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Blood Debt Women Offered Up for Rape

Courtesy: Harkinder Singh Chahal

The Telegraph, Sultanwala, Nov. 22, 2005

Photo: Amna Niazi

A village council in Pakistan has decreed that five young women should be abducted, raped or killed for refusing to honour childhood 'marriages.'

The women, who are cousins, were married in absentia by a mullah in their Punjabi village to illiterate sons of their family's enemies in 1996, when they were aged from six to 13.

The marriages were part of a compensation agreement ordered by the village council and reached at gunpoint after the father of one of the girls shot dead a family rival.

The rival families have now called in their 'debt,' demanding the marriages to the village men are fulfilled.

The case is becoming a cause célèbre in Pakistan, pitting tribal mores against a group of modern-minded, educated women. Amna Niazi, the eldest of the five at 22, is taking a degree in English literature, while both her sisters want to attend university.

Their fathers are supporting them and have refused to hand them over, leading to a resumption of the blood feud, with two relatives shot recently and 20 people arrested, while promises of further retribution and murder abound.

In addition to the sentence on the women, the village council has sentenced to death Jehan Khan Niazi, the father of three of the women, and the fathers of the other two for failing to honour the supposed bond with men whose identities they are not even certain of.

The women have said they will commit suicide if their fathers obey the council.

Speaking at their home in Sultanwala, a remote cotton and sugar-cane growing village, Amna said: 'It is a great injustice that should be ended. Why should we pay for a crime committed by someone else? We will commit suicide if it happens. We would be treated like animals by them. Our misery would never end as this is just another way of using us as tools in the feud.' None of the women has so far been able to marry as their childhood 'marriages' hang over them.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned the 'barbaric custom of vani,' - the tradition of handing over women to resolve disputes - and called on President Pervez Musharraf to enforce a ban.

Last year a three-year-old girl near Multan was betrothed to a 60-year-old man in a similar settlement. The case led to parliament passing a law banning vani and honour killings, but it has been widely ignored.

The case of Mukhtar Mai, a Pakistani woman whom a village council ordered to be gang-raped for an alleged offence committed by her brother, has also reached international attention.

The Daily Telegraph was granted access to the young women, despite Mr. Niazi's fear that the village will further condemn him for being 'un-Islamic' by allowing his daughters to be photographed, albeit with their faces covered by veils.

Amna, who hopes to become an English lecturer, said: 'We are proud of our father. Despite having little money, he has educated us and shown us that we must stand up in society and demand our rights.'

She is studying at a college affiliated to the university of Lahore, while her sister Abida, 18, is applying to study medicine, and Sajida, 15, is still at secondary school.

The other girls, Assia, 20, and Fatima, 16, are the daughters of Mr. Niazi's brothers.

'Only a few of my friends know about this,' said Abida. 'But those that do support us and say we are fighting for the oppressed women of Pakistan.'

Mr. Niazi, who is a government accountant, was candid about the cause of the feud. 'My brother murdered one of our neighbours after being shot at. But it is complicated, they had already insulted us by making indecent remarks to our girls,' he said.

He added that his family had already paid blood-money to the aggrieved party. 'I have refused to give into the council's request as it is un-Islamic. I cannot hand over my girls like goats to marry these illiterate boys,' he said.