Swara: The Price of Honour

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Swara: The Price of Honour, Zafar Ali Usafzai
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, February 20 2004 (http://www.khyber.org)

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Swara: The Price of Honour

Zafar Ali Usafzai

Daily Statesman Peshawar

Publishing Date: Friday, February 20 2004

The customary act of Swara is largely prevalent in various parts of the country, by the virtue of which, instead of giving blood money as "badl-e-sulha" an accused family gives their girl or girls in marriage to an aggrieved family as "compensation" to settle blood feud between them.

Generally, girls are given Swara marriage as compensation for murder, adultery, abduction and kidnapping committed by the men of the family.Women are compelled to sacrifice their father, brother or uncle for the crime they have committed.Jirga decides the fate of women and the pronouncement of Swara without the consent of the women concerned.These Jirgas constitute only the male members of the village or community.


"The Jirga of elders has been convened in the hujra of Sarwar Khan in order to broker a truce between him and his rival, Ali Muhammad which announces its decision and the next movement a seven years old Gul Rukh who is playing in the courtyard of her sweet home with other children of her age and unaware of the proceedings of the jirga, is carried away by the members of the rival family."

This was not a plot of any drama but it happened in real life in the Naseer Kaly of District Mardan in August 2003 where by a small girl became victim of the infamous tradition of the Pakhtoon society, called "Swara".Gul Rukh was given the punishment of the crime, which she never committed.A jirga had decided to hand her over to the rival group in "Swara" so as to settle a dispute which had arisen due to the marriage of her brother with a girl of the rival family according to their own will and assent.This marriage of "own will" was taken as a kidnapping by the rival family.

According to details, the brother of Gul Rukh loved a girl named Fahmida of his own village and wanted to marry.Therefore, they ran away from their village.This running away of Fahmida with her lover was taken as a kidnapping by her family and they started to pressurize the "accused family" in different manners.In this way an enmity get nourished between the two families.

In order to settle the dispute, the elders of the village called a jirga that decided that Gul Rukh, the younger sister of the "accused", be married to Atta-ur-Rahman, the brother of Fahmida, on getting the age of maturity.In this way, the jirga succeeded in settling the dispute.It merits here a mention that Gul Rukh was seven years old at that time.

The very next day little Gul Rukh was taken away by Ali Mohammad who compelled her to live in her "New Home" and also stopped her from visiting her father's home.All this was done in sheer violation of the decision of Jirga which has kept the condition of maturity for her marriage.

Compelled by the maternity feelings, Zeba Begum (the mother of Gul Rukh) on 27 August, filed an application with the SSP Mardan, Liaqat Ali Khan, for the recovery of her daughter.On the orders of whom, the local police raided the house of Ali Mohammad and recovered the girl.

This and many other tales are scattered in all over the NWFP which speaks a lot of the society in which we are living, where social values are bypassed , where cultural traditions are vanishing away gradually, where Human Beings are judged on the basis of power and jurisdiction except than that of benevolence /civility and affability.

In such a male-dominated society, the kind of life a female is passing is really deplorable.She is totally at the stake of a male despite of the fact that she gives birth to him?.In such a society, thinking about the basic Human Rights of a woman become necessary where breaking the writ of law is easy but bypassing traditional norms and values is a difficult job.

Where on one hand, a woman become victim of "honor killing" and "Karo Kari" while on the other side she is forced to marry the Holy Quran.In such a society her felling prey to the custom of Swara cannot be ruled out.

Such incidents occur frequently in Pakistan but specially the Pakhtoon society has shown a growing trend in cases of swara.The Pakhtoons who on one side are famous for their bravery and honour, are also famous for various traditions and norms prevailing in their society.They honour these cultural values and are ready to cross any limits when it comes to the matter of such norms.For this, even they donot hesitate to break the writ of prevailing law at the cost of these cultural values.That is why there are so many traditions and norms in the Pakhtoon society which are not in resemblance to the present day world where much social awareness has been emerged."Swara" is having a top rank among such customs and the need for its stoppage is severely felt.

Swara is an old custom of handing over a female to the grieved /rival party in order to 'settle' a conflict and disputes.This custom is practiced in different parts of Pakistan under different names like Vonni in Punjab, Dand or Badda in Sind.

How it got the Name Swara?

In Pushto the word "Swara" is used for that female who is riding on a horse/camel or any conveyance (carriage).Since in good old days as there were no other means of carriage except animals, so the palanquin in the marriages were used to be carried on horse/camel.In the same way the female( given in compromise to rival party) were send to her "New House" on the back of camel/horse and for this reason the word "Swara" got popular.

Different Circumstances of Swara:

This practice of handing over a female in reconciliation to a male of an enemy's family is exercised in different circumstances.The most popular circumstance where a young girl is given as a compensation is that of homicidal dispute consisting of a murder committed either by her brother, father or even uncle.In order to settle down the rivalries and disputes and bring peace between the rival families, the jirga (a council or jury of the tribal elders) is often approached.It strives for reaching a reconciliation and compensation that may end in the form of a monetary payment or the handing over of a female of the guilty party to the aggrieved and affected party.

As in most parts of the NWFP and the tribal areas the jirga system is still in vogue for the settlement of disputes, including conflicting claims to land and water, intra-tribal or inter-tribal murders, inheritance and alleged breaches of the 'honour' code.This jirga mostly consists of the revered, noble and influential personalities of the area or tribe which after listening to the arguments and comments of both the parties involved in the dispute passes its judgement.The jirga usually consists of the male members of both the accused and the deceased parties.Both the parties have to accept the judgement passed by the jirga, otherwise the party not abiding by the decision is held liable.In order to settle the dispute and to make a truce, the jirga may fix some cash money, a piece of land, animals, guns and one or two or more maidens to be given by the accused party to the aggrieved party.A female given in such a compromise is called "swara".

