PAKHTUNKHWA, Pakistan — At only 12, Nazia lives in
expectation of the worst. As I step through the doorway of the humble compound
her parents share with two other families in the Pashtun lands of northwest
Pakistan, her small, fragile body trembles unwittingly. She knew I was coming,
but learned too young to trust no one.
was only 5 when her father married her off to a much older man, a stranger, as
compensation for a murder her uncle had committed. The decision to give the
little girl away as payment, along with two goats and a piece of land, was made
by a jirga -- an assembly of local elders that makes up the justice
system in most of Pakistan's and Afghanistan's tribal areas, where conventional
courts are either not trusted or nonexistent. "One night a man came and took me
by the hand," Nazia says, in a nearly inaudible moan.
was too young to understand what was happening when that man dragged her into
the darkness. But born in a land where women are not to be seen by strangers,
she knew enough to realize something was terribly wrong. "I resisted, I cried,
and tried to hold on to the doorjamb," she remembers.
was taken to the jirga, displayed as a commodity before the circle of men, and
examined by the husband to be, who was allowed to decide whether she was good
enough to be his wife. Nazia remembers the men starring at her deep brown eyes, her long, black hair -- the humiliation of that scene is so utterly
marked in her memory that she can barely finish the sentence before dissolving in
The men in her family argued, unsuccessfully, that she
was too young to be married off. In a rare decision, however, the jirga did agree
that the girl should not be handed over immediately. So the demanding husband would
have to wait -- and so has Nazia. Even among the women in the house, she wears a
full-length black chador, as if a male intruder could suddenly enter that door
again. I ask whether
she knows how pretty she is, but that only makes things worse. Nazia is afraid
of being beautiful, for that implies being desired by that man.
She is terrified of growing up. Her parents have been
able to postpone their daughter's fate -- but not for much longer, certainly no
later than age 14. Most child brides are pregnant by then.
There is an aggravating factor in the fate of girls such
as Nazia. Given away as compensation to resolve tribal disputes -- a custom
known as swara in Pashtun -- the
girls will always represent the enemy for the "dishonored" family, a symbol of
According to tradition, the compensation should end the
dispute and bring the two warring families together in harmony. In
practice, however, the marriage only provides cover for revenge. Swara girls become
the targets of all anger and hatred in their new home. They are
often bitten, emotionally tortured, and sometimes raped by other men in the
family. They are made to suffer for a crime they did not commit.
The swara custom is a form of collective punishment that
persists in the tribal areas. Nazia's uncle -- the perpetrator of the crime for
which she is to be punished -- killed a neighbor in a land dispute and then ran
away. He left no children, so the jirga decided his older brother should pay in
his place by sacrificing his own daughter.
Nazia's father is a poor, uneducated farmer, and he
could do nothing to contest this ruling. Having lost his land and livestock in the dispute, he now works in temporary
construction jobs, which pay $3 a day. His wife helps by cleaning neighbors'
houses for a few more rupees.
Nazia's parents have decided this year will be her last
year at school. The family has no money to pay for her books, and the expense
seemed pointless for them anyway, given that she will soon be married. Nazia
herself has lost interest in studying. Since her classmates found out about her
fate, she runs back and forth from school, speaking to no one. "They point at
me on the streets and call me 'the swara girl,' and they make fun of me," Nazia
mumbles. Dogs bark in the distance, making it almost impossible to hear her.
Eventually she blurts out: "That was very painful, and I
didn't understand.... It still hurts and upsets me. I'm so fed up with this
feeling! I'm so afraid all the time! I'd rather never leave the house.... People
scare me, all people. I trust no one."
The call for prayer echoes off the mud walls, heralding
the day's end. For security reasons, we have to leave before dusk. As
we move away, Nazia remains motionless -- head huddled against her chest, eyes
on the ground, her pale face immersed in sadness. Every sunset brings her
closer to the day that the old man will come and take her away for good.
