Swara, also known as Vani and Budla-i-sulh, is dispute resolution method where women and girls are given in marriage or servitude to an aggrieved family as compensation for reconciliation in case of rivalry, murder, or abduction in order to settle the dispute.
Sana Gul’s brother killed a neighbour for trespassing on their property. It was a petty dispute – Sana’s brother tried to stop the boy on a number of instances, and then one day, in a fit of rage, he knifed him to death.
A hue and cry followed and a Jirga was called. It decreed that to settle the case and put an end to the enmity between the families, Sana must be given in marriage to the slain boy’s brother.
The tribal elders called it Swara.
“I pray to God that whatever happened to me after I had been given in Swara….. no woman should go through that”, she said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Swara is a price girls pay for the crimes committed by the men of their families. Such decisions by jirgas and village council elders have cost the lives of thousands of women.
Swara, also known as Vani and Budla-i-sulh, is a customary form of dispute resolution that involves giving in marriage or servitude women and girls belonging to an offender’s family to the aggrieved persons as compensation for reconciliation in case of rivalry, murder, or abduction in order to settle the dispute. It often comes in the form of an arranged or forced child marriage on the orders of tribal elders – the Jirga.
Sana was married to the brother the slain boy, as Swara in the Hoti region of Mardan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the first week of May.
Journalist and researcher, Jibran Mehboob Buneri says that there are a number of hypotheses on the history of Swara that is said to have started about 500 years ago to bring peace to Pashtun area.
Later, Swara was practiced only in exceptional cases. Often, a part of the harvest was the barter. But, a serious crime, like a murder ended up with a Swara as a rapprochement – when a girl from the assaulter’s family would be offered in marriage to a man from the victim’s family with the aim of burying the hatchet and helping foster peace between the two sides.
In a medieval society, patriarchal as it was, it was though giving away a daughter in marriage was a sure way to peace, especially with the connotations of honour that came with their gender – giving a daughter or sister in Swara would dissolve enmity.
But then the ritual took a turn for the worse, and is now endemic in the Pashtun homeland where kangaroo courts sit in judgement on everything – from petty disputes to heinous crimes.
Does the new law work?
Pakistan’s Federal Shariah Court considers the ritual illegal, but that’s about all.
Natasha Khan, a lawyer practicing in the Peshawar High Court says that an amendment to the Code of Criminal Procedures and the Pakistan Penal Code introduced in 2004 to end Swara makes it a punishable offense to marry a woman or a girl for the sake of peace – with prison terms going up to seven years and a penalty of Rs. 500,000.
Rubab Mehdi, the regional commissioner of the Ombudsman Office in Peshawar says, her department had net yet received any case of Swara. But she agrees that the practice exists and even has, in her own personal capacity, solved about three cases of Swara.
Mehdi says Swara is the worst form of harassment of a woman because an entire family harasses the Swara bride. It can’t get worse, she says, explaining the life of a girl leading the remainder of her life in an enemy’s house in a tribal setting. “So the girl becomes a psychiatric patient,” she says.
Nobody’s happy; but none complains
Swara cases are also rarely reported. For instance, Sana Gul’s case has come to light only after two months of her marriage. This is an exception. Says journalist Jamal Safi who brought the story to light.
Rida Tahir, a human rights lawyer and academic teaching for the University of London and University of Hertfordshire law programmes in Pakistan says, “Pakistan should adopt additional policies to ensure that cases of Swara are reported.”
She says that a mass awareness campaigns and gender sensitivity training will help put an end to the patriarchal values that are the root cause of the marginalisation faced by women and girls in the rural areas.