The use of women as part of a compensation is thought to be an effective way of putting a permanent end to enmity as the link of marriage brings the families together and the offspring of such a wedlock keeps the two families away from further fighting.If the swara is adult or mature, she is handed over to the rival party, but in case she has not attained maturity, she is kept in trust at her parent's home.It is totally at the discretion of the aggrieved party which decides whether to perform the nikah then or later at its own will to further disgrace her family.On such occasions, even the concerned female is not consulted as to whether she consents to be handed over or not.

The other circumstance where swara is given is that of settling the dispute which arises due to the marriage of own will where the girl is put to flight with her lover.This is considered by the girl's family as kidnapping and a severe blow to its honour.Therefore it demands a swara in compensation.

The swara custom is also practised in circumstances where the victim or the heirs of a murdered victim whose case is settled in the court can lawfully withdraw a criminal charge by accepting some monetary or other compensation.This compensation is mostly accepted in the form of swara.In this way the criminal can be pardoned at any stage before the execution of the sentence by the sacrifice of a woman.The court is obliged to accept the compromise if the 'deal' between the victim's family and the perpetrators is presented to it.

Treatment with Swara in Her New House:

The swara agrees to going to the enemy's house in a bid to secure the lives of the male members of her family.Once a girl is given away as swara, there is little chance of a happy life for her for there is no honour for such girls.The treatment meted out to the swara at her "new house" is horrifying.She is taunted at every moment and is cursed for being a swara.She lives a life worse even than a maid servant.The innocent swara has to bear the brunt of a crime she has never committed for the rest of her life.Her ordeal is heart-wrenching as such a woman usually does not enjoy the full rights of a married woman.She is treated as a slave who has no say in her own life.She remains stigmatised till her death.She is destined to go through immense torture because she is not respected by her in-laws and is treated ignobly.There have been reports of the swara victim committing suicide in order to escape the wrath of her in-laws.

Although the practice was originally used to end feuds between enemies as the blood ties thus established were expected to create a blood bond which would put an end to the feud, looking into the growing trend of swaras and the treatment mated out to the swara is really deplorable and must be put to an end.

The need of the hour is to create awareness within the society at large about this inhuman custom which is deeply entrenched in the Pukhtoon culture particularly.

Awareness about Swara:

It is quite encouraging that the waves of awareness have been felt regarding different customs in the society, especially swara.The issue has been brought to limelight in recent years by the human rights organisations.

Recently an anthropologist, Samar Minallah, has prepared a documentary named "Swara - A Bridge Over Troubled Waters", which explores the various dimensions of the swara custom.The film, shot in Darra Adam Khel, Khyber Agency, Mardan, Swabi and Peshawar, also contains interviews of the tribal elders, a religious scholar and a judge of the Federal Shariat Court.It shows swara victims and their parents.It terms the practice as un-Islamic and inhuman and calls for its elimination.Although the effort of Samar is appreciable, the documentary would serve its purpose in real sense if it is screened through the electronics media so as to enable the ordinary people of the society to watch and learn a lesson from it.Both the print and electronics media can play a more effective role in creating awareness among the general public.Samar should make special arrangements for screening the documentary in the villages of the NWFP as only by doing so she will be able to achieve her goal.

Mohammad Ali Babakhel, a superintendent of police presently at a mission in Kosovo, has also penned a book named "Women as Property" on the swara matters.Recently the PTV's Peshawar centre telecast a live talk show on the subject in order to create awareness which was largely appreciated by the masses in general.

Law And Swara

In the Pakistan Penal Code, under the Qisas and Diyat law, "the right to qisas [punishment equal to the offence] in murder cases can be compounded, i.e.compensation (badal-i-sulh) can be accepted by the family of the victim in lieu of punishment." Thus section 310 of the PPC stipulates that the giving of a woman in compensation is not a valid form of badal-i-sulh but it does not explicitly prohibit the practice.

It is worth mentioning that a ruling of the Peshawar High Court regarding the practising of swara has described the act as "tyrannical, illegal and against the Islamic law".It has suggested that a penalty be imposed on anyone upholding this custom and directed the lower courts not to accept any such agreement.It has also held that a marriage contract is void if it is made in the context of swara.

This judgment has been ignored as the practice is continuing, especially in murder cases across the country.This may be because of the reason that there is no punishment for those who are found involved in this inhuman act.The Shariat Bill, which has been passed unanimously by the present NWFP Assembly, provides for the enforcement of the Quran-based Islamic law covering judiciary, education, and the eradication of social evils.It also calls for a law banning honour killing and swara.Although the move is applaudable, the law needs to be implemented in its true spirit.Drawing the attention of the decision makers, opinion leaders and general public towards this important issue is the need of the hour.


The swara custom needs to be stopped as it puts a woman on a path that ultimately leads to darkness.The need is felt to implement the laws forcefully and those involved in this inhuman practice dealt with severely.The family courts should declare the marriages of swara tradition as void and liable to dissolution.The jirga members should try their best to find some other solution to the problems and disputes which they try to solve except that of swara.In this regard, the NGOs can also play an effective role by creating awareness so that tomorrow another Gul Rukh does not fall prey to the swara custom.


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Swara: The Price of Honour, Zafar Ali Usafzai
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, February 20 2004 (http://www.khyber.org)