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In Pakistan, Moves To Ban A Tribal Marriage Custom

It's still the norm for most Pashtun women to have marriages arranged by their parents or even clan leaders.
Gul Ghotai has bitter memories of the day her suitor proposed marriage.

The reason? This was no ordinary proposal but one made under an ancient Pashtun custom called "ghagh" that entitles a man to force his marriage proposal on a woman.

Once invoked, ghagh -- which means "a call" -- can have various outcomes, none of them happy for the woman. She might end up being married against her will, or stay single for life, or see her family drawn into a dangerous, lingering feud.

After months of petitions to Ghotai's father in 2005, her suitor sent him a final message through a courier to consider his marriage proposal a ghagh if he was still reluctant to accept.

"It was devastating to learn that a married man, whose elder daughter was my age, had asked my father for my hand," the 30-year-old schoolteacher from the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province recalls.

"He had done so in the name of ghagh, so it was depressing to know that my dreams for having a normal family might never become a reality," says Ghotai (not her real name).

Abusive Cultural Practices

Overall, the ancient tribal custom of ghagh is in decline among Pakistan's 30 million Pashtuns, who live chiefly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent Pashtun regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan.

But human rights activists, journalists, and tribal leaders say ghagh persists in FATA and other underdeveloped areas such as the southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In FATA, the situation is worse because years of insurgency have eroded social solidarity and government control.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government -- a coalition of secular parties -- now wants to declare this custom illegal in its ongoing bid to stamp out abusive cultural practices.

A bill approved recently by the cabinet recommends a seven-year jail sentence or a nearly $6,000 fine for a man who engages in ghagh. The provincial assembly is expected to pass the law before its current five-year term expires in March.

"Ghagh is an ancient custom in our land, but it has harmed many women," says Sitara Ayaz, the provincial minister for social welfare and women's development. "We are now moving this bill through the provincial assembly to turn it into a law to protect women. This custom is more prevalent in the southern part of our province."

A Model For FATA

Mariam Bibi, a social worker in Peshawar, says that ghagh is shocking for women because it deprives them of the prospects for a happy marriage and family life.

She welcomes the draft law but says enforcement will be key.

People who engage in such acts are social outcasts and their acts only malign our society.
Javed Mehsud

"They should not only make a law and a policy," she says. "They should look into its proper implementation as well."

Ayaz, the provincial minister, says the law should serve as a model for FATA, too, and is urging the federal government to adopt similar legislation.

Some residents of those tribal areas would welcome such a step.

Javed Mehsud, a young man from the Waziristan tribal region where the custom is still prevalent, says he will be happy to see the practice of ghagh vanish.

"This custom contradicts the long-standing norms of our society. We do not want to see it continue. This is a cancer for our society," Mehsud says. "People who engage in such acts are social outcasts and their acts only malign our society."

Challenge To Family Honor

To be sure, it's still the norm for most Pashtun women to have marriages arranged by their parents or even clan leaders. Family and clan alliances are built on marriages, so they are often the result of long-standing ties among elders in the two families. The bride and groom often have little say in choosing their life partners. Many meet for the first time after marriage.

Still, ghagh is considered oppressive and a challenge to family honor.

Typically, ghagh involves a man firing a gun into the air at the doorstep of a girl's house and shouting her name to inform her family that she can only be married to him.

Sometimes, as in Ghotai's case, the call is made more quietly by informing the family through a messenger.

In either case, since such news spreads quickly, it amounts to the same thing -- a man publicly declaring his desire for a woman, a taboo in the conservative society.

Ghotai's father reacted with fury, considering the call a challenge to his honor. Ghotai remembers the autumn evening in 2005 when he gathered all his sons, brothers, and nephews in his sprawling mud-built house near the city of Bannu to confer on how to respond.

"He told my six brothers, 'You all should die before I marry her off to that cruel man,'" she says.

After hours of deliberation, they decided to launch their own ghagh against the elder daughter of Ghotai's suitor.

The next day, Ghotai's elder brother sent an intermediary to the man's family. The man was told that Ghotai's brother wanted to marry his daughter and he shouldn’t think about even talking to another suitor.

"It was ugly because she was my schoolmate and it pained me deeply to think that she will be going through the same agony," Ghotai says.

Finally Reconciled

For the next two years, men from both families chased each other. They carried AK-47 rifles looking to score an early kill in what was shaping up to become a long feud.

The animosity grew to the point that the tribe took notice.

Relatives of both families petitioned elders, who forced a jirga, or mediation, on the two.

After a month of arguments and deliberations, the elders reconciled the two families and both men took back their ghagh claims.

Ghotai, who went on to marry in 2009, says she is delighted to know that ghagh will soon be illegal.

"It will be a happy day when women will no longer be threatened with this evil curse," she says.

With additional reporting from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by Radio Mashaal correspondents Khalid Khan and Sailab Mehsud
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.