Women or property?

Published July 10, 2016
The writer is author of Swara: Women as Property.
The writer is author of Swara: Women as Property.

THE tradition of swara is as ancient as Pakhtunwali. Still practised in pockets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the custom entails handing over a girl in marriage to an aggrieved family as compensation to settle a feud. The nuptials are conducted sans pomp and show. Usually one girl is offered but the number can go up to three.

In Persian, swara means a woman riding a horse. Another source for the word comes from Arabic, in which ‘uswara’ means bangles, a word that symbolises women. As per Pakhtun culture, swara is a woman on horseback, belonging to the guilty party (either his sister or daughter) who travels to the enemy camp accompanied only by women of her own family, thereby placing herself at the latter’s mercy. The gesture is symbolic of asking for a truce.

According to the original Pakhtun tradition, the woman was treated honourably and sent back on the same horse with gifts and a mantle, ie a scarf signifying that her honour remained intact.

The literal meaning of the term swara is significant here, as one who departs riding on a horse would definitely come back. A sojourn or stay was unthinkable: a stay of a few moments was sufficient to fulfil the objectives of swara after which she would return home along with her companions.


In the original ‘swara’ tradition, women were treated honourably.


Thus from a historical perspective, swara was never meant to suggest that the woman would become a property of the aggrieved party. However, if the relationship between the two belligerent tribes became cordial, the aggrieved party had the first right to ask for the woman’s hand. She would be married with due pomp, and the union established a blood relationship between the warring tribes.

In Zafar-ul-Lughat, Bahadur Shah Zafar says: “Swara is the girl given over to the rival for the sake of reconciliation in case of murder or any other ‘rivalry’.” It is resorted to usually in cases of murder and kidnapping of women. While deciding on the modalities of swara, a number of factors are taken into account, including the number of murders, length of dispute between the two families and balance of power between them.

In ‘one-sided swara’ the aggressor party gives a woman to the aggrieved party, who then have to give their word to the jirga that there will be no further bloodshed. In ‘two-sided swara’, both aggressor and aggrieved parties exchange swara in order to end their enmity. In ‘three-sided swara’, the aggressor party gives one woman as a swara, after which two more swaras, one from each side, are exchanged.

There are geographical and cultural variations in the practice of swara. In certain areas of Afghanistan, four girls are given as compensation. In practice, three girls are given and, in place of the fourth, cash — the amount of which is decided by the jirga — is paid to the victim party. In certain parts of western Afghanistan, 12 girls are given in compensation for one murder; of them, six are given dowry while the remaining are sent without.

Swara has indeed served its purpose as a way to avert tribal war, because enmity between two hostile tribes usually ends with the establishment of a blood relationship between them.

However, from legal and human rights perspectives, there is no justification for swara. The tradition forces innocent girls to bear the brunt of crimes they never committed, but for which they must endure mental torture for the rest of their lives. The worst is when an infant or minor girl is given as swara. The custom is not only against fundamental human rights, but also against the teachings of Islam, which decrees that the will of both the bride and groom be sought before the marriage is finalised. In fact, present-day swara bears some resemblance to the Arab tradition of sabaiya (captivity).

The custom is also in conflict with international law, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In 2000, while disposing of Bakht Mana’s case, the Peshawar High Court ruled against the custom. In 2011, Section 310-A was inserted in the Pakistan Penal Code, stipulating a maximum imprisonment of seven years and fine of Rs500,000 for those guilty of practising swara.

Between 2012-14, as many as 20 cases of swara were registered in seven districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The accused were acquitted in seven cases.

Women protection legislation by itself is not enough to protect women: capacity-building of investigators, prosecutors and judges must form a central part of the strategy. The media must also play its part in mobilising public opinion against such inhuman practices. Free registration of cases and cooperation of witnesses will ensure that the guilty are punished.

The writer is author of Swara: Women as Property.

Twitter:@alibabakhel

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2016

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