Swara, the unholy bargain

Swara, the unholy bargain

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Swara is an infamous practice where girls in most cases below the age of puberty are given in marriage to the family of an aggrieved party as compensation for resolving a dispute or feud. Mostly the abominable practice is resorted to when settling murder disputes. The family of the accused in such cases agrees to give in marriage one of their daughters to the boy in the family of those whose member has been killed. The consent of the girl is not sought when such a bargain is struck.
The custom is practiced in parts of the former tribal areas of Pakistan, parts of southern Punjab, parts of rural Sindh and Balochistan. The system has continued to exist without much public outcry.
Recently, the ‘Shariat’ Court have declared the custom to be contrary to the teachings of Islam and therefore, illegal. The verdict given by the court is commendable but has come rather late in the day. Will the situation change for the better in the wake of the judgment?
Firstly, the practice is deep rooted and the court decision may not have any impact. Then, the system is part of the culture in areas where it is practiced. It might not be possible to swiftly delink it from a whole range of values and norms that constitute a framework of life there.
More importantly, the decision is brought about by a few elders of the area who are men of standing in society. This group of elders are called a ‘jirga’-- a time honored institution in parts of Pakistan. The jirga decision is unlikely to be challenged by anyone out of fear of being blighted and termed outcasts.
‘Swara’ heaps indignity on women and is humiliating to say the least. But it is part of the much wider culture in which the rights of women have been denied without any remorse or retribution. It is bizarre to note that while in most rural areas in Pakistan, Islamic injunctions are observed with commitment, there is scant regard for giving a share in inheritance to women. Many pious looking men would not care about giving a share in their property to wives, sisters or daughters. Inheritance is in many cases exclusive to male heirs of the owners. In matters of inheritance, custom trumps religious obligations.
Not only that, there is another disturbing dimension to the treatment of women in society. In most cases, in rural areas there is a perception that men must decide what the rights of women are. And that women must live in servitude to them. Many regard women as unequal to men in their liberties and way of life.

The jirga decision is unlikely to be challenged by anyone out of fear of being blighted and termed outcasts.

Rustam Shah 

This is a form of social discrimination which has continued for generations. Only those who have access to higher education have succeeded in breaking out of this vicious circle. The socio-economic emancipation of women is a dream that can only be realized when issues like poverty and illiteracy have been addressed and resolved.
Even without the evil practice of ‘swara,’ girls are given in marriage in most rural areas without obtaining their consent. Forced consent is the normal practice. Girls are not in most cases considered fit to acquire higher education. Investment in children’s education is worthwhile as long as that means spending on boys. There is a belief that girls will soon leave the home of their parents and become members of some other house. Why then invest money on their education?
At the core of such misplaced perceptions is a lack of awareness of the teachings of Islam, and a lack of respect for the genuine rights of girls and women. There is very little that the many different organizations or NGO’s have done to create much needed awareness and there appears to be no move yet to practically put a stop to the custom of swara. Even those who are opposed to the shameful system do not have the courage to publicly put an end to it. This is as disturbing as the custom itself.
The misery and sufferings of girls who are exchanged for settling a feuds are far too many to narrate. They spend their youths in wretched social environments where the image of their marriage is just a tale of horrors on every one’s lips in the locality. How can such women give their best, or give anything, to society? The stigma they carry is a reminder of the unholy bargain in which their whole lives become reduced to victimhood.

- Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.

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