Friday, 26 April 2013

Walwar (Bride Price) And Marriage Among Pashtuns

by Samar Esapzai

What is Walwar?

Originating from the tribal tradition of Afghanistan, specifically from a Pashtun perspective, walwar is the most common Pashto term for bride price. More specifically, walwar is the sum of money paid by the groom or his family to the head of the bride’s household. Out of this sum, the bride’s family may provide the couple with a dowry (or jahez), which usually consists of furniture and jewellery/clothes. Walwar is basically a payment to the bride’s family in consideration of the girl who is given away in marriage, and is not specifically directed to be spent on the provision of a dowry.

Walwar is also supposedly given in order to reimburse the parents of the bride for the financial loss they suffered while raising their daughter, justifying the notion that having a daughter is indeed a "burden" (and this is usually how it is viewed amongst many Pashtun families). Hence, having the groom (or groom’s family) pay for that "burden" will suddenly make their having a daughter worthwhile.

Furthermore, walwar is known to be a matter of honour and prestige – the higher the walwar, the higher the esteem of the husband’s family for the bride. Some have argued that the concept of walwar is considered as the “selling of girls,” as this view systematically ignores the socio-cultural background of the custom. And while, in some or perhaps even most cases, it may be true that girls are “sold off” to men/families because the girl’s family couldn't afford to keep her due to immense poverty, the intention behind it wasn’t meant to be viewed as such – viewed as the selling of a girl, that is – especially considering that it’s such an antiquated tradition.
Nevertheless, though the idea underlying walwar is to provide some financial relief to the girl’s parents who purchase jewellery, clothes, furniture, etc. as dowry for their daughters, "it is not a legal or customary obligation, for, walwar very often does not necessarily benefit the girl’s family, nor does it flow into the expenses for the wedding ceremony." (Kamali, 1985: 85)

Further, the amount of walwar also varies not only from province to province within both Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but also on whether the girl is a virgin or not. Yes, the importance of virginity is taken into much consideration, for usually if the girl is a virgin (meaning that she’s never had sexual relations nor been married before), the amount is usually twice or even thrice as much to that of a woman who was previously married and was now divorced/widowed. Another reason the amount is higher is when the man is already married. This is because these are men – much older men — who are wealthy and can actually afford to take on more than one wife. Hence, the walwar would double for the second marriage and increase even more for the third marriage, and so on and so forth. It is also important to add that the amount of walwar can also vary according to a woman’s chastity, beauty, education, and the social class or economic standard of her and her family.

In both Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a man may acquire a wife in various ways of which include inheriting a widow, gaining a bride in exchange marriage, gaining a bride as compensation for a crime he or his relatives were victim to (swara), or simply through paying a bride price – walwar. Of course, walwar is the most usual method in which a marriage occurs.

Walwar and the major problem of marriage

There is no doubt that economic reasons play a significant role in the persistence of walwar. Hence, the girl can then become an asset exchangeable for money or goods. Her status, although already low in society, becomes even lower as she is sold as nothing more than a mere commodity. This is where it gets problematic. Very problematic! The fact that families commit a young daughter (or sister) to a family that is able to pay a high price for her, as a viable solution to their poverty, is one of burning concern. And because the custom of walwar motivate families that face immense poverty, deprivation and economic crises to “cash in” the “asset” – a girl who may perhaps be as young as six or seven – with the underlying assumption that the actual marriage will be delayed until the child reaches puberty. There is no guarantee, however, that this is really observed. Some reports indicate the high risk of little girls being sexually abused, not only by the groom but also by the older men in the family -- male relatives that include uncles and male cousins, especially if the groom is naive and a child himself (Erturk, 2006:8).

However, it is not only the female children that suffer. A few years ago, I came across a story about a 20-year-old girl who was forced (beaten) into marrying a 60-year-old man. And it wasn’t that her family was necessarily poor, but that they were greedy for cold hard cash. Although she was "given" to the groom through the practice of walwar, the girl felt like she was sold to the man, just so that her father could use the money, which was a total sum of about $10,000 USD, to his own advantage. She came to know soon enough, shortly after the marriage, that her father not only ended up buying a brand new car with it, but he also used the money to invest in a piece of land. (Something that many Pashtuns do as it is seen as a sign of wealth to own lands.) Therefore, while the money given to her family by the groom was supposed to be spent on household goods for the newly-weds more so than often, the girl’s family uses it for their own selfish needs.

