Do you know what ghag is?

Published: September 10, 2016

It is these women I worry for because every door slammed in her face is a new nail in her coffin. PHOTO: REUTERS

For the Pakhtun people, the unwritten ethical code of Pashtunwali, dating to the pre-Islamic era, is as central to their lives as Islam. This can leave the Pakhtun people torn between religion and the culture of their people. One of the more deplorable ways in which this cultural-religious disconnect manifests is through the centuries old custom of ghag.

Ghag, which roughly translates as ‘avaaz lagana’ or ‘to make something known’, is when a man announces his intention to marry a particular woman. The announcement can be done in many ways. Often a messenger is sent to the house of the bride to be to inform her family that the man in question has decided to marry her. Sometimes the announcement is more dramatic and exaggerated. There have been instances where the groom-to-be has fired gunshots from the stoop of the local mosque while shouting the name of his chosen bride.

Regardless of how ghag is announced, the impact on the girl, her family, and her future is destructive. That’s because ghag is sometimes used to exact badal (revenge) on the girl’s family by claiming, without consent, their most prized possession.

The great injustice of ghag is that after marking his territory, it doesn’t matter if the man actually ever comes through on his alleged intention to marry. There is no obligation on him to marry, and sometimes, the announcement alone is all the revenge needed because the girl is now considered spoken for and can no longer be considered as marriage material.

And the great irony of ghag is that – despite being a practice of the Pashto, a people of Islam – it obliterates a most crucial requirement of an Islamic marriage: the consent of the bride and her wali (guardian).

Similar to the way women are raped as a weapon during wartime, ghag takes nothing from the man but everything from the woman who has to face an entire life ahead of her with the scarlet letter of someone marked as unavailable or tainted. Some of these women will go on to spend their life as single with the announcement of ghag hanging axe-like above their head. Others will marry the man and suffer silently in marriages they never asked for or dreamed of. Perhaps most devastating of all is the plight of those women who choose action over passive acceptance. Since the start of 2016 around 20 women have reportedly committed suicide because of ghag.

Last month the story of Pio Mohammed and his daughters made its way out of the village and into Pakistan’s mainstream media. When my editor asked me to look into the story of Pio, whose nephews have announced ghag on his daughters because Pio’s brother divorced their mother, I confess I had to Google the word ghag. Turns out I am not the only one unfamiliar with this outdated, ancient custom. There wasn’t a lot written or reported about ghag on the Internet. I had to ask my editor for an extension because I couldn’t write on something I could barely understand.

Before I could proverbial pen to paper I had to have some questions answered: How is this still a practiced custom? How many women are impacted? And, what is the State of Pakistan doing about this madness?

Lucky for me, the ultimate source and mother load of information on ghag, Senator Sitara Ayaz, agreed to speak to me.

Senator Ayaz is the woman behind the Elimination of Custom of Ghag Act 2013. According to her, ghagh is still very much practiced in parts of Pakistan and to this day it continues to negatively impact the lives of Pakhtun women. While the Act has helped some, there is still a major lack of awareness in Khyber-Pakhtunwa and its neighbouring regions. Women and their family simply aren’t aware of the existence of this legislation and the fact that there is legal help available to them.

That would explain why such little information is available online. Families like Pio Mohammed and his daughters who boldly speak out and turn to the media and the courts for assistance are truly an anomaly.

The State of Pakistan has taken notice and, to some extent, has been able to intervene. But there is only so much drafting legislations and state intervention can accomplish. Society has to be ready.

A friend who recently returned home after working for six months with an NGO in northern Pakistan thinks society is ready but the locals have to be realistic about societal change because when it comes to eradicating cultural practices with deep roots things take a lot of time.

But tell that to the woman whose life and dreams come undone because an absolute stranger had the unfettered power to rob her of all her agency in the name of revenge or some twisted form of passionate love. For this woman, time is not on her side. Time is what she fears because the more time goes by the more intertwined her fate becomes with this man.

A legal advocate working in this field, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, points out that it’s not all about access to justice. A lot of these women are choosing to remain silent. They fear the stigma that will follow them, the repercussions of being the one to speak out against a longstanding, accepted practice.

These are the women who can be targeted and helped through the grassroots awareness campaigns and the legal aid that is starting to take effect across northern Pakistan. These are the women who I do not worry for as much, as the women who do go out into the world to seek help for these are the women who are shut down by authority figures they are supposed to be able to trust. Too many of these women have turned to local jirgas only to be refused any help but also had a hefty fine slapped on them for questioning the way things are.

It is these women I worry for because every door slammed in her face is a new nail in her coffin.

Maria Kari

Maria Kari

The author is a lawyer and freelance journalist. She tweets as @mariakari1414 (twitter.com/mariakari1414)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • BrainBro

    I believe Kyrgyzstan etc. have a similar practice where groom kidnaps the bride with the help of his friends (literally) and then she is forced on to marry the dude.

    As for Islam and Pushtunwali, there is little differentiation. The reason Arab-originated Islam spread so quickly among the Pushtuns is because their primitive tribal culture mixed well with the tribal culture of the desert people.Recommend

  • Videlicet
  • Patwari

    It’s a carry over from hindu culture. Somehow, still practiced in tribal areas,
    influenced by hindus from pre partition days. Mostly have to do with bunya
    economy. [bunyas have been kicked out but the poison still remains.Recommend