‘Vani — imprisonment unto death’

Published December 8, 2005

MIANWALI, Dec 7: There is no let-up in sentencing women to the horrific tradition of vani in this rugged district of Punjab, as four such incidents have come to the surface here within the last couple of weeks. Under this inhuman practice, men can go scot-free on ‘marrying’ their daughters in the rival family as ‘ransom’ even if they have committed the heinous crime of murder. The cruel practice has been thriving since times immemorial under the projected notion that the marriages decided under the vani custom remove the scars of enmity between the two families.

But, practically all the rights of a woman are forfeited the day she becomes vani bride to save the skin of the male members of her family. The in-laws look down upon her and do not allow her to step out of the four walls of their house. In most of the cases, the vani is not allowed to even meet her parents in her lifetime.

“You can say it life-imprisonment till death,” Advocate Khalilur Rehman, a right activist, said.

The notorious custom had come to the limelight three years ago when the Supreme court of Pakistan intervened on news reports to save eight girls of Abba Khel village of Mianwali district from becoming the vani brides in order to get released four men of their family for whom death warrants had been issued for killing three men of the rival tribe in 1986.

One of the girls declared vani was an infant not more than one and-a-half years. Among the arbitrators were influential people like the Nawab of Kalabagh, Pir of Blot Sharif and Pir of Bhor Sharif. Police had gone to the area and intimidated the would-be grooms to divorce the girls. One of the grooms was in his 70s and the girl being married to him was only 16.

The callous custom, however, was once again forgotten by all including the state, the media and the human right campaigners as none of them pursued the issue as vigorously as was needed to vanish it once and for all from the lives of reticent women of Mianwali and adjoining areas.

The issue has once again come to the fore with the refusal of five girls to become vani brides under a deal struck nine years ago to get liberated a murderer languishing in prison. Iqbal Khan Niazi had reportedly gunned down his relative Zaman Khan over a point of honour in 1991. He remained fugitive until the arbitrators assured him that a patch-up would soon be struck to save him from the consequences of his crime.

The arbitrators or panchayat (village jury) settled the feud under the vani practice. One of the girls was Iqbal’s daughter and four were his nieces. All the girls were underage at the time when their sharaee nikah were solemnized.

Refusal of the girls on attaining adolescence had prompted the rival family to attack and injure two of their cousins in October last. One of the girls, Amna Niazi is now a student of MA English at a college in Khushab. One of her younger vani-declared sisters has just passed FSc examination in first division while the other is a high school student.

Their father, Jahan Khan, is now supporting his daughters. He is serving at the office of the Auditor General of Pakistan. He said he was forced to accept the decision of arbitrators nine years ago. His unequivocal support to the cause of his daughters has encouraged some other victims to speak aloud against the evil.

The government had made in January this year the practice of vani punishable for a rigorous imprisonment up to 10 years under section 310-A PPC. Hence, both the parties and the arbitrators are now liable to be punished for dealing vani marriages. The police have registered two cases under the law with Wah Bachhran and Musakhel police stations only when the refusal of Amna Niazi and her sisters brought the menace to the limelight.

In the case registered with the Musakhel police station, the police had earlier reported that the girls — Asmat, Tasleem and Fauzia — had denied that they were being married under the practice. Musakhel SDPO Malik Iqbal showed this correspondent some written statements carrying ‘thumb marks’ of the girls that they were happy with the matches.

However, when informed that the girls had told Dawn that no police official had ever come to record statements and that they would commit suicide instead of becoming vani brides, the SDPO had nothing to explain except repeatedly showing the thumb marks.

The fathers of the girls said Musakhel SHO Najeebullah had come carrying the self-written statements to their place in Marmandi village, but they told him that the girls were against the marriages settled under vani tradition. At this, the police official got thumb marks of a boy on all the statements.

Later, the police registered a case after arresting fathers of the girls and the father of the prospective grooms, but no action has so far been taken against the officials who had misguided the authorities.

The police, however, are not taking any action to help Amna Niazi and her sisters and cousins out of the clutches of the tradition despite the fact that they have been urging the government and the apex court to get their nikah quashed in the same manner executed in the Abba Khel episode.

Activist Khalilur Rehman said scores of victims were awaiting the success of Jahan Khan and his daughters to stand against the vani custom in Mianwali.

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