September Issue 2003

By | Movies | Arts & Culture | Published 15 years ago

Swara, a documentary written and directed by anthropologist Samar Minallah, is a deeply disturbing account of one of the traditional customs still prevailing among the Pakhtuns of the Frontier province.

The code of the Pakhtuns, Pakhtunwali, has connotations of courage and chivalry in popular understanding. While it glorifies male notions of honour, it brings nothing but misery to women, as researchers such as Minallah have pointed out in their writing.

With Swara, Minallah takes to a different medium. While the film conveys the message in no uncertain terms, it is plain to see that the transition from one medium to the other is far from smooth. The film is text-heavy and one sees the editor struggling with the job of matching visual material to the commentary. As a result, there is a fair amount of repetition of visual material and, at times, the visual and audio fail to relate.

That said, Minallah has done an excellent job of putting the dilemma of the Pakhtun woman across, in her own words. In the custom of Swara, disputes arising from incidents where a man is killed in a confrontation are settled by presenting a girl to the aggrieved family as compensation for the loss of life. The decision is taken by an all-male jirga, which does not consult the girl or any female member of the family on the question.

This situation results in what is described as nikah bil jibr by a judge of the Federal Shariat Court interviewed by Minallah. The girl is sent, often against her will, to a hostile family, where she lives in disgrace, paying for the sins of the men of her family. The marriage takes place with no ceremony, and the girl is not allowed to participate in any festive occasions in her new family. Mothers pray that their daughters should die before they leave their homes, because this is truly a fate worse than death.

Minallah has a poignant image of a man leading his little girl across to a jirga to offer her up for swara. The image is repeated several times and it is as chilling the last time as when it first appears. Although the aggrieved family is asked to wait until the girl reaches puberty, often even this wish is not respected, and the girl is taken away to be wed to a man who is old enough to be her father, and who usually has another wife.

Victims of swara appear in the documentary to speak first-hand of their experience. Gul Bibi, who was not willing to go through swara, was married to an old man against her will. Noreena has been given away in swara and her mother complains that she was forced to agree to the arrangement at gunpoint. Noreena, who should be enjoying what she has left of her childhood, suffers from depression. Another woman who was given away in swara runs away from home, only to be tracked down. She has to earn 100,000 rupees through hard labour and give them to the aggrieved family. Only then is she let off the hook.

The film is an indictment of a primitive society where only the law of the jungle seems to prevail. Telling the story is the first step towards a movement for change and Minallah minces no words in telling it the way it is.

Tehmina Ahmed is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. She is a senior editor at Newsline and head of Newsline Films.