IT is a wonder that it took so long for the Federal Shariat Court to declare the practice of swara un-Islamic. To begin with, swara has no relation to Islam; it is a tribal custom, also referred to as vani, where usually minor girls are seen as compensation to settle disputes, often involving murder. These decisions are taken by jirgas who call for the ‘giving away’ in marriage of young girls from the aggressor’s family to older men of the aggrieved party. A three-judge bench of the Federal Shariat Court ruled that religious scholars had agreed that swara or vani was against the injunctions of Islam. The bench was hearing a petition by Sakeena Bibi who challenged the custom of vani for violating the fundamental rights of girls and women. According to the court’s juristconsult, the practice of swara and vani violated at least four fundamental rights of the victims: the girls offered in swara or vani are usually kept deprived of even their basic needs thus subjecting them to discrimination, forced marriage, loss of entitlement to dower and inability to seek legal recourse for dissolution of the marriage.
The Federal Shariat Court’s decision has only symbolic significance because the Peshawar High Court in 2000 had ruled against the practice of swara. This was followed by the insertion of Section 310-A in the Pakistan Penal Code under which those resorting to this abhorrent practice could be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined up to Rs500,000. Moreover, the Supreme Court in 2019 had also declared jirgas or panchayats illegal when they act as parallel courts in criminal or civil matters. However, it is unfortunate that due to the lackadaisical application of these laws new cases have kept surfacing while those involved in them are not punished according to the law. Court decisions and the laws count for little until they are implemented in letter and spirit. The authorities should mete out the strictest punishment that the law provides to those involved in this heinous practice.
Published in Dawn, October 27th, 2021