On The Issue Of Walwar (Bride Price) And Marriage Among Pashtuns

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

38 responses to “On The Issue Of Walwar (Bride Price) And Marriage Among Pashtuns

  1. Its common practice in tribal areas mostly its genuine purpose is still in effect as its spent on the bride but some places are popular for getting a bride without a hassel by anyone of any age or from any city just by paying minimum as Rs. 40,000 or 50,000. Even I have seen communication problems between them specifically chitrali bride mostly knows only one language thats chitrali no other .
    Won’t be easy to tackle this issue as major hurdle is poor conditions of the families

    • I know. You are right. It IS indeed a common practice in the tribal regions, and it makes me so sad knowing that these innocent girls are married off, especially since there is also a huge language barrier. I mean, what are these girls to even think? Some, or maybe even many, don’t even know what is happening to them until they are living in a stranger’s house, who suddenly happens to be their new husband. It’s no different than trafficking girls into the sex trade (the article on this topic is coming up next; I’m almost done, and that too focuses on KPK). I know some people deny it and say that Walwar is not bad; it’s this or that, but the fact of the matter is that it IS bad. Women ARE suffering. Some men too. And as much as we scream that walwar wasn’t meant to be abused or used to one’s advantage, again the fact of the matter is that it IS used to one’s selfish advantage. So they can turn a blind eye/ear to it, but it doesn’t change the facts.

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  2. plus there hardcore stance and rigid behaviour towards cultural or any kind of change makes it tough and even dangerous as there reaction can be severe. Awareness by Education and monetary independance can bring a significant positive effect in such practices.

    • Yes, indeed, awareness and education can help. But for that, I feel that we will also need people who are actually willing to learn and get educated. And I wonder how that will have to be done. I know it won’t be easy, because this is such an old custom and Pashtuns have been practising it for many centuries, but to suddenly waltz into their lives and tell them that what they are practising is wrong and inhumane will not be as easy as we both make it out to be. It could be limited through sanctions, yes, but we need to come up with a good strategy that won’t come on too strong on these culturally sensitive people and WILL actually work.

  3. Dear, i belong to to a pathan family too and being a inhabitant of KPK i never heard these type of customs in my vacinity even from my grand too. But these are existing in some tribal bilt and Baluchistan area.

    • Thank you for your comment, Anonymous! And welcome!

      Yes, ever since I wrote this article, I had many Pashtuns come to me and say that they’ve never heard of this custom; that they’ve never seen it with their own eyes; that it’s ONLY to Afghanistan and is not practised in KPK; etc. However, I always tell them that if they haven’t seen it, nor heard about it before, does not mean that it does not exist. Most shove it under the carpet and deny it altogether. But that shouldn’t be the case. And I’m very glad that you mentioned that you are aware that it exists in the tribal areas and in Baluchistan as well. I guess most just hate the negative stigma that comes with it, because it’s associated with Pashtuns. They say, “Oh, Pashtuns SELL their daughters/sisters?” And, yes, as horrible as that sounds, it is what it is. They can deny it and claim that it is a bride price or whatever, but believe it or not, NOT all have the same intention. And I’ve already covered that segment in my article.

  4. Dear, i belong to to a pathan family too and being a inhabitant of KPK i never heard these type of customs in my vacinity even from my grand too. But these are existing in some tribal bilt and Baluchistan area.

    • Oops! I just saw this! LOL. Didn’t realize that “Anonymous” was you, Farman wror gula! Haha. Anyway, glad you revealed your identity! :P Khushal wossey!

  5. Really a very nice & interesting piece to read on Walwar. As pointed out in the above comments, in settled areas of KP, this practice don’t exist these days (may be it existed in the past?) .It will be good for you to research it a bit further by knowing how these processes of transformation occurred in one Pakhtun belt while not in the other (May be due to urbanization & education but that can not be the only reason). Keep up the writing, it does matter a lot. Best

    • Thank you so much for your comment Saleem wrora! And thank you for dropping by! Welcome!

      Well, to my knowledge, it did exist in the past BUT it wasn’t the way it is practised now. I mean, it was considered GOOD, something that was respected and honoured. However, now it has become more like a business deal, where men — fathers, brothers, uncles, etc. — take advantage of the females in the household and ask for large sums to suit their personal desires and comfort. It’s very disturbing.

