No way forward or back: Ghag, the oppressive tribal practice

Despite being outlawed, Ghag, an ancient tribal practice, continues to oppress women from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas

Ask anyone, and they will tell you that *Naz, 32, is one of the most beautiful women in the Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Over the years, not much has changed and yet it has. Her face is still exquisite. But her face no longer radiates the vibrancy and carefree enthusiasm that it once did.

Naz doesn’t let the past bother her anymore. She has accepted her fate. Her sisters are all married and have moved away, while she shares a home with her elder brothers and their families.

Ten years ago, a local boy fell in love with Naz. He sent her a marriage proposal. She refused. He tried again and failed. Enraged, one day he appeared outside her home and fired a few gunshots into the air. He then made a chilling announcement. Naz, he told those gathered, was his to marry and if anyone else proposed to her then that man would be the boy’s enemy. Naz was now a victim of Ghag, an ancient tribal practice that entails a person forcibly demanding or claiming a woman’s hand in marriage by making an open declaration.

Today, no one has asked Naz to marry him. No one has the courage to do so. Her parents have set up a small seminary to keep her busy, where she teaches Quran to the local children. As for that boy, he is now a man, married with children. Even then he hasn’t released Naz from the claim. “I feel alone,” she tells, “Everyone has moved on with their lives, except me. I pretend to look happy in front of my parents, since I know that they are worried about me. But this is my life now.”

Naz has no free consent. And she is not the only one. There are several girls like her in the tribal belt, or from tribal families who have settled in urban areas, suffering under Ghag, which victimizes women and young girls for no fault of their own.

In 2012, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government passed the Elimination of Custom of Ghag Bill to declare the practice a criminal offense which is punishable with up to seven years imprisonment. Yet, there is little change on the ground.

Last month, Asma Rani, a third-year medical student was shot dead in Kohat for turning down a marriage proposal. In a video recorded a short while before her death she names Mujahid Afridi, a married man and father of two, as her killer. While it is unclear if Ghag was in fact invoked before the murder, the circumstances are strikingly similar. Afridi declared his intention to forcefully marry Rani. She turned down his advances. Scorned, he put a bullet through her. The girl’s sister, Safia Rani, who lives in London has since released two video messages. In one she states that her family had been desperately contacting Afridi’s wife, father, brothers and uncle to convince him to stop harassing Rani. But nothing helped. He was adamant to make her his wife, one way or another.

Men, rejected suitors, often use this way to chain a poor girl’s fate to them. Once Ghag is invoked, unless a girl is released from the claim, no one will likely marry her to avoid being drawn into a dangerous feud. The men are not bound by this. They are free to marry, and in almost all cases, they do.

A 2014 report, titled ‘Honor Crimes in Pakistan. Unveiling Reality and Perception,’ by the Islamabad-based Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme (CAMP), describes Ghag as being practiced in Pakhtun-dominated areas. “Through this custom, males (particularly paternal cousins) have a birth right to marry their female cousins, even if their match is incompatible,” the report states, “There are many cases of women being forced to marry men from their family who are criminals or suffering from a mental or physical disability under this custom.”

By unofficial estimates, in 2016 around 20 girls committed suicide after being bound by Ghag. The numbers are most likely higher, as many cases go unreported.

In one such incident, a woman was divorced by her husband. In order to exact revenge, the woman’s nephews declared Ghag on the man’s nieces.

Even though legislation exists to prosecute perpetrators for committing the crime, nevertheless there is no evidence of anyone being convicted under it.

Awal Khan, the DIG Kohat, is aware of Ghag-like claims made in Rani’s case, but he insists that there is no need to mention it in the first information report. “The case had been registered for murder,” he told, “hence that will be enough to fulfil all legal requirements.”

Women, who are victims of Ghag, also do not seek out law enforcement help due to lack of awareness, explains Mohammad Ali Babakhel, a senior police official in the province. “The media here has failed to create an awareness of the legal instruments that are available to women and that can help redress their grievances,” he adds, “Majority of women from rural areas are not aware of their rights and do not know how to seek police help.”

But Muneer Orakzai, a former parliamentarian from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, is adamant that the ancient practice is now outdated and no longer exists in the tribal belt. “I don’t know where it is still being practised,” Orakzai said, adding, “Also it is important to remember that the 1973 constitution does not allow anyone to legislate in FATA. That is the domain of the president.”

Till then it seems, women like Naz and Asma Rani have nowhere to go for justice.

*Name changed to protect the privacy