LAHORE, Pakistan (WOMENSENEWS)–Humaira Awais Shahid’s campaign to outlaw forced marriages of women in Pakistan began with a letter from an illiterate girl named Sitara Isakhel.
A tribal jirga, or council, last year sentenced the 17-year old and her 8-year old sister, Sameera, to marry members of a more powerful tribe after their brother was accused of impregnating a woman he was not married to.
“They didn’t listen to us even though we swore on the Koran,” says Sitara Isakhel’s December 2002 letter. “The jirga‘s decision was such that the land disappeared from under our feet and the sky blew open. We are too afraid to go to the police and I am writing to you in secret. Soon our funeral will take place: we are to be married within the next two months.”
At the time, Shahid, now a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly, was researching violations of women’s rights for her Lahore-based newspaper Khabrain. After receiving the impassioned plea from a friend of Sitara Isakhel, who also helped pen the letter, Shahid began a journey that would take her through the corridors of Pakistan power on a quest to quash the centuries-old tradition known as vinni.
Her first stop was Mianwali in the central Punjab province, where Shahid, 32, led an investigation into the fate of the two Isakhel sisters. She challenged the local jirga and the police over the illegal marriage of minors. The marriages were dissolved this spring and a monetary settlement worked out between the families.
“Every victim I spoke to actually expected me to do something for them and others like them,” recalls Shahid of the past year.
“The more I probed the issue, the more I realized the extent and acceptance of such practices and the desperate need for such tribal traditions to be legislated and monitored,” adds the mother of two young children.
Vinni, which comes from the Pashtun word for blood, vanay, is a centuries-old practice in Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan of giving women into marriage as compensation in cases of murder, territorial disputes or other serious disagreements. The “aggrieved” party normally seeks young, beautiful, virgin girls to assuage their need for revenge and in the process forever damaging the reputation of the “guilty” family. The custom is also known as swara in the northern areas of Pakistan. It is common in three of the four Pakistan provinces, including the Northwest Frontier, Sindh and Punjab.
In exchange, the accused parties–almost exclusively male–escape further punishment.
“The councils play a major role in this, as the decisions are taken and implemented by them,” Shahid tells Women’s eNews in an interview. “And in most cases, no matter the evidence, the panchayat (tribal elders) rule in favor of the more influential party.”
Standard rates do apply. One girl above the age of 7, or two girls younger than 7, is viewed as commonly acceptable compensation for murder.
Women given in vinni, say investigators, live their lives in perpetual bondage. Denied proper food, clothing and medical care, they are considered the lowest member in their husband’s family. Rarely are they allowed any contact with their parents once the marriage is consummated.
Brides are sometimes sold off to other members of the receiving family or are used merely as unpaid servant-mistresses.
“It’s an extension of the old feudal tribal system which holds ‘zar, zamin, zan‘ (money, land, women) as the sources of all conflict, which effectively reduces women to property,” says Lahore-based criminal lawyer Uzma Saeed. “Often there is not even an official wedding ceremony performed, the woman is just handed over like she was a cow or a buffalo.”
While Pakistan law, including the constitution, protects the inviolable rights of every Pakistan citizen, they are rarely enforced especially in the rural areas away from the prying eyes of the nation’s liberals. A 1991 amendment to the Pakistan Penal Code, incorporating the Qisas (punishment equal to the crime) and Diyat (blood money) Ordinance, was widely interpreted by tribal elders as official sanction for vinni practices.
“We do have a lot of laws protecting women,” said Saeed, the lawyer. “But it’s a symptom of our patriarchal society that they remain unimplemented with social and customary bias overruling the law from tribal elders, to police officials, up through the judiciary. The customary practices, like vinni, are used to perpetuate the status quo, for powerful people, landowners, to demonstrate their supremacy; for men to dominate women.”
Pushing for Change
Shahid, a journalist by trade, entered the Punjab Provincial Assembly after nationwide elections last October, excited at the prospect of having an official say in policymaking decisions.
“To my horror, most of the time women aren’t really allowed to speak up in debates and not ask questions. It’s like we are just there to amuse the male legislators,” she says sadly.
Challenging an engrained social practice certainly was not on the agenda.
But the politically inexperienced Shahid pushed forward, presenting a resolution last February calling on the federal government to enact legislation against vinni, setting a five-year imprisonment for any person involved in ordering or carrying out a sentence issued by the tribal elders. The resolution passed unanimously.
“Truth be told, half of them didn’t even know what they were voting on,” she recalls with a laugh. “For weeks after, other members came up to ask me what precisely vinni is and, to their credit, once I explained, they gave me full support.”
Over the ensuing three months, Shahid enlisted the help of lawyers, human-rights activists and politicians to create a draft bill, which wound its way through the Punjab Law Department and then the Home Department and has now landed with the Federal Interior Ministry for approval. Once the ministry signs off on the draft, Shahid will have to persuade a member of the National Assembly to sponsor the bill and press for a final vote.
“We are all holding our breath and saying our prayers that the law will go forward and be passed, because at least if we have good laws, even if the implementation is uneven, there’ll still be good results,” says Farzana Mumtaz, a researcher at the Aurat Foundation, a non-governmental organization with offices across Pakistan that highlights the plight of women.
For her willingness to stand up and speak of the politically unspeakable, Shahid has earned widespread kudos from human-rights organizations and women’s rights advocacy groups.
“There are a very small number of people willing to step up and open their mouths publicly about this issue, even though most people condemn the practice,” Mumtaz says.
“Publicity is paramount,” the researcher believes. “In the cases that have been highlighted by Mrs. Shahid and others, the victim may not always have gotten redress, but it’s likely the villagers would think twice before handing out similar judgments in the future and that is a step forward.”
Parallel with the growing publicity and reservations about the practice is an increasing public willingness to speak out against it, according to Saeed, the lawyer. “There was a time when 90 percent of these cases went unreported as families feared slow state reaction and retribution by the more powerful clans,” she said, “but the number has now dropped to about 60 or 65 percent.”
Confident her vinni bill will pass, Shahid has already begun looking at other inhumane practices to tackle during her five-year tenure as a provincial legislator. In August, she put forth a resolution calling on the federal government to amend the Pakistan Penal Code to classify throwing acid as attempted murder. The practice is widespread and can permanently scar a woman. Again, her resolution passed unanimously.
“Eventually my new colleagues may get tired of all my pushing and prodding,” says Shahid. “These issues are just not a priority, when they should be, and I’ll keep fighting to make them until women get the justice they deserve.”
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist currently based in Pakistan who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International, and the London Sunday Times.
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