We often hear stories about successful working women and the hardships they have faced in a male-dominant society, excelling, and setting up examples for the rest. In Pakistan, women in urban areas are an indispensable part of working-class. Women work side-by-side with their male counterparts in almost every walk of life. But in the vast abandoned area of southwestern Pakistan, there lies a place which specifies women as merely slaves or victims of acrimonious rituals. The barbaric tradition called Zhagh.
Education doesn’t buy us weapons, so why bother?
Education is the right denied to many children in Balochistan. A recent report suggests that the literacy rate of the province is stagnant at 44 percent. The tribesmen of Balochistan are so busy fighting their internal wars, they don’t have time to consider the ‘importance of education’ in their lives. Let alone fancy ideas like women’s education or empowerment.
Their reasoning against it is ‘education doesn’t buy you weapons or wins wars”. If boys would go to school/colleges, who will fight for the tribe?
Misery of women in Balochistan
As far as women are concerned, not all, but a majority of Baloch tribes prefer their women stay at home than go to schools or colleges. In rural areas, women are taken for an entity or a property. Young girls are taught all it takes to run a family (a tribal one) but sadly, this doesn’t include any formal education.
A common belief is that an outgoing girl often invites trouble for herself and the family. So, they make sure to keep them ‘safe and away’ from the stares of ‘strangers’ until they come of age. Even then, only the bridegroom, exclusively chosen by the parents is allowed to see her.
The marriage does not bring any peace. It’s more a changing of cages. The captivity does not end. Call it a blind following of old and sick traditions, lack of awareness or security risks, they think what they think. They do what they do; there is no stopping, not so far.
Palwasha: The Special Girl
Palwasha belonged to one of such rural areas of Balochistan. Though she was physically a perfect child, yet ‘unsuitable’ for the place. Because she was born with curiosity and a quest for knowledge. She wanted to learn the mysteries of the universe, and the reason for her existence, a far cry for a girl of her tribe.
Knowing her daughter’s curious nature and interest in education, Palwasha’s father made an exception. He somehow got his daughter to school, then to a girl’s college in Quetta, far from home.
Stepping into her hostel room, she was introduced to a world, none of her family members had ever seen since the dawn of time. A world where she could draw free breaths.
Filled with mixed feelings, her father’s only advice echoed in her mind, “my child, know your boundaries and take every step very carefully.”
Time flew away, days turned into nights and summer into winter before her final year in college arrived. And now, she was coming home for the last summer break before her final semester of college.
Zhagh: The Barbarian Custom
It was a regular day; she had safely reached home with father and now they were gathered for a family feast. Palwasha was feasting on the desert (akhrot ka halwa) her mother had specially prepared for her, enjoying every bit of it, she had no idea her joys would soon turn to ashes in her mouth.
As soon as she cleared the table and went into the kitchen to help her mother, a loud noise was heard, followed by a couple more. A familiar sound for a tribal girl, she knew at once, it was the gunfire. Palwasha also heard a man’s voice shouting her name and making claims. Then there was silence, the firing had stopped and so did the chanting.
She had no awareness of the situation, no idea that her fate had just been sealed. Her dreams dashed to the ground. She knew she would never see her college again, no university, no friends, no freedom anymore!
Her mother wept silently as she knew what has just happened to them, particularly to her daughter. The happy days of Palwasha were over as she had become another victim of ‘Zhagh.’
Zhagh is a gender-based ferocity in which any influential tribesman can claim a woman of his clan. All he has to do is to fire a few gunshots on the main gate/door of girl’s house and demand her as his bride without even consulting her parents.
What is Zhagh?
The custom is widely practised in the northern districts of Balochistan, especially in Loralai, Zhob, Ziarat, Sherani, and Killa Saifullah, where hundreds of cases have been reported between 2011 and 2015.
This barbarian tradition is a rapid-growing practice and a clear violation of women rights. The victim can’t even refuse to marry that man because no other tribesmen will dare to bring a proposal for her. Doing so will invite his wrath or a tribal dispute that may last for decades to come.
To make it worse, the girl is constrained from keeping any social contact with anyone, even with her fellow girls, and has to surrender all her dreams before the murky tradition.
The Crippled System
Despite the appalling surge in Zhagh cases, Baloch lawmakers have turned a deaf ear to all the complaints and showed no interest to haul this virulent custom, as no law regarding the subject has been formed till date. However, the K-P Assembly has passed a bill against ‘Ghag’ which is a similar kind of custom prevailing in K-P.
Article 3 of Ghag Act, 2013 prohibits the practice of Ghag in K-P. Whereas, Article 4 clearly states that the offender shall be punished by imprisonment of three years, be liable to five hundred thousand rupees or both.
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire
The forced engagements leave their worst impacts on the victim. It has been reported that many women, after being victimised, prefer to commit suicide or spend their entire life alone. They have to abandon study, social life and everything else.
In case of marriage, the life of the woman becomes even more troubled as for now she has to serve as a ‘slave.’ In most cases, the offender belongs to an influential family and any resistance from the girl’s family can be subdued with power.
When Death Seems the Only Escape
A story published in Pakistan’s leading daily Dawn reported a terrible suicide case. The subject had refused the enforced marriage proposal for 28 years before succumbing not to her ego, but to the lord.
“Ayesha was 22 when a 50-year-old man fired bullets at her door to announce to the entire village that she was his from now on. Anyone coming with a proposal for her would be inviting his wrath and perhaps starting a feud that could go for generations.
For the next 28 years, the tribal woman from Kurram Agency braved the family pressures and continued to refuse that man, who condemned her to this fate. The spinster finally set herself free from the Stone Age’s custom of ‘Ghag’ by hanging herself quietly in her room at the age of 50.”
A 22-year old Gula victim of Zhagh, while in an interview to the private channel, said “I was shocked when I heard about an elderly man who already has two children wanted to marry me. My brother chased him and hurt him severely but after some time family decides to leave that place. How can someone do this, he is now threatening people who want to send a proposal of marriage.”
Many victims of Zhagh see suicide as the only option.
A Rearguard Action
Another victim of Zhagh, Mermana, described the whole episode as a nightmare. She now doesn’t want to marry anyone but wants to spend her life alone. She, while talking to a private channel, said: “I will never accept a forced marriage, especially with a person who has children, I want to marry someone but not a victim of Zhagh.”
These are only a few stories that made it to the public. What about hundreds of thousands of untold unheard cries of other helpless womenfolk? Where should they all go? Should all of them hang to death? How many lives will it take it to attain the government’s attention? Someone has to take charge to counter this draconian custom. Surely the state is responsible and liable to protect the women from this curse, but when?
We live in the age of information where social media can make a mountain of a mole hill. If we all raise this issue on available platforms, we may compel the concerned authorities to take this matter into consideration. I have done my part of the duty; it’s time for you to make your contribution!
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