Forced child marriage tests Pakistan law

By Barbara Plett 
Sultanwala, Punjab province

Coming of age was a painful experience for the three
Khan sisters. 

They discovered they'd been promised in marriage to
their enemies when they were children, a practice in
Pakistan known as vani. 

"When we grew up we came to know that a great
injustice had been done to us," says Abda Khan, now

"Vani is equal to a murder. If we were to marry those
boys, it would be the same as killing us." 

Vani is a tribal custom in which blood feuds are
settled with forced marriages. 

The bride spends her life paying for the crime of her
male relatives. 

"She's just like a slave in their house," says
community activist Zia-Ullah Khan, "because she comes
from the enemy's family, and the people took vani to
compensate their revenge. They try to give pain to the
girl and her family members." 

No one knows how many women suffer this fate in
Pakistan, but anecdotal evidence suggests a lot. 

Few resist it. 

That is why anti-vani campaigners see the Khan sisters
of Sultanwala in Punjab province as so important -
they hope their refusal will set a precedent for

"When this case appeared, 20 to 30 other people
approached us, and they are waiting for the outcome,"
says Mr Khan. 

"This is a test case." 

Vani brides 

The story began 14 years ago, with the girls' uncle,
Mohammed Iqbal Khan. 

He killed his cousin and went into hiding to escape a
death sentence. 

Eventually a tribal council offered to pardon him - in
exchange for the vani of his daughter and four nieces.

"When I refused the people there told me you cannot
escape," he says, "they told me it is better to save
your skin, otherwise you will be murdered. It was only
because of fear that I agreed." 

It is an ever present fear, as the rival family lives
next door. 

The houses are in compounds surrounded by brick walls,
and a road about six metres wide divides the two

Mohammed Aslam Khan is the uncle of the man that
Mohammed Iqbal killed. 

His son is betrothed to one of the brides. 

He is a man with fiery eyes and a shock of windswept
white hair and is eager to tell his story. 

It is very clear to him who is the guilty party, and
what will happen if the vani agreement is not upheld. 

"They have betrayed us, they have insulted our
honour," he says. 

"According to our culture the girls are already our
daughters-in-law. If they do not come to our homes,
the two families will start fighting again and more
than 200 people will die." 

His demand for tribal justice clashes with the law -
the government banned vani earlier this year. 

At gunpoint 

But it is a ban which critics say is not being
enforced by the police, and Zia-Ullah Khan has gone to
the district police station to find out why. 

According to the police chief, Zarit Kiyani, the law
punishes both the takers and the givers of vani

"The girls could come to us," he says. 

"If they are being married against their will, if they
have any complaints against their parents, they could
come here." 

"That is impossible," counters Mr Khan, "no girl will
come to the police and say go and arrest my parents." 

This is especially so for the Khan sisters. 

Their father, Jehan Khan Niazi, is their strongest

He says he agreed to the vani at gunpoint, but has
moved his daughters away from the village so they
could get an education. 

"They stand against this because they are educated,"
he says. 

"Illiterate girls cannot understand and express
themselves. My daughters are innocent, why should I
infringe on their rights and their demands." 

Suicide threat 

Abda and her sisters are indeed armed with a weapon
rare for women in this conservative area, and they are
using it to fight a campaign. 

"If we do not take this step the government would not
act," says Amna, who is doing a masters degree in
English Literature. 

"We want the authorities to solve our problem, and the
media should raise awareness. It will be a long
struggle, but if we get justice, so will other women."

The sisters do not know whether they will be

They do know they would not give in. 

"If the government does not help us, we will commit
suicide," says Abda. 

"We will burn ourselves alive to protest vani. I know
this is prohibited by Islam, but so is vani, and God
will forgive us." 

The sisters say they have law, religion and family on
their side. 

What they have against them is the weight of
tradition, tribe and patriarchy. 

Much depends on whose justice will prevail. 


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