Pakistani Family Appeals To Save 6-Year-Old Girl From Marriage Order

6-year-old Bibi Roza in Pakistan's Swat Valley

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Ashari, Pakistan – In the remote, mountainous areas of Pakistan’s northwest, local feuds are commonly resolved in customary fashion rather than through common law.

Cases are deliberated by tribal elders gathered in an assembly called a jirga. In the event of a guilty verdict the guilty party is often ordered to compensate the victim by handing over land, money, livestock, or — in keeping with a tradition known as swara — an unmarried daughter.

The age-old tribal practice is seen as a way to peacefully settle even blood feuds, and is seldom challenged.

A controversial ruling handed down last week by a jirga in Swat Valley is a rare exception.

In that case, a jirga ordered that one local family marry off a daughter to a rival family in order to resolve an ongoing feud. If all goes according to plan, the daughter, Bibi Roza, will be married on November 11.

But there’s a hitch. Bibi Roza is just 6 years old.

Avoiding Bloodshed?

The girl’s parents are making a last-ditch effort to have the jirga’s decision overturned, and have appealed to a Swat court, the provincial government, and the country’s chief of justice for help. But they say they are personally powerless to stop the wedding, in which their daughter is to marry a 16-year-old boy from the rival family.

Azim Khan, Bibi Roza’s 65-year-old father, says he made numerous pleas to tribal elders to reconsider their ruling, but with no success. He says the local police, whom he accuses of supporting the ruling, have told him to accept the verdict.

Khan says if he were to refuse to allow the marriage, his disobedience would establish an “enmity” between the two families. And if that were to happen, he predicts, blood would likely flow as the other family sought to restore its honor.

“They [the jirga members] are telling us: ‘You agreed with the authorities in Ashari to marry your daughter into the other family. You have no other option,'” Khan says. “Yes, I agreed. But the police officers forced me to agree. They are saying that she will be married this Sunday [November 11]. I have pleaded with them that I cannot let her marry.”

Shah Dauran, the local police chief in Ashari, has rejected Khan’s claims, saying the police had no role in the jirga’s decision. Furthermore, he adds, the police launched a criminal investigation after the girl’s age was revealed.

According to Pakistani media reports on November 8, police have since arrested two men in connection with the case.

Local police officers have been cited as saying that a member of the local jirga and the father of the 16-year-old boy who is scheduled to marry Bibi Roza were both in police custody and that the investigation was still in progress.

Still Hoping

The family feud that prompted the jirga decision revolves around Bibi Roza’s sister-in-law. The woman, who has not been identified, recently married Bibi Roza’s brother despite being engaged to another man. The woman’s former fiance, after finding out about her marriage, took his grievance to the tribal elders.

In the course of the jirga, the man claimed his family’s honor had been tarnished and his former fiance’s marriage was illegal. He pleaded for a ruling that would both restore his family’s pride and exact punishment on his ex-fiance’s family.

Swara, the practice of exchanging women and girls to settle personal feuds, is common in areas of northwestern Pakistan like Swat Valley, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

In 2004, the Pakistani parliament declared the practice a criminal offense punishable by a minimum of a three-year prison sentence. But the practice continues in regions where customary law and tradition remain strong.

Bibi Roza’s mother, who did not give her name, says she has not given hope that the ruling will be overturned.

“The other family wants this innocent child to observe the custom of swara. The elders have ruled that she must marry on Sunday,” the child’s mother says. “I have pleaded with them that she is only a child. I said, ‘Don’t take her away, she’s only 6 years old.’ All Muslims need to think about this. I have asked the government to help us so she can stay home, because she is only a minor.”

Written by Frud Bezhan based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Niaz Ahmad

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty © 2012 RFE/RL, Inc. 

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