Peshawar: Aftab Mullagori stands in a sea of glittering and shimmering dresses trying to decide which one to select for his sister who is marrying soon. Gorra Bazaar one of the oldest markets in Peshawar and the shopkeeper is trying to convince Aftab that just one dress is not enough. He pushes Aftab to select more but the young man is restricting himself to the list he’s been given. He does not have much money to spend since he’s refused to take the traditional Walwar from his sister’s in-laws.
Aftab notes that his own father gave walwar for his mother and recalls an old woman sharing that when she was married, her husband gave her family two goats. Aftab’s thinking began to shift when he landed a scholarship to pursue graduate studies in Turkey and came into contact with students from other countries and cultures. “We used to discuss many things and I realised there are were many bad practices in each culture. But with time many of these negative practices tend to die off but for some reason we are still in favour of preserving these anti human practices.” Aftab decided to take the first step and at least end the practice in his own home.
Walwar, sometimes known as Sar Paysa, Sar Rupay or Oba Khwara is a longtime custom practiced by the people throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ghulam Qadir Daur, a writer and activist from North Waziristan, had written the definitive book on the culture and history of Waziristan called “Cheegha: The Call from Waziristan, the Last Outpost.” In it, he chronicles the history of the practice and points out it has long been misunderstood as paying for a bride. He notes that Walwar is meant to help the bride’s family with wedding expenses.
The reality, however, is much different.
Turizuna is a document that codifies the customs, or rawaj, of the Turi Pakhtun tribes residing in Kurram in Pakistan’s northwest. The document contains a nurkhnama, or price list, that fixes the price for women belonging to various tribes. The idea is that a fixed price will help avoid delays in marriages since there will be no need to negotiate the Walwar. In Chitral, the Walwar consists of an old double barrel gun, a cow, and cash. In the region of FATA, Walwar varies from area to area and tribe to tribe. In the case of the Kurram, the custom is that Warwal should be enough not only to pay for the wedding meals but also for the charity given at the mosques and shrines. In Chaman district in Balochistan, Walwar can be set as high as five million rupees. In Afghanistan, it is often set anywhere from one million to five million rupees.
When the Taliban came to the region, they fixed the Walwar at 80 000 rupees.
Aftab, now a Ph.D. fellow at Peshawar University, points out Walwar is a practice that women have risen up to condemn. They invoke its hardship and injustice in “Tappa” — an old but still popular form of Pashto poetry — that is seen as a woman’s artform.
ولورمودومره پورته کېږي
جينکۍناستې دپلارکورکښې ژوند کوينه
“Oh, walwar has become hefty
and now it would be an endless time at father’s home”.
ولوردې کم کړه کنجوس پلاره
لوڼې مجبورې شوې چې پرېږدي خپل کورونه
Oh, the miserly father, lower that “walwar”
Lest the daughters would be forced to abandon the home
Shabina Ayaz, a resident director of the Peshawar chapter of Aurat Foundation, says walwar was once a good practice but it has evolved into discrimination. She says with growing poverty the practice is spreading into areas that had never practiced Walwar before. According to Ayaz, one consequence is that the practice has now been commercialized and under the guise of marriage, women are being sold into prostitution, domestic labour, child marriages, and trafficking. It’s attracted the attention of organized crime and has now become one more way to make money.
Brides for Sale, a research study from Noor Education Trust, confirms that the custom of bride pricing provide an opportunity to the mafias and buyers to misuse the practice and use it in both domestic and international trafficking. Domestically, women and girls — 83% of whom are ethnically Pashtun — are married off to men in Punjab and other provinces while the international trafficking sees girls send to Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Mary Akrami, Executive Director of Afghan Women Skills Development Center (AWSDC) and founder of Amankor, a shelter for women in Kabul, confirms the external trafficking in the guise of marriage. She recalls the stories of two women she helped rescue who were then sent back to the families in Pakistan.
Dr. Noreen Naseer, founder of KHOR (Pashtun Women’s Network), says the practice effectively turns women into men’s property and has a demoralizing effect. It also creates categories of value based on beauty and status. “The beautiful, virgin women from affluent tribes or families have a high bride price. Women who are poor or of average looks or from less influential families will command far less money,” says Naseer.
Walwar also has a detrimental effect on men, both rural and urban. Many will end up as part of trafficking rings that send men as labour to Gulf countries where these men will endure terrible working conditions so then can earn enough to save up to pay Walwar.
But all is not lost and despite the fact this practice has persisted in one form or another for hundreds of years, does not mean thing can’t change.
Hamdullah Arbab helped launch “Lur Tahreek” (Daughters Movement), a campaign against Walwar. They are working in both Pakistan and Afghanistan to raise awareness about the negative effects of the practice through the use of art and social media. “The most positive part of our campaign is that mostly young people are becoming part of it and they not only campaign but also practice the same at home. I think the main reason is education and exposure and access to social media. It will be unjust not to mention that social media played as important role as education. Apart from our campaigns new laws are passed in Afghanistan in March 2015 from the parliament to bar people from practicing bride pricing,” says Arbab.
In addition to civil society activism, there is some movement provincially to move Walwar into a criminal category. Mairaj Hamayoon, a Ex. member of Khyber Pakthunkhwa’s provincial assembly, says walwar lowers honour and respect for girls and women. She says families haggle over the price as though they are discussing some commodity and not a human being with thoughts and feelings. Hamayoon worked on the Human Trafficking Bill 2017 which was submitted by the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus. She says if it passes, practicing Walwar will become a punishable offence.
Aftab Mullagori, standing in the market looking at the array of dresses on display, is wary but hopeful. “My extended family in Mallagor Khyber Agency has stopped taking money in Walwar but the demand for clothes, gold, and household items is still there.” He goes on to the point out that often tribal people idealize urban people and see their customs as more civilized. He’s concerned that as Walwar becomes increasingly unacceptable, people will replace with the practice of giving dowry instead (goods and cash being sent with the bride to her in-laws home). Aftab says such practices will end only if the state works systematically to end them. Until then, he is working to shift people’s perception bit by bit, starting with his own home.