Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Marriage Swaps End in Tears and Blood

The age-old custom of marrying off pairs of brothers and sisters between families is designed to cement ties and save money, but it has