Focus on ‘vani’ – the practice of giving away young women to settle feuds

Each day, Fareedullah Khan, nearly 70, reads items from the newspaper to his wife, Sakina Bibi, 60. The items he picks out from the columns of dense, Urdu-language print concern the custom of 'vani', or the giving away of girls in forced marriage to the male relatives of murder victims.

The traditional Pakistani practice is used as compensation for the crime and a means to settle feuds between two families or clans. The elderly couple has a reason to be interested. Nearly 20 years ago, their granddaughter became a 'vani' - to pay for a murder committed by her paternal uncle. She has since lived a life of misery, as a virtual slave within the home of a husband 30 years her senior.

ORIGINS

Today, her grandparents hope the brutal tribal custom can be ended. "It is a terrible thing. The girls handed over to rival families are innocent of crime, and they are always treated like enemies within the homes of their spouses," Fareedullah told IRIN. His wife nodded sadly, contemplating the fate of their favourite grandchild. Both fervently support a new campaign against the practice.

On 7 March, in Mianwali, a town of some 85,000 people in north-western Punjab, located 200 km south of the capital Islamabad, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) organised a meeting to coincide with International Women's Day to speak out against 'vani'.

SPEAKING OUT

"Such customs thrive in oppressive environments," HRCP chairperson and human rights activist Asma Jahangir said during her speech. Many women at the meeting said they wanted to get the practice of ‘vani’ banned.

Women appear to be less tolerant of such practices today and are increasingly prepared to speak out against them.

THREE SISTERS

Late in 2005, in an incident that galvanised public opinion against 'vani', three sisters in the village of Sultanwala, in Mianwali district, took a bold stand against the practice, warning they would commit collective suicide if wed forcibly to men from a rival family.

The sisters, Abda, Amna and Sajda Khan, all still in their teens, and all well educated, were put forward for 'vani' 14 years ago, when they were still toddlers. Their uncle, Mohammad Iqbal Khan, had at the time killed his cousin and then gone into hiding to escape a death sentence.

A tribal council called to resolve the issue offered him a pardon – in exchange for five women from his family being handed over as 'vani' when they came of age to male members of the victim’s family. The women, then mere children, included Iqbal's own daughter, and his nieces, Abda, Amna and Sajda.

"I agreed only out of fear. If I had not done so, I would have been killed by now," says Iqbal, pointing out that his cousins live just across the road from his own house.

The practice has plenty of support in the region, where it is viewed as a way to prevent blood feuds that can continue for generations and claim dozens of lives.

But the Khan sisters are lucky – they have been supported by their father, Jehan Khan Niazi, who is determined his daughters will not pay for the crimes of others. He has moved the young women away from the village to protect them, and says: "I agreed to the custom at gun-point. But my daughters are innocent, and have their rights. They are educated, and this makes them able to stand up for justice."

COURT JUDGEMENT

In a landmark judgment in December 2005, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, hearing several petitions against 'vani', ordered police in the Punjab and neighbouring North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to protect women given in marriage under the custom, which had already been declared illegal two years ago.

The court made specific reference to the need to protect potential 'vani' victims in Mianwali district, including the Khan sisters.
But old traditions cannot just be legislated against and left at that, Jahangir argues. The family to whom the five girls in Mianwali were to be handed over, continue to demand the pledge be honoured, and insist the girls are in fact already the wives of male members of their clan.

Ziaullah Khan, a Mianwali-based activist for the Karwan Community Development Association, an NGO, says that since the Sultanwala case: "At least 20 to 30 other persons have come forward to report 'vani'."

She added that despite the ban on the practice, both by courts and the Punjab government, cases of girls being given away in compensation still take place. Most incidents have been reported in the Mianwali district, with some reports in the media stating there have been at least a dozen cases within the last year.

GROWING OPPOSITION TO ‘VANI’

Despite this, opposition is growing. Even before the Khan sisters, looking bravely out from above their veils, made their plight public, in June 2004, two other educated women in Mianwali district, Kulsoom Akhtar and Parveen Akhtar, stepped forward to demand their rights.

The sisters, who had been victims of 'vani' in 1987, when they were infants - to compensate for a murder committed by their father - approached rights activists and said they would not wed the 'husbands' to whom they had been given away. After a public outcry over the matter, the planned handing over of the girls was shelved.

And criticism of the practice is coming from other, unlikely quarters. Across Pakistan, religious scholars have spoken out against 'vani', declaring it un-Islamic. "These customs have nothing to do with Islam, and are not prescribed as a means to settle murder," said Anis Ahmed, a scholar at the International Islamic University in Islamabad.

Lately, more and more politicians, activists and social workers have joined in the demand to bring an end to such practices.

But many believe the key lies in the struggle now being waged by the victims and their families against tribal practices, patriarchy and the hold of tradition.

“Increased awareness of 'vani', and the determination of many young women to resist it, are chipping away at a custom under which hundreds of women have suffered over many decades,” Jahangir said.