One girl every three
Despite being illegal, the custom of forcibly marrying
girls off to resolve family and tribal disputes happens on an alarming scale
across all provinces of Pakistan. It goes by different names -- swara in Khyber
Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly the North-West Frontier Province) and the
Federally Administered Tribal Areas, vani
in Punjab, lajai in Baluchistan, and sang chati in Sindh -- but all its forms
are equally cruel.
In Pakistan, at least 180 cases of swara were reported
last year -- every other day -- thanks to the work of local journalists and
activists. But there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undocumented cases.
Worldwide, an estimated 51 million girls below age 18 are married,
according to the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).
A further 10 million underage girls marry every year --
one every three seconds, according to ICRW. The legal age to marry in Pakistan
is 18 for boys but 16 for girls, though they can't drive, vote, or open a bank
account until adulthood. According to UNICEF, 70 percent of girls in Pakistan are married before then.
Mohammad Ayub, a British-trained psychiatrist from
Lahore, has worked with child soldiers in Sudan and young Taliban recruits in
Afghanistan and Pakistan. He now manages the Saidu Sharif Teaching Hospital in
the Swat Valley, an area that came under the spotlight when terrorists
attempted to kill 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai because of her struggle to
promote girls' education. "I saw small children holding guns bigger than
themselves," he says. "But these girls.... It's just as tragic."
Many child brides come to Ayub with severe pain,
sometimes blinded or paralyzed -- the effects of a psychiatric condition known
as "conversion disorder."
Practically unknown in the West since the beginning of the 20th century, it has
reached epidemic proportions in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan,
according to Ayub. It is a sort of psychological stress that manifests in
physical ailments, including convulsions, paralysis, or fits.
"Here women don't have a voice, particularly girls,"
Ayub says. "She can't say, 'No, I don't want this marriage' ... so she keeps it all
inside, and eventually it will come out in the form of some physical distress.
We receive loads of women here, three to four cases with the same symptoms
every day only in my clinic, and I mean daily! Thirteen-, 14-year-old girls,
The average age of swara girls is between 5 and 9 years old,
according to registered cases and local accounts. The reason provides an
insight into the immense challenge in changing deep-rooted traditions in
Pakistan: In the tribal areas, a girl older than this is probably already
promised to somebody else.
Mahnun was 8 when a jirga decided she should be given as
a swara; her older sister, then 10, had already been promised to a cousin. The
stories are disturbingly repetitive: a land dispute, yet another crime, a
family seeking revenge, another men-only jirga of powerful local leaders, and
an innocent girl's future taken from her. Mahnun's case was unusual because her
father, both the perpetrator of the crime and a caring parent, would not accept
He pleaded with the jirga, offering to give
all he owned in exchange for his daughter. Her mother vowed she would not live
to see her little girl be taken away by a stranger. "They can behead me, but
they won't take my daughter. I won't let them to take my daughter," she
screamed when she heard the news. But the offended family said they would only
accept the girl, so the jirga consented, recounted Mahnun's mother.
With no other option available to them, Mahnun's family
gathered up some clothes, whatever utensils they could carry, and escaped in
the darkness. They left everything else behind and went into hiding.
The four now live in a single shabby room of a
dilapidated compound that they share with other families. They have no
electricity. The toilet is a walled-off hole in the ground outside; a few
buckets are used to bring water for bathing. Cooking is done in the single pan
they brought from home, placed over wood in the courtyard.
Mahnun's father found a temporary job as a driver, but
his contract came to an end and now he is unemployed. "We are borrowing money
from others so we can feed the children. We have no choice," he says. "Nothing
matters more to us than our two girls and their lives."
window of the room frames the snow-covered mountains in the distance; in the
other corner rest heavy blankets, gifts from
compassionate neighbors. But Mahnun's family is still wary of those around them:
"In this new village we haven't told anyone that she is a swara. If people know
about this they won't leave us here alive," says Mahnun's mother. Disobeying a
jirga's decision and escaping would be considered an act of betrayal for which
the family would not be forgiven.
