‘Vani’ is a cultural custom found in parts of Pakistan wherein young girls are compulsorily married as part of punishment for a crime committed by her male relatives. It is a form of prearranged child marriage in which the resulting punishment is decided by a council of tribal elders named jirga. It is derived from Pashto word ‘vanay’ which means blood. Vani is also known as ‘Sak’, ‘Swara’ and ‘Sangchatti’ in different regional languages of Pakistan. Vani can be avoided if the kin of the girl agrees to pay money, called Deet.
This custom is said to have been started almost 400 years ago when two Pashtun tribes in north western Pakistan fought a bloody war against each other. During this bloody period around 800 people were murdered. The local chief tried to resolve this tension by calling the ‘Jirga’ who decided that girls are to be given as ‘Qisas’, as punishment. They considered it the only way to resolve this dispute and both families turned into a ‘Birad’. Later on this decision became a custom which was passed on from generation to generation. Since then, tribal and rural jirgas have been using young virgin girls aged 4 to 14 to settle crimes such as murder by men. This blood for blood tradition can be found in different provinces of Pakistan such as KPK, Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan as well as in the tribal areas. The practice has no legal or religious basis and constitutes an ancient tradition that is extensively customary in tribal and rural areas.
A terrible incident flashed on national and international media a few years back when eight innocent girls were married as ‘Vani’ in Mianwali; one of them was just one and a half year old. Various human rights organizations are working to eradicate this inhuman and stupid custom which is creating serious disorder in the society and destroying women’s lives. Pakistan has already been facing severe reprimand for human rights violations and the incidents of vani bring huge shame to Pakistan.
In 2011, a 12 year old girl was handed over as wife to an 85 year old man under ‘Vani’ for a crime alleged to have been committed by the girl’s father. In Malahanwala, Hafizabad, a 10 year old girl was forcibly married to a 50 year old man under the vani custom to compensate for her father’s second marriage in the district. In 2012, 13 girls ranging from age 4 to 16 years were forced into marriage to resolve a dispute over a contention of murder between two clans. The case was tried by elders from the two groups with a member of Balochistan state assembly, Mir Tariq Masoori Bugti, who was leading the jirga. The jirga’s verdict was based on ‘Vani’ enacting an order that the 13 girls must be handed over as wives to members of one of the clans, for a crime committed by a man of the other clan, who could not even be found for the trial. The sentence was carried out, and the politician Mr. Bugti fortified the practice of ‘Vani’ as a valid means to reconcile disputes.
The national ‘Judicial Policy Making Committee’ called upon a panel of judges and decided to take immediate and strict action against this inhuman custom. But ‘Vani’ cases are still frequently occurring in the area. According to the committee two sisters were given to marriage under ‘Vani’ in Tolamangi Kalabagh, where Jahangir Khan raped a girl called Naseem Bibi who got pregnant. It was decided that the victim girl got married to Jahangir Khan, while his two sisters (8 and 17 years old) were given to Naseem Bibi’s brothers with additional 60 thousands rupees as fine. Both girls were handed over according to the decision against their will.
When compromise is sought between two belligerent tribes this tradition is followed in order to avoid further bloodshed. Usually ‘Vani’ is applied in the cases of murder and kidnapping of womenfolk. When a jirga is called upon to resolve a case of murder or kidnapping of a girl, the jirga indicts the offender and announces punishment. In a murder case, punishments are either revenge i.e. blood for blood or blood money or ‘Vani’. In the latter case, the nearest virgin daughter, sister, etc. of the offender is given over to the aggrieved family. When deciding the conditions of ‘Vani’ a number of factors are taken into account, including the number of murders and the length of the dispute between the two families, as well as the power balance between them. Since it is a forced marriage between the enemies, there is no wedding ceremony. The girl is made to ride a donkey or horse and a third party leads that animal to the other side.
The receiving family takes over the girl as a punishment to the enemy. However, the main sufferer in such a case is certainly the girl. In tribal society, the woman is often placed in a discriminated position, considered as property of man. Marriage is normally arranged for a price for the bride called ‘Walwar’. Therefore, in case of ‘Vani’, the affected family loses a promising amount of money, which makes it being considered a severe punishment.
Women in our society have attained a respectable place altogether with greater awareness of their position and potentialities. They are no more treated as equivalent to cattle or as a commodity to be bargained. Against the background of this modern outlook, all those sticking to the irrational old cultures and traditions will find themselves at a loss while competing with the modern world. The modern man will always look askance at those who sacrifice their women under the garb of ‘Vani’ to save men from the vengeance of the enemy.
Giving women as ‘Vani’ to the enemy for marriage purposes so that the enemy may forgive the murder of its dear one is also against the teachings of Islam. Islam categorically forbids all marriages made under any kind of compulsion. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) has at many occasions dissolved such marriages. These marriages were known as ‘Sabaya’ in the days of ‘Jahiliya’ (ignorance). To sum up, today the custom of ‘Vani’ is doing no good but casting aspersions on the noble and dignified heritage of the Pashtun culture, which denotes courage, honour, hospitality and peaceful coexistence.
‘Vani’ also contradicts international human rights standards.
Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.
Obviously, the practice of ‘Vani’ is in direct conflict with Article 1 of the UDHR, which regards all human being free by birth and equal in dignity and rights. It disregards an individual’s freedom as under ‘Vani’ girls are given over to the rival party without seeking their consent.
Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Men and women of full age without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to form a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
Article 16 of UDHR grants the right of marrying by one’s own choice without any discrimination based on race, nationality or religion. Under ‘Vani’ however, neither the man’s nor the women’s consent is asked for the purpose of marriage. In this sense, both of them are victims. More agonizing is the fact that these ill-fated individuals cannot dissolve their marriage in any case, whether they are living together or not.
Despite rising awareness through media about the issue of ‘Vani and similar traditional practices, injustices continue. It appears that women are still mainly seen as property and mere objects that can be used to settle feuds between men. Evidently, the laws alone have been insufficient to eliminate this custom from Pakistani society. Furthermore, politicians and administrators need to be educated about the damage caused by such acts since their involvement in jirgas legitimises the acts in the eyes of the people. Instead of presiding over such extra judicial forums that deliver unlawful verdicts and seal the fate of young girls, lawmakers should be working to eradicate such practices in their respective constituencies.