In a Pak­istan fam­ily, deal is made, girl is given as bride

Set­tling dis­putes with fam­i­lies with fe­male trade

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -


Mo­ham­mad Ramzan can nei­ther hear nor speak, and he has a child­like mind. But he knew his wife, Saima, was too young when she was given to him as a bride. The 36-year-old Ramzan smiles, ea­ger to please, as he uses his fin­gers to count out her age when they mar­ried. One, two, three . . . un­til 13, and then he stops and looks at her, points and nods sev­eral times.

The girl’s fa­ther, Wazir Ahmed, says she was 14, not 13, but her age was be­side the point. It mat­tered only that she had reached pu­berty when he ar­ranged her mar­riage as an ex­change: His daugh­ter for Ramzan’s sis­ter, whom he wanted to take as a sec­ond wife. His first wife, Saima’s mother, had given him only daugh­ters, and he hoped his sec­ond wife would give him a son. But Sabeel wouldn’t marry him un­til her brother had a wife to care for him. She would be a bride in ex­change for a bride.

“We gave a girl in this fam­ily for a girl in their fam­ily,” Ahmed says. “That is our right.” In deeply con­ser­va­tive re­gions such as this one in the south of Pun­jab prov­ince, the tribal prac­tice of ex­chang­ing girls be­tween fam­i­lies is so en­trenched, it even has its own name in Urdu: Watta Satta, which means give and take.

Re­li­gious obli­ga­tion

A girl may be given away to pay a debt or set­tle a dis­pute be­tween feud­ing fam­i­lies. She might be mar­ried to a cousin to keep her dowry in the fam­ily or, as in this case, mar­ried for the prospect of a male heir. Many be­lieve that their Is­lamic re­li­gion in­structs fa­thers to marry off their daugh­ters at pu­berty. “If it is not done, our so­ci­ety thinks par­ents have not ful­filled their re­li­gious obli­ga­tion,” says Faisal Tang­wani, re­gional co­or­di­na­tor for the in­de­pen­dent Hu­man Rights Com­mis­sion of Pak­istan in nearby Mul­tan.

Ahmed sees the hand of God in his daugh­ter’s mar­riage to a dis­abled man. “It was by God’s will that he was cho­sen,” he says. “It was her fate.” Ahmed sits in­side the mud-walled com­pound where he lives now with his two wives. Out­side, stray dogs roam in packs of three and four. They bite, Ahmed warns. He says that the fact that Ramzan is nearly three times his daugh­ter’s age is ir­rel­e­vant. But the le­gal mar­ry­ing age here is 16, and in a rare move, po­lice did in­ves­ti­gate Saima’s mar­riage af­ter they re­ceived a com­plaint, pos­si­bly from a rel­a­tive in­volved in a dis­pute with her fa­ther.

Ramzan and Ahmed were jailed for a few days, but Saima tes­ti­fied in court that she was 16 and they were re­leased. She says she told the au­thor­i­ties she was 16 to pro­tect her fa­ther and hus­band. In Saima’s world of crush­ing poverty, where cen­turies-old tribal tra­di­tions mix with re­li­gious be­liefs, a crip­pling cy­cle traps even the per­pe­tra­tors with a life’s bur­den: A fa­ther who longs for a son to help sup­port his fam­ily; a wife who must pro­vide that son; a daugh­ter who must be­come a mother even when she is still a child.

Saima’s mother, Janaat, agrees with mar­ry­ing off her daugh­ters early. She says girls are a headache af­ter they reach pu­berty. They can’t be left at home alone for fear of un­wanted sex­ual ac­tiv­ity or worse, the daugh­ter leaves home with a boy of her choice. “That would be a shame for us. We would have no honor. No. When they reach pu­berty quickly, we have to marry them,” she says. “Daugh­ters are a bur­den, but the sons, they are the own­ers of the house.”

She says she ac­cepted her hus­band’s mar­riage to an­other woman; af­ter all, it’s her fault he only has daugh­ters. “I feel shame that I don’t have a son. I my­self al­lowed my hus­band to get a sec­ond wife,” she says. Her hus­band’s new wife, Sabeel, says she agreed to marry Ahmed be­cause of her brother. She wanted him to have a wife.

“No one had been will­ing to give their daugh­ters to my brother,” she says. Ramzan is quick to ex­tend his hand to guests who en­ter through the torn and tat­tered cur­tain that hangs over the front door to his com­pound, tucked away in a nar­row al­ley lined with open sew­ers. Ramzan’s el­derly par­ents live with him. His fa­ther rarely leaves his bed, say­ing he has trou­ble walk­ing. His mother begs from morn­ing un­til night, some­times knock­ing on doors, other times park­ing her­self in the mid­dle of a dusty road, her hand out­stretched for do­na­tions.


Like Ramzan, she can nei­ther hear nor speak. Both her hips and one knee have been bro­ken. She ges­tures as if break­ing a twig to ex­plain her trou­bled knee. Ramzan looks at Saima, her hair hid­den be­neath a sweep­ing shawl, her large brown eyes down­cast. “I didn’t want to marry her so young. I said at the time, ‘She is too young,’ but ev­ery­one said I must,” he says through a se­ries of ges­tures in­ter­preted by those around him. He held his hand up just be­low his chest, show­ing how tall she was when they mar­ried.

Saima doesn’t talk much. Her an­swers are short, and mat­ter-of-fact. “His sis­ter and my fa­ther fell in love and they ex­changed me,” Saima says. “Yes, I am afraid of my fa­ther, but it is his de­ci­sion who I will marry and when.” She picks at the rope bed where she sits with Ramzan. Her hus­band of­ten reaches to touch the top of her head. — AP

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