      Yes, I do plan to research more on this topic, perhaps as a stand alone from my PhD thesis, or maybe even incorporate a chapter to it as it’s still relevant to my current topic of research. And, yes, I definitely want to dig into the historical background and understand how it varies from region to region. I know it would be impossible to do BOTH Afghanistan and KPK, so I’ll have to focus on one, either Swat or FATA — both are risky places, but I have contacts so will see what pans out, da khaira.

      Please continue to keep posting! It helps elicit great discussion that I am sure my readers can benefit greatly from! Khushaal wossey! :)

  6. Can we say that Walwar has evolved into another practice in “educated” pashtun families, that of asking too much mehr and land for the girl? Almost every family I know had to transfer land in the name of the bride. Its in fact the make or break point for many families, if you are not willing to transfer land they will reject the proposal

    • @Topak Khan:

      Firstly, Transferring land in the name of bride is not very ‘common’ even in the educated middle class of settled areas. In Swabi, for example, I did not came through a single case of land transfer from the groom side in the name of bride in my extended family & in friends circles (the reason may be most of the marriages are in close relatives). Yes this is practiced rarely when the two families don’t know each other, which is not Yet very common here in Swabi. However the trend is changing & some people do seek marriages across unknown families.

      Secondly, we also cannot say that this practice evolved from Walwar or looks like Walwar. Walwar money is meant for the parents to purchase Dowry for the bride which may not necessarily translate into that as parents can renegade on their promises. While in case of land transfer from the groom sides in the name of bride is ONLY on the name of the bride. There is this compulsion of looking for some ‘insurance’ through ‘land transfers in the name of bride’ against the ‘shock’ of being married to an unknown family. So land transfer in the of bride may not be as bad thing as is the case with ‘Walwar’. Though I agree with your last sentence that some time it becomes a make or break point for families which mean the bride side want insurance & the groom side either don’t want to give it or simply cannot afford to.

      • yes I think I should have mentioned, that my comment was more on out of family marriages, which are becoming very common at least in Peshawar region. The insurance argument makes an economic sense. Though I can’t help but notice that this is such an inefficient solution to the problem. Not everyone has land to gift, not everyone wants to gift more than haq mehr so otherwise perfect couple cannot be formed because there is this cost due to lack of complete information/trust

    • Hmm, you do raise an interesting point Topak Khaana, perhaps it may have evolved into a different “sub-custom” for the wealthy and the supposedly “educated.” Maybe those living in the poorer tribal areas practice it the way it SHOULD be practised, while those who are privileged and know that they can use the custom to their own advantage because they can afford to do it, i.e.: ask for large sums, or give out large sums in order to “buy” a bride — usually a child that is much younger.

  7. Walwar is common practice in Pashton society especially in Balochistan and Afghanistan and it was highly positive in the history but today it is not suitable for the modren society and it become a bad values in the society so we need to review this custom and may become positive and suitable for all of the pashton society groups/ Classes

    • It was a bearable amount for all claases of the society and every one can bear this amount to pay to the girl parents but today it is not possible for common people to pay a huge amount for Walwar so it need to reduce and review again and then it may bcome convenent custom for Pashton Society

    • I agree! But the question I ask is: HOW do we go about reviewing this custom so that it becomes, or is seen as, more positive? What would you propose? Any ideas? I presented some of mine in the article, but I wonder how feasible they are. Perhaps those of us who actually LIVE in KPK may have a better sense.

  8. very comprehensive very well written wana write much but am too busy will get some time and write . . .

    • Thank you, sweetheart! Please do share more of your thoughts! This is an important topic and the only way we can come up with some sound, logical and practical solutions is when we talk and discuss it. So, please, by all means, go ahead and write all you want! We will be waiting for your valuable input, da khaira. :-)

  9. The bridegroom should place the amount directly in the account of the bride such as long term special saving account, serves as an insurance for the future family. Only she and her children will have the right to the money.

    • First of all, thank you so much for dropping by and leaving your comment, Khalid. It’s much appreciated, and of course, welcome!

