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A few weeks ago, there was a very interesting discussion on Twitter about the tradition of walwar (bride price) in the Pashtun culture – especially in the tribal regions of Afghanistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that appear to practice it the most – and while some members were in favour of walwar, saying that it is good and that it is helpful for the bride’s father, hence allowing for the marriage to occur quickly and smoothly, others contested and said that the practice is thoroughly exploited as it violates the human rights of women; and this abuse is especially blatant in the settled areas in the agricultural belt, as well as among the middle/upper class Pashtuns. Thus, the practice of walwar has now become more of a burden rather than a sign of “prestige” for many families. And I will explain why in the latter part of this article.

However, before I go any further, my reader needs to understand that I was not much aware of this custom of walwar prior to the Twitter discussion. Though, I knew of customs such as haq mehr (A promissory gift paid by the bride’s in-laws [or the groom himself] at the time of marriage, and this amount is usually paid to the bride in the event of a divorce); and dowry (refer to my article titled: Dowry As A Form Of Violence Against Women).

Anyway, this article is based on the discussions I had with various members on Twitter as well as some outside research, of which include books and news articles. Hence, this article is just a general overview of the issues surrounding bride price in the Pashtun culture and is in no way related to anything that I’ve done primary research on. (Though, it will be soon as it is a research interest of mine, especially since I want to understand why walwar has come to be practiced the way it has, considering that it was once considered prestigious and honorary, as well as how it is hindering development of both rural and urban Pashtun women.)

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. And out of this sum, the bride’s family may provide the couple with a dowry (or jahez), which usually consists of furniture and jewelry/clothes. So, 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. Though, it seems that walwar is also supposedly given in order to reimburse the parents of the bride for the financial loss they suffered while raising their daughter, hence justifying the notion that having a daughter is indeed a burden (and that is usually how it is viewed among most Pashtun families, especially in tribal areas) and having the groom (or groom’s family) pay for that burden will suddenly make their having a daughter worthwhile. As much as this fact saddens me, it is what it is.

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 can’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, I mean; 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 jewelry, 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 (Source: Kamali, 1985: 85). Further, the amount of walwar also varies not only from province to province within Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, but also on whether the girl is a virgin or not. Yes, the importance of virginity is yet again 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. Oh, and 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 the girl 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. And, 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, suddenly becomes even lower as she is sold as nothing but a mere commodity. And 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. And some reports indicate the danger of little girls being sexually abused, not only by the groom but also by older men in the family, particularly if the groom is also a child himself (Source: Erturk, 2006:8).

However, it is not only the female children who 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; greedy for cold hard cash. What happened was that even though 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. And 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.)

So, while the money given to her family by the groom was supposed to be spent on household goods for the newlyweds, more so than often, the girl’s family uses it for their own selfish needs.

And, so, in a country where suffering from widespread poverty and high levels of unemployment is foremost, this 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 (Source: Yassari 2005: 58-59). This, hence, results in girls either remaining single or married off to much, 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 in my article, 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 she’s not a virgin, or is divorced, or some other silly excuse like that. It’s like it is 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, suddenly she 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 who “sell” their daughters through the practice of walwar just to buy honour and prestige. Some have no choice, especially if someone extremely wealthy, like say a commander, asks for their 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 too, 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, simply because they know they will have to pay a hefty sum that they don’t have (and perhaps never will, because 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 way, as I just mentioned, 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. And although 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, due to the benefits it reaps for them.

Though, I read a while back that the problem of walwar in one village in the Ghazni province (in Afghanistan) 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 began 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. And then reality hits them like a brick, urging them to take some sort of action against it.

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

However, I can’t say that for sure, for humans are greedy. And greed has the tendency to take the best of us.

But, I have hope.

© SesapZai 2012