November Issue 2003
Bride for Sale
In some parts of NWFP, the custom of sar paisa is prevalent. The bridegroom, in order to marry, pays a large sum of money to the girl’s parents. This custom transforms her into an object of economic value, devoid of emotions or feelings. This living, breathing object of value can actually be sold and re-sold for a higher price — without a family’s ‘honour’ being at stake. In fact, the higher her value, the more ‘honour’ her family gains.
Maimoona from Parachinar ended up in Kohat jail when she refused to be juggled from one man to another for a higher price. She was sold off to her cousin for 50,000 rupees in marriage. Meanwhile, her paternal cousin got an offer of one-and-a-half lakh rupees, which he readily accepted on her behalf without her consent.
The only choice left before Maimoona was to escape with her husband. Having no written proof of their legal marriage, they ended up in Kohat jail. Maimoona’s brothers and paternal cousins are trying their best to get her out of the jail in order to regain their lost honour and money.
Niyaz Khela, who is in her late fifties, belongs to Karak. She was sold off in marriage to a man much older to her. Still in her teens then, her husband would often beat her over trivial matters. In order to escape from a life of misery, she eloped with another man whom she had met while she had gone to fetch water.
Having to choose between the probability of being killed and living a life of torment with a man who would continue to mistreat her, Niyaz Khela chose the former.
Barefoot, with no material possession, she, along with her paramour, hid in the crevices of the rugged mountains of Karak, dodging the killers that chased her. “The gunshots did not scare me because I preferred death to going back to an abusive husband,” says Niyaz Khela. However, after two years of hiding, Niyaz Khela’s second husband managed to pay 10,000 rupees to her ex-husband, which was double the amount initially paid by the first husband as ‘bride price.’ This way not only was his pride elated but his lost ‘honour’ was also regained in the form of financial profit.
In Karak, a married woman has a higher price in the market because her ex-husband, if alive, has to be compensated for his financial loss. Unless, he is given a higher price than what he had initially paid for the woman, he receives pighore (taunt) from the community.
If money is not paid as compensation, the male perpetrator is usually killed and the woman sent back to the parents, who try once again to marry her off. The money they receive from her second marriage is paid off to her aggrieved ex-husband.
Thus, here, more men are killed in such offences because a woman, even if she is divorced or abandoned by the husband, still has a price in the market. The man can also be acquitted if he pays a huge amount of money as compensation to the aggrieved party. Therefore honour, in this context, is linked more to wealth than to one’s moral behaviour.
As Niyaz Khela confirms, ‘Moozh watan kay topak aao paisa balaa dee,’ (In our village guns and money are giants!). It’s been more than four decades since Niyaz Khela abandoned her village and settled in Islamabad as an economic migrant. Her second husband left her for another woman whom he bought at a reasonable price.
Living in a small ghetto, practicing her customs in a foreign land, Niyaz Khela had to work hard to marry off her three children, all on her own. She worked as a labourer, making bricks for the high-rise buildings of Islamabad to pay for a bride for one of her sons. For her younger son, she got a bride in swarra (exchange of women) as an exchange with her own daughter.
It is interesting that while honour can be tarnished with a slight slip of behaviour, customs like swarra and sar paisa, where a woman is used as an object of value or an instrument of building alliances, bring honour. Niyaz Khela, like many other Pukhtuns, has no choice but to follow the customs her forefathers practiced. If a Pakhtun fails to act according to Pakhtunwali, he/she is no longer considered a dhroon Pakhtun (an honourable Pakhtun). It is very hard even for a very gallant Pakhtun to face the venomous pighore. The only way to free oneself from the wrath of pighore is to prove his/her allegiance to ‘Pakhunwali’(the Pakhtun code of conduct), which could even be at the price of someone’s life.