      Second, you mention a very interesting strategy! But, I guess the drawback to this method — though excellent — is that many don’t have formal bank accounts, especially those living in the tribal belt. Unless, you are referring to the wealthy elites? If so, then yes, that is a very interesting solution, but I wonder, who actually gets to control this account? Will the woman even get access, or be allowed to gain access to it, herself? What are your thoughts?

  10. Very interesting and informative article about Walwar, thank you khor jani – keep up the great work, articles like this will open the eyes of young Pashtun generation and indeed if its taught in schools. Education is the key to solve this problem, but as we know many people don’t get education in the right way, in Pashto language (mother tongue) the benefit of education in Pashto is not just that they will learn their language but through that they can discuss issues that are more relevant to Pashtuns society, issues like Walwar and many others which are not even mentioned now in those schools of Dari or Urdu, I have been to those schools and they never mention of important issues that are causing social problems; because learning in the second language in lar aw bar hides all the issues surrounding Pashtuns society. If that is changed, not just that all useless or problematic customs like Walwar will be removed from Pashtuns society and culture, but will also let our people move into the real modern world and gives them opportunities to explore and do research in other great areas like science and technology, manana :)

  11. Education is the only answer to all the social evils. I live in area where walwor was widely practiced phenomena. With the increasing literacy ratio the walwar has almost vanished in the families which have got their childern educated. Of all the customs i hated most was walwar where a young daughter was treated as a commodity for sale like a sheep or a goat. The price was determind by the forces of supply and demand. The supply being constant the operative factor was demand which in turn was influenced by age of customer and his income, marital status and precdents of the area. There used to be two componenents of walwar specified in advance ie. kour and khorak. Kour component was meant for incurring expenditure on buying necessities for the bride and khorak was the income of the father from the sale of his daughter. The bargain can be equated to a commercial enterprise where both the parties were aiming at optimising his bit. This inhuman and immoral custom is still upheld as sacrosanct in wide areas. Both the the extreme of wealth and poverty perpetuate this practice.

  12. A very well-written article about one of the biggest issues in the Pashtun culture. It’s a sad reality that the tradition of walwar has deep roots in our culture and that is what makes it so hard to stop from spreading. I have witnessed families taking walwar from the bride’s family and using it to “fund” their son’s wedding/daughter-in-law’s walwar; it’s like a never-ending cycle! And the funny thing is that our own women have the same mentality, for instance if you are married into a family and your walwar price was god forbid lower than that of your sister-in-law’s or anyone else’s in the family, they ask you why your father didn’t ask for more? Or, Did he not like you?
    This vicious cycle has to end, but the only way to do it is through educating our women and making them realise thier worth should not be calculated by a sum of money paid by your husband. And not to mention, most of these same women suffer quiet a bit by the hands of the husband and/or his family, because of the mere fact that her father asked for walwar or asked for her wedding to be held in a posh hotel.
    Anyway, thank you very much for an enlightening article, please keep writing!

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  15. Brilliant and well researched article
    I would like to add that this traditions doesn’t just exists between Pashtuns but extends to all ethnicities in the region although with some modifications. On the example of ghazni province where I come from, there’s actually been many attempts to limit the walwar / gala but because in such poor societies the norms are often set by the wealthy (like everywhere else), and with no overriding law from the state on the matter, all attempts gradually fail. The ever increasing walwar race is thus kept and inevitably promoted

  16. For last 8 months I am studying walwar in south FATA region, have collected many stories and met victims, elders and “beneficiaries”.
    Its nearly impossible to eradicate this practice, but trying to find out ground level solution to update or modify it.

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  19. Dear writer I agree that this practice exist in kpk even witness it and its not even in Islam to do this.
    In Islam a boy and a girl are allowed to see each other in the presence of some elder before giving consent to marriage
    The boy must agree an amount of haq mehar not (walware) to be paid to the bride which should be according to the finacial capability of the boy.
    A simple ceremony to take place in which the marriage is announced
    The boy must arrange a ceremony in which he should invite his and bride family to lunch or dinner and the number of guest and the food should be what he can afford not he should go and borrow money for the wedding
    But you mentioned that Haq mehar is paid on the divorce it is wrong it happens only if you have not paid haq mehar to the bride before and divorce her. It is obligatory to pay at the time of the marriage but if the bride forgives you or does not demand you, can be delayed.

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