"Each and every day we live in fear. What if they find
us?" says Mahnun's mother. She accompanies both daughters to school and waits
there until they leave. At age 10, Mahnun is in seventh grade and dreams of becoming
a judge. "I will ban the custom of swara, and I will put men who do it in
jail," she says hopefully.
"She is getting naughty because she knows she is loved
so much," her father explains, giving Mahnun a warm smile.
No man's land
Both Nazia's and Mahnun's stories pose a fundamental
question to Pakistan: Why didn't the families seek justice in traditional
courts in the first place? Part of the answer is tradition -- specifically
an unwritten, pre-Islamic set of rules that forms a code of honor in Pashtun
Nazia's father committed no crime, but he did not report
his brother, the jirga, or the family that demanded his daughter. In "normal"
circumstances, Mahnun's father, an educated man, could have gone to the courts
when his neighbor tried to steal parts of his land. Instead, he killed the man.
"There is something about the Pashtuns to be considered,
and that is the burden of honor," says Fazal Khaliq, a Pakistani journalist and
activist who is working to disclose swara cases and denounce the perpetrators.
"They kill each other over petty issues for the sake of honor!"
Mahnun's father was a farmer until a newcomer built a barbed-wire
fence inside his property. They argued. A few days later, the man advanced a
little further into the land. "I told him so many times.... But he'd keep moving in,
few meters at a time," says Mahnun's father. He quietly erected heavy cement blocks
to mark the boundaries of his 2 acres. The next day, the man removed them.
"But the worst was that the villagers would come and
harass me," he said, his voice shaking. "They said I was not brave enough,
insinuated that if I didn't seek revenge he might even take my wife, and
suggested I should bury his body in my land for what he was doing.... So, next time that man
invaded my land, I shot him."
The power of the Pashtun honor code, however, is only
part of the story. During the days of the British Empire, the region's colonial
rulers granted titles of nobility to powerful tribal leaders known as maliks in exchange for their loyalty; all local matters were
devolved to the jirgas. To counter any rebellion of the wild Pashtuns, the
British instituted a set of laws -- the Frontier Crimes Regulations -- that
deprived residents of legal representation in the traditional justice system.
At the least sign of rebellion, the British could arrest suspects without trial
and sometimes arrested whole tribes.
It was only in 2011 that President Asif Ali Zardari
signed amendments to the regulations that now give citizens of the tribal areas
the right to appeal decisions made by local political agents. The amendments also
prohibit collective punishment and the arrest of children under 16 for crimes
committed by others. Despite such reforms, however, little change has been seen
on the ground. A century after the set of laws was established, minors
continue to be jailed or suffer for the crimes of others, according to human
rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Flaws in Pakistan's judicial system also lead residents
to rely on the jirgas. "Traditional courts in Pakistan have very bad records.
There are unsolved cases going back more than 30 years, still in process, and
the whole justice system is seen as highly corrupt," says Khaliq. "It is also
very expensive. Courts charge for each and every service, so the poor can't afford
it, whereas the Islamic courts [jirgas] are free and speedy."
The rise of Islamic militancy in Pakistan could only
make things worse. As extremists grow more powerful, they have started imposing
their own draconian rules on society -- including even more discrimination
No women's land
In December 2012, I crossed from Islamabad into the
heart of Pashtun lands. In the scenic Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Army now
strictly controls journalists' access, Khaliq and I tried to visit the family
of an 8-year-old girl who had just been given away as a swara. Her mother,
however, was too afraid to speak. We made other attempts, but Taliban
militiamen were still around, locals said, and an informal code of silence
remains in force despite the heavy presence of the military.
Once a tourist destination for the Pakistani bourgeoisie
and even British monarchs, the Swat Valley was
under the sway of a faction of the Pakistani Taliban from 2007 to 2009.
Radicals bombed schools, banned girls'
education, and held public executions.
After an offensive that left thousands dead and caused a
massive exodus, the Army eventually regained control of the region.
But terrorists continue to carry out attacks, such as the shooting of Malala
and the bombing of four schools in the northwestern tribal belt this past February.
