara’ victim files a complaint with the police, her father could be arrested. ’’This stops the victims from speaking up to get relief,’’ Minullah observed.

Sabeena Gul of ’Shirkat Gah’ and Mussarat Syed of ’Khwendo Kor’, both women’s rights and advocacy groups, said ’swara’ satisfied the need for ’revenge’ that is strong among Pushtoons, and other ethnic groups in the region.

Feuding families

It is believed that the children of such unions could help keep peace between feuding families. Whether this happens or not, the girl taken in ’swara’ bears the brunt of it all and is forced into a life of near slavery in the home of the ’enemy’.

It is left to the aggrieved party to pick a girl and, if the dead man had high standing in society, his heirs may even take away two girls in ’swara’. The process is overseen by the ’jirga’ or villae council, which usually favours the more influential family.

The victim herself has no say and typically she is taken away on reaching puberty. In order to deny her family any dignity, the nikah (Islamic marriage rite) may be deliberately delayed. The girl bears the stigma for the rest of her life.

In fact, the whole procedure violates Islamic matrimonial law which requires the consent of both the man and the woman about to enter into marriage.

Rakhshanda Parveen from ’Sachet’, a non-governmental organisation, describes swara as ’’culturally-sanctioned practice of violence against women’’.

’Swara’ victims may land in jail for crimes they did not commit. Twenty two-year-old Gul Marjan from Kohat district, NWFP, is serving a life term at Haripur prison after being convicted on charges of killing her husband. Her appeal is pending before the Peshawar High Court, which has fixed Jun. 4 for the hearing of her case.

The young woman was accused of murder by her father-in-law, Eid Bacha, who claimed that Gul, who was given in ’swara’ to his son in 1997, had strained relations with her husband. Handed over against her will at a jirga, she was made to pay for her brother’s illicit relations with a girl from Bacha’s family.

In prison since 1998

The deceased, Zahir Shah, was killed on Dec. 3, 1998. The first information report (FIR) was registered by Gul herself. She told the police that she was in her room when she heard a gunshot and then saw her husband lying injured outside.

But, she was convicted by a local court on the basis of her confessional statement, in which she said that her husband used to torture and beat her. She claimed that, on the night of his death, he loaded a gun and aimed it at her. Gul tried to save herself and, during the scuffle, the gun went off resulting in his death.

Later, she retracted the statement and claimed that she was forced by the police to record it.

Her advocate, Noor Alam Khan, who heads ’Voice of Prisoners’, a legal aid group, told IPS that Gul suffered twice. ’’First she had to pay the price for the misdeeds of her brother, and now she has been in prison since 1998,’’ he said. Khan has already defended four women given in ’swara’, and won their acquittals.

’’Swara and vanni are pre-Islamic customs and have no room in Islam. Therefore, they must be condemned and strict punishment should be awarded to the accused under Islamic laws,’’ said Syeda Viqaur Nisa Hashmi, a research associate with the National Commission on Status of Women.

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