By Sohail Sangi
HYDERABAD: Honour killings and forced marriages in Sindh receive wide attention in the national media. What is less well-known is that young women from the province frequently publish announcements in Sindhi newspapers declaring their intention to marry of their own free will.
As a way of fending off allegations that they have been kidnapped or have committed adultery, it is a bold move by these women but is known to few people beyond the readership of these regional papers.
Shabana Khatoon, 23, of Bhango Behan in Khairpur district, declares in widely circulated Sindhi daily Kawish that her parents wanted to sell her to an older man for marriage. Ms Khatoon’s announcement is a summary of an attested affidavit she had a lawyer prepare for her and explains that she decided to run away and marry another man, Ghulam Murtaza Burero, in accordance with Islamic law.
She adds that no one has kidnapped her and that she is making the declaration as an adult in full possession of her senses. In case her parents register a case against her, her husband or his parents, it should be considered fake. Her statement, she says, is meant for purposes of record in case her parents move against her.
Shakeela Sheikh of Umerkot district also seeks protection through an announcement in the same paper, stating that she is divorced and left her parents’ house to marry Ali Ghulam Chandio when they tried to get her remarried against her will. Guddi of Badin announces that her parents got her engaged to Asghar Ali, who used to bear the expenses of her family, but now want to marry her off to a man offering better compensation.
Couples like Ms Shabana and Mr Burero normally first contact a lawyer who prepares an affidavit based on their story that is attested by a judicial magistrate or notary public. They then have a nikah and announce it by publishing an advertisement commonly titled “dhiyan talab” (“seeking attention”) or “qasam namo” (“sworn affidavit”). Some approach a local court to solemnise their marriages, also asking for protection from their families for fear of being declared karo-kari.
A study carried out by Kawish shows that an average of four to five couples announce these free-will marriages in the paper each day, and an executive in charge of advertisements there says this number can be as high as eight or nine a day. The men and women belong to a wide range of districts, tribes and castes of Sindh, including its Hindu communities, although most do not come from affluent families.
Couples who come to the newspaper’s officers are sometimes too poor to afford regular rates, are often scared for their lives, and sometimes send a relative or lawyer instead of risking a visit themselves. Before publishing the advertisements the newspaper asks for signatures and NICs from the couples, attested affidavits, and photographs of the women involved.
Mayaram Rathi, a manager who handles advertising for daily Ibrat, explains that this is not a new phenomenon and that such advertisements have been published for the last three decades. They include various kinds of cases ranging from teenage girls being forced to marry much older men, women being forced to marry men they don’t know and parents breaking engagements for monetary reasons.
In some instances the announcements are published by Hindu girls who have chosen Muslim husbands. They declare that they have converted to Islam, often adding that they were inspired by Muslim neighbours they had been visiting since their childhoods. One reason for the women to opt for this bold step is to prevent harassment by police or simply to seek the protection of law enforcers and the judicial system from their families, who lodge FIRs of theft or kidnapping, pressurise the couples through their communities or seek the help of jirgas.
But according to social worker Lala Hassan Pathan, who has been working on cases of violence against women and free-will marriages for the last seven years, police seldom take note of these announcements or keep them on record. The couples themselves send clippings to local police officers, who rarely take action based on them and sometimes register kidnapping cases on the parents’ behalf despite the existence of these declarations under oath.
According to Mr Pathan, men who end up in police custody for kidnapping in such cases are often tortured while the women are pressurised and sometimes taken away by parents with the knowledge of police. Judges in lower courts, he says, also tend to be unsympathetic towards the couples in free-will cases.
According to women’s rights activist Arfana Mallah, however, the attitude of the lower judiciary towards women is changing and lawyers are now able to go to court with these affidavits without needing the support of NGOs or influential members of civil society.
On the other hand, she says, the publication of these announcements may provoke parents and other relatives and has been followed by the women’s deaths in some instances. Using the media is a double-edged sword for the women of Sindh; the same declarations that can save them from honour killings can also leave them vulnerable to even more angry reprisals.