In the valley, we hardly saw any women on the streets.
The few outside wore burqas and were always accompanied by men. In Mingora, the
capital of Swat district, women are only allowed in the markets for a few hours
each day, and even then most husbands don't let their wives go. Those women who
can go to the markets buy enough to sell to others in improvised bazaars at
During the evenings, as we sat around the fire, the women in the village would describe episodes of violence against them
as nighttime fairy tales. The stories were retold to me by one of the men, as
none of the women spoke English. Although these men were the perpetrators of
the acts being described, they showed no shame in translating them.
City of men
On my way back from Swat, I stopped in Peshawar to meet
Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and award-winning filmmaker who has worked
with Pashtun women for years.
Peshawar is the nerve center of the tribal belt. It was
the headquarters of the Afghan insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, and
the Taliban rushed back in after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan.
Partnering with local extremist movements, the group has been tightening its grip on the city. In 2012 alone, rockets fell on the local
airport, police stations and checkpoints were bombed, vehicles transporting
government officials were targeted, and senior public figures were gunned down
in daylight. Bombings have
continued this year, and sectarian
violence in on the rise.
Today, Peshawar is under siege. Vestiges of the old city
are now hidden behind sandbags and spirals of barbed wire, while heavily armed
soldiers in bulletproof vests guard its ancient, tree-lined avenues. We were
stopped three times and interrogated while officers checked the car for bombs.
Eventually, they cleared the way ahead toward Edwardes College, which was founded in
1900 by Christian missionaries and has survived in recent years thanks to a
heavy security presence.
To my surprise, a teenage female student in a green
uniform and white chador came to guide me inside. Up until 2007, Edwardes
College did not admit women. Today 305 girls are enrolled alongside more than
2,000 boys. Although still a minority in the classroom, these are the
privileged -- two-thirds of girls from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are illiterate.
I entered a crowded gymnasium, where about a hundred
teenagers, boys and girls, were awaiting a lecture by Minallah about swara.
"Education alone can't stop violence against women, for
there are many educated parliamentarians who sit in the tribal jirgas and they
are the ones who decide these little girls should be given.... To stop that we have to
change the mindset, and you are the ones who can do it," Minallah began.
She turned suddenly to the boys: "And especially you." A
loud murmur filled the room; the boys looked confused. "How?" called out one
Justin Bieber look-alike. "When you consider this your problem, I assure you
that you will also be part of the change," Minallah answered.
Born to a Pashtun clan in Peshawar, Minallah was lucky
to have a liberal, pro-women father. He was a government official and father to
three girls and three boys, whom he treated equally. As Minallah told her story
to the audience, a boy in the crowd interrupted: "Sorry, but men and women ... we are different. Look
at us; we are different."
Minallah didn't hesitate: "Yes, you are right," she responded.
"We may be different, but we are not unequal in our rights."
Her statement encouraged the other girls. A 14-year-old
girl, only her eyes uncovered by her veil, turned to the boys: "Don't you
realize you are the ones who sit in the jirga? Go, stop talking, and do
something!" Even the boys applauded. The girl went on to tell the audience
about her daily struggle to come to school, defying her father's and brothers'
"These are very brave girls," Minallah murmured to me.
"Just attending school and wearing uniform in the streets is very dangerous for
Minallah only learned about swara in 2003, when she
traveled to the scenic village of Matta, at the top of the Swat Valley's
mountain range. There, she met a mother about to give her 11-year-old away in a
forced marriage. "That really hit me," Minallah said. "I just felt very angry
and ashamed that such things were happening in Pakistan and we didn't know
about them because they happen in the tribal areas."
So she became determined that Pakistan should know
everything. Minallah's first award-winning documentary, "Swara: A Bridge
Over Troubled Water," portrayed the
mother and daughter from Matta. The film made its way to the highest echelons
of the political system: In 2004, the Pakistani parliament passed an amendment
to Pakistan's penal code making swara a crime punishable by up to 10 years in
prison. Since then, around 60 decisions made by jirgas involving swara girls
have been prevented by local courts, though in most tribal areas the law still
does not apply.
