Traded like animals....
Outlawed custom that parcels out young women in marriage survives in rural Pakistan
Declan Walsh in Malmundi
Friday April 21, 2006: The Guardian
Eyes glimmering with worry, Tasleem Bibi peered through the slits of her pitch-black veil. Seventeen years ago her father had struck a devilish deal to stay out of jail. Now his daughter was paying its price. A rival family was demanding that Tasleem marry one of their sons. Her hand in marriage had been promised back in 1989, they insisted, as part of an agreement to end a blood feud between the two clans.
But then Tasleem was five years old. Now, at 22, she was refusing to go through with the wedding. The other family, angered and armed with rifles, had been threatening to kill her. "This is so cruel," she whispered, her hands quivering as she stared out at the farmhouse door. "I committed no crime, so why am I the one being punished?"
She is a victim of vani, an ugly tradition where young Pakistani women are traded between families in resolution of a dispute. Although outlawed two years ago, vani is still prevalent in conservative pockets across Pakistan. Usually it is a matter of murder. The family of an accused murderer promises to give one of their women, sometimes as young as two, in marriage; 10 or 15 years later, after she has reached maturity, the wedding day arrives. It is a mournful, disgrace-tinged event.
These weddings are devoid of the glittering jewellery, three-day banquets and drum music that mark the normal Punjabi celebrations. Instead the woman is delivered to her new husband without ceremony, in ordinary clothes and often as a second or third wife.
"The woman is traded like an animal. Once married, she is little better than a slave," said Khalil ur Rehman, a lawyer and human rights advocate in Mianwali, a wheat-growing district 110 miles south-west of Islamabad where vani is common.
In some cases several women are involved. Tasleem's father, Muhammad Zaman, was accused of killing another man in a bitter land dispute. To keep the case out of court his family agreed to a high price - £3,300 and five women.
Two women have already been married off; now Tasleem and her sister are due to be paired with Mumtaz and Ghulam Akbar, two truck drivers whom she describes as brutish men. Repulsed by the idea, Tasleem has refused, and is supported by her brothers. "This vani should never have been agreed," said Sher Abbas Niazi, 28. "We love her and we are against this custom."
The rival family fired shots at her brothers as they walked through the fields and called on village elders to mediate. Still she refuses to budge. Two of her cousins, Rahmat and Nusrat, have already been married off. She knows her fate if she caves in. "A vani wife is treated like dirt," she said defiantly. "The men wear her like a pair of shoes."
Defenders of the tradition - mostly conservative tribal elders - say this method prevents bloodshed between warring clans. "When we give our daughters it is not for personal amusement but to bring an end to enmity," said Haji Sher Bahadur Khan, an elder in the village, Malmundi.
Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, claims to side with the women. The military leader, who listed "the empowerment of women" as one of his main achievements during a recent visit by the US president, George Bush, passed a law against vani in 2004.
But laws made in Islamabad often have limited influence in rural areas where centuries-old feudalism still holds. Just 15 vani cases have been tried under the new law in Mianwali, said Mr Rehman, which had led only five men to abandon their claims.
The law included many flaws and the police and local authorities were often reluctant to prosecute cases, Mr Rehman said. Politicians such as Imran Khan, the former cricket star who represents Mianwali, appear reluctant to speak out.
There are no reliable figures on the number of vani victims but campaigners estimate there are hundreds of cases. The tradition is part of a wider impunity for crimes against women, such as "honour killing".
Recently a woman and her daughter were shot dead in a central Mianwali bazaar, accused of prostitution. Their killer turned out to be the woman's brother. "He has been jailed but will probably be out within a month," said Abdur Rashid, headteacher at a local boys' school. "In our society the killer becomes a hero."
Domestic violence is widespread but largely hidden. Mr Rashid said he had recently visited a woman who had been chained and beaten by her husband. Doctors counted 22 wounds on her. "I couldn't believe my eyes," he said, shaking his head.
Campaigners say reform of the vani laws and greater commitment from local authorities are crucial for ending the custom. Education is also vital. Only about one-third of all Pakistani women in the country are literate, and the proportion is much lower in rural areas.
Yet some of the women who have had schooling are standing up for themselves. Last month Nusrat Bibi, 20, and her sister Kulsoom Bibi, 21, were due to marry in Daud Khel, 20 miles from Mianwali. But hours before completion of the wedding preparations, which included food and drink for 150 guests, two brothers from another family halted the ceremony claiming the sisters were theirs under an old vani deal.
The sisters were disgusted. The two brothers were known heroin addicts, said the women. But the local mullah sided with the brothers. "We waited until the last prayer [early evening] but still he would not agree," said the younger sister. Undeterred, the sisters have now obtained a fatwa, or religious order, from a more liberal cleric, and are determined to press ahead with the marriages of their choice.
"Those men are threatening us but we are not afraid," said Nusrat, smiling from behind her veil. "We will not back down. Soon this will be over."
Honour killings, rape, acid assaults, forced marriage and horrific violence are lamentably common in Pakistan despite some reforms. New laws banning some of the cruellest customs are often ignored. Last week Dir district elders, citing "local culture" as a justification, threatened to punish women who reported crimes against them to the police. Most international attention has focused on Mukhtaran Bibi, a gang rape victim who brought a prosecution against her attackers. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, says women's rights are a top priority, but he has also remarked that some women use rape as a "moneymaking concern", or to back their asylum applications.