Forms of Forced Marriages

Malali Bashir



By writing on Pashtun women’s plight with the hands of social stigmas, I am not arguing that non-Pashtun women are free of such problems. Rather, writing on such issues means that we have to find the courage to face the reality and speak up about it; to come out of a denial mode. Unless we speak out against our problems, we will not be able to think critically and find solutions for them. This piece is also not aimed at generalizing about Pashtun women’s social situation, since there are exceptions in everything and everywhere.

As I sit in the middle of a mini-crowd of women in my husband’s village, one of the women tells me with a slight sneer on her face, “This is my daughter-in-law”. “But she is barely five!” I exclaim in amazement. They all look amused with my astonishment. “Well, it was her wish,” she points towards her almost-ninety-years-old mother-in-law who lies on a bed under the shadows of mulberry trees. The mother-in-law later on tells me that she did not want her daughters-in-law to separate her sons from each other and cause disputes over the distribution of lands after her death so she tied them even further. And since it was a shame for her sons to willingly refuse to fulfill the wish of a dying mother, they bowed to her demand.


Like in most other patriarchal societies, traditions in the Pashtun society are practiced in the name of honor and sharam—shame that supports forced marriages for both men and women in the Pashtun society. It’s not only the women who are forced into marriages but also frequently men. Financial problems, a lack of education, political instability and a lack of judicial facilities all play a part in causing people to accept forced marriages as a normal practice.

One example of a forced marriage is pur kore wor kawal, which means to offer the hand of one’s immediate female relative (daughter, sister, or niece) to someone without his asking for it. If a man asks another man to accept his daughter’s or sister’s hand in marriage, the other party has to accept it under all circumstances. This practice is quite similar to Pashtunwali’s nanawatai, which is the request for sanctuary where a person who seeks refuge in someone’s house cannot be denied shelter. There have been instances where a man gets tiered of his poverty and so presents his daughter’s hand to a wealthy man irrespective of his age. Once the wealthy man is offered a girl’s hand, it is considered inappropriate for him to back off since it is the matter of his honor. Other times, the man might simply be young and educated and if he is offered the hand of a girl, he cannot refuse it even if he does not like her. As a result, the woman bears the taunts of her in-laws and a shame for being such a burden over her father’s shoulders to be offered to someone “for free”. This is also another important reason for a woman’s being respected at her in-laws depending upon the amount of money (dowry) her husband had to pay her father in order to get her hand. Consequently, the more worthy a woman, the more her dowry will be. I would like to mention that dowry is the money the husband/dower gives to the wife’s father or family whereas, the money the husband gives to the wife is called Mahar which Islam requires. This tradition is totally different from the one practiced mostly in South Asian countries where the bride’s family has to pay money/dowry to the husbnad's family or the husband - and is called Jahez.

Another example is the practice of naara kawal, or calling upon someone. Though this practice has decreased with the passage of time and traditions have changed, it is another example of forced marriage but this time from a woman’s side. If a woman likes someone and wants to marry him but the man is not interested, she can go ahead and enter his house and express her intentions to the family members. The word spreads around and the man she chooses has to marry her even if he is already married and has children.

The practice of takaan kawal, firing in the air, is another example. Although this practice has also declined recently, the last case I know of is a woman named Khwazha (not her real name) who lived in a village next to mine. A man had seen her in a wedding party and so liked her. He went ahead and fired in the air in front of her house and announced that the Khwazha was his fiancée after that day. The rule is that the man who fires in the air in front of the house of the girl he loves, is ready to start a feud with anyone who asks for the hand of that girl and thus forces the girl’s family to accept him as the future husband for their daughter. Khwazha’s father rejected the pronouncement. Khwazha lived in her father’s home ten years after that incident and was married off to a distant relative, whom she loved too, after her family was sure that that man was not enough powerful anymore to start a feud. Not all girls are as lucky as Khwazha in such cases.

Pa badoo ki wor kawal or swara is the tradition of giving away a girl to settle a dispute. If a man kills someone, his family seeks settlement in the form of marrying off one of the murderer’s female relatives, most often his sister, to a male relative of the deceased. There are times when the man accepting the girl for marriage to settle the dispute is of her father’s age or even older. I have witnessed a case when a man tried to kill someone from his clan because of a simple disagreement over a business deal. The attempted murder dispute had to be settled and the jerga, tribal council, decided that the attacker’s family would have to marry off a woman to one of the victim’s sons. Since the attacker had no daughters and no unmarried sisters, his brother was demanded by the jerga to give two of his four- and three-year-olds’ hands because they were too young and could be considered equal to one grown up woman. The victim who survived after spending more than six months in a hospital forgave the attack and so the two innocent girls were saved from being sacrificed for the deeds of their uncle. The attacker’s family, as a gesture of gratitude, gifted around ten lambs and two rifles to the victim, which he accepted as a sign of removal of any grudges.

Financial problems, also, can drive families to force their women into marriages or to sell them. There are many cases in which women are sold and forced into marriages to settle debts. Naghma is one of the examples of child brides sold as a result of their fathers’ poverty and inability to repay their debt. "I had to sell my six-year-old daughter Naghma to a relative to settle an old debt," Mr Mohammad says. Sana Safi, staff of the BBCPashto recently in an interview with the BBC World, said that her father had tried to sell her to settle a debt when she was still a child. She was saved as a result of the intervention of her mother. The number of women and girls sold to settle opium debts is overwhelmingly increasing as well.

A woman’s mood during the wedding ceremony is not always an indication of her feeling about the arrangement. Traditionally, a woman is expected to remain quiet and sad, preferably weep or cry as well, for having to leave her dear family members behind. Any form of excitement or joy, such as smiling or chatting, is interpreted as her looking forward to starting a sexual life—and this calls for condemnation, since sex is a taboo subject in the Pashtun society. However, this also means that even genuine sadness and weeping would not necessarily mean that the bride is unhappy with the marriage.


These forms of forced marriages are not only due to a lack of laws in the country or the government’s inability to implement them efficiently, but they exist because societies allow them to; due to their inherently unjust nature, these traditions need to be eradicated of the society, especially since we have seen that they occur due to issues of illiteracy, poverty, and the like. Still, the mindset of the society needs to be changed. Religious and community leaders need to highlight the issues and help people understand that these practices are, in fact, violation of human rights and that the real shame is in practicing these unjust traditions.

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