Pakistan is a land with a rich heritage of folk tales and traditions; all part of a natural diversity and not unlike every other country the world over. Yet not all cultural diversity is desirable, and there are aspects of it as locally practised that border on the barbaric. Two recent cases are illustrative. A man killed his wife and then tried to make it look as if she had killed herself by hanging her from a tree. The police quickly established that she had been murdered and the man himself admitted it. The backstory is that the woman had been given in ‘vani’ — forced to marry as part of a punishment for a crime alleged to have been committed by a male relative. The decision to give a woman in vani is invariably made by a jirga or, as in this case, by a panchayat. The man wanted to take another wife, the ‘vani’ wife objected and he killed her. The second case is of a 10-year-old boy accused of having an extramarital affair whose family has been sentenced by a jirga to pay Rs700,000 to the aggrieved party.
In theory, such practices have been outlawed in Pakistan but their prevalence and durability appear to be entrenched. In large part, this is due to the nature of a patriarchal society where many men still view women as property and a tradeable commodity. Women are used as bargaining chips to settle territorial disputes or as the equivalent of ‘blood money’ in cases of murder. As recently as 2012-13, girls aged four to 16 were given in marriage to settle a dispute between two groups in Balochistan. A member of the Balochistan Assembly, Mir Tariq Bugti, defended the practice of ‘vani’ on the floor of the assembly, attracting national and international opprobrium for so doing. The law-enforcement agencies often appear powerless — or spineless — when it comes to upholding the rights of the victims of practices such as this, effectively colluding with and condoning them. No culture can be immutable, and all cultures change over time. Some changes cannot come soon enough for Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 17th, 2015.
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