Even so, in a country where suffering from widespread poverty and high levels of unemployment is foremost, the walwar custom must be reconsidered in view of the fact that "many young men cannot afford it and are forced to sell their land or travel abroad to earn money for it" (Yassari 2005: 58-59). This, hence, results in girls either remaining single or being married off to much older and richer men instead, either as a first wife, or as a second/third/forth wife. This, as a result, causes so much grief for the girls that some even become compelled to commit suicide.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned earlier, walwar is mostly abused by those who can afford to do it. There are often instances where if a family does not ask for a high price for his daughter (for, of course, the higher the price, the more “honourable” it is), then people – those with wealth and prestige – will begin to wonder whether there is something wrong with the girl, whether or not she is a virgin, or is divorced, or possesses some other issue that would be culturally frowned upon. It is almost expected that families ask for as much money as possible, because it claims to increase their status in society. What stumps me is when did a girl’s life become a family’s ticket to prestige and status? Isn’t it ironic? A woman is considered worthless and unimportant, yet, through walwar, she suddenly becomes a hero – the only one who can salvage a family’s reputation and hence give them the ticket to wealth and freedom.

However, this is not to say that all families are like this -- families that “sell” their daughters through the practice of walwar just to buy honour and prestige. Some have no choice, especially if someone is extremely wealthy, for example, a commander who asks for a family's daughter’s hand. These families know that if they don’t ask for a large sum, these wealthy commanders will simply snatch their daughters from them by force. So, they usually feel that it is best to at least attain something from the amalgamation, rather than have their daughters taken without having to attain anything in return. Though, of course, none of this will ever justify why this is happening. All I can say is that it is very problematic and it usually takes its toll for the worse.

Of course, older unmarried women suffer from walwar as well, in the sense that their families are so greedy that they refuse every single proposal that comes their way, simply because the potential groom (or his family) is unable to afford the bride price. As a result, women remain single for a very long time, where some become as “old” as 34 or 35, with no prospect in sight, for they know they will have to pay a hefty sum that they don’t have (and perhaps never will, as the amounts can go up to as high as $15,000 to $20,000 USD). The financial burden, hence, means that wealthy older men can often marry very young girls. And this, in turn, leads to much conflict, unhappiness, and depression.

How can this practice of walwar be resolved?

Eradicating walwar from the Pashtun culture altogether is virtually impossible, but there are ways to either appeal against it or set sanctions so that people do not end up abusing it; especially those that come from privileged households.

One possible way is to have men, whose young sisters have been “sold” as child brides to much older men, appeal to the commission for help in resolving the walwar issue. Though it sounds simple, it usually isn’t, for, many NGOs, especially those working for the rights and the betterment of Pashtun women, are almost powerless in this regard. This is because walwar is so deeply embedded in the culture that no one wants to give it up, especially due to the benefits it reaps for them. This can be illustrated by an example I read a while back, in one village in the Ghazni province (in Afghanistan), where the problem of walwar became so acute that elders set legal limits on it. The story was that because so many girls and boys could not marry at the right age, the village elders decided to set the bar for walwar for only $3000. And this decision ended up becoming so popular that many people asked it to be adopted throughout the rest of the province.

Also, educational workshops would be beneficial to help inform those in authority about the issues and problems surrounding the custom of walwar, which would in turn allow them to further enforce rules that would prevent, or perhaps limit, the misuse of this old custom. Again, as easy as it sounds, I realize that it’s certainly not. But it is a thought. And one that could become a reality once more and more Pashtuns begin to realize how detrimental it is to their society as a whole. As the saying goes, one does not realize the depth of an issue, until it happens to them or to someone very close and dear to them. It is only then that reality hits them like a brick, urging them to take some sort of action against it.

In conclusion, although this article is simply an overview of the issue of walwar in Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, I hope to shed some more light on this once I begin to do some fieldwork and start interviewing those who have fallen victim to this custom. It will also allow me the opportunity delve into the historical matter of this custom, as well as understand why it is happening; how it has become to be practised the way it has; and what are some of the more practical solutions to this eminent problem – a problem that many deny or have turned a blind eye to, because they know how much it benefits them. I am also hoping that through my research, I will attain the opportunity to come up with some practical solutions (that can be worked on collaboratively with NGOs and women’s organizations in Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), so that old, supposedly “respected” customs like these are not further abused than they already are.

The author is a Ph.D. student in International Rural Development, focusing on Gender Studies; Social and Economic Development; and Empowerment of rural Pashtun women. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter @sesapzai.