ISLAMABAD, Aug 18: It seemed shocking for those who viewed on Monday a documentary film depicting the tortuous life of a girl becoming a victim of the infamous Swara custom still prevalent in parts of north-western Pakistan.
The film “Bridge over Troubled Water”, exploring the various dimensions of the custom to give away usually a minor girl in marriage to settle a blood feud, was screened by SDPI at its hall for the first time in Islamabad.
Under the Swara custom, a minor girl is married to a man of an enemy’s family as a compensation for a murder committed either by her brother, father and even an uncle as a form of bringing peace between the rival families.
The custom has been in practice in parts of the NWFP and the tribal areas since long but has been brought to limelight outside the region in recent years by human rights groups.
A Swara marriage is usually decided by tribal jirga, consisting of elders of a village as well as from the rival parties.
The documentary, prepared by Ms Samar Minallah, an anthropologist-turned-film-maker on women issues, showed that there were usually three ways of settling cases of both intentional and unintentional murders among the Pakhtun: Qisas (killing for killing), Diat (accepting blood money) and Swara.
As revenge, Pakhtuns prefer Swara by which they fulfil their desire for perceived harsh revenge. They resort to the custom as blood money could not blow out their fire of revenge, the documentary showed.
Swara is considered as an effective way of putting permanent end to enmity as the offsprings of such a wedlock would keep the two families from further fighting.
The aggrieved party selects from the other family a girl to be given in Swara and the selection is unalterable. The custom has also become a status symbol as usually two girls are given in Swara to compensate for the murder of a prominent person.
A girl given away in Swara is taken away on reaching maturity by the aggrieved party, which also decides whether to perform the religious nikah then or later at its own will to further disgrace her family.
A Swara girl’s parents usually pray for her death so the period of their disgrace is shortened. If a girl dies before she is given to the rival family, another Swara is not claimed. No willingness of the girl is sought as is also the custom of other tribal marriages.
The documentary, shot in Darra Dam Khel, Khyber Agency, Mardan, Swabi and Peshawar also contains interviews of tribal elders, fiercely defending the custom. It also showed Swara victims and their parents.
However, a religious scholar and a judge of the Federal Shariat Court were shown terming the practice un-Islamic and inhuman and calling for its elimination.
Ms Samar told the audience that she would screen the documentary in villages of the NWFP. She admitted that Swara being part and parcel of Pakhtun culture, it was very difficult to raise voice against it. But she said the MMA women parliamentarians had promised to work for the elimination of the inhuman practice.
Dr Rakhshanda Parveen from Sachet, an NGO, called Swara a culturally-sanctioned form of violence against women. She said it was a behaviour-related issue and asked the enlightened people to act as an agent of change instead of becoming fatalistic.
Dr Saba Gul Khattak, SDPI executive director, said Swara was a product of a patriarchal construct of society and called for according equal rights to women. — Junaid Bahadur