Minallah relies on a network of local journalists and
activists, like Khaliq, to inform her about swara cases. She also depends on a
few local policemen to block upcoming cases.
Abid Ali was one of the few whom Minallah trusted. "When
I was informed about a jirga involving swara, I'd just give him a call and he
would come!" she says.
Ali, a police officer from Lahore who was married to a
Pashtun woman, became known for his bravery in fighting for girls' rights in
areas other officials refused to go. He received threats for interfering in
swara cases. One night in 2006, he was driving on the Peshawar-Kohat highway
when he was shot dead. His murderer was never brought to justice.
Ali's last post was in Mardan, on the outskirts of
Peshawar Valley. Naturally irrigated by the Swat River's many tributaries,
Mardan is a highly fertile agricultural area. Land disputes are frequent -- and
so is swara.
Rafaqat, a tiny woman with sun-cracked skin, has
dedicated her life to eliminating swara in the area. "I'm an old lady. If they
kill me, so what? I'll die eventually," she says, laughing loudly.
In 1998, Rafaqat's teenage nephew fell for a girl
already promised to somebody else. He knew his love was prohibited, so he ran
away with the girl. To compensate the family's loss, the jirga decided the
boy's younger sister, Rafaqat's niece, should be given away as a swara. She was
Rafaqat never saw her again. She managed to stay
informed about the niece's movements, so she knew when the girl became
pregnant. When the time came, her new family refused to take her to the hospital.
At age 14, the swara girl gave birth to a son, but died in labor. "They never
came to her funeral. They never paid condolences to our family," Rafaqat tells
me. "All they said was: We had our badal
As an old woman, Rafaqat can walk freely on the streets,
her torn veil barely covering her long, gray hair. Well known in the village,
mothers secretly contact her to report about swara cases. When she gets a call,
she immediately brings in Minallah.
In one such case, Minallah reached the jirga before it
had begun. Appropriately veiled, she stepped into the circle of men holding a
copy of the Quran. "I am sure you know that the Quran says it is anti-Islamic
to give girls as compensation," she lectured them.
One hour and a half later, the jirga announced it would
not take the girl. "That was such a happy day for me! Some tribal elders, they
don't know.... They are illiterate," Minallah says. "If you tell them
and if they see people are being jailed for that, they think again."
We are edging along between the cracked concrete walls
and rusty iron doors of Mardan's narrow streets when the driver stops abruptly.
Lying in the middle of a road of petrified mud is a baby girl, so young she
cannot even crawl, dressed in ragged clothes. Her eyes widened with the
proximity of the vehicle -- her eyelids blackened with kohl.
Minallah and Rafaqat rush to pick up the baby. We spot a
woman in the distance, hair covered, only her eyes visible as she stands in the
doorway. Laughing nervously, she says she is the baby's mother. Her older
children took their little sister to play outside, but left her behind. The
mother could not set foot outside the house without her husband's permission
and he was not at home, so she has been standing there, waiting for someone to
come and rescue her baby daughter.
We leave Rafaqat at home and head back to Islamabad.
Nowshera Mardan Road is packed with traditional, colorful Pakistani trucks,
while a few women walk in monochrome burqas on the roadside; others wear full
chador. I find it curious that some have red stains on the fabric. "They
represent the blood of women in their families killed in honor killing. A
silent protest," Minallah explains.
Mardan may be known as the city of brave men, but it's
also a place of courageous women. I ask whether Minallah has received any
threats: "Oh, so many!" she replies.
Minutes later, Minallah picks up a call. The line is cutting
out, but she can hear enough to understand that a Pakistani expat is calling
from Prague to inform her about a jirga due to meet in his home village in a
few days, to decide about swara girls.
Another case for Minallah to fight. "It's still a
tradition," she says, "but I think people are starting to realize it's nothing
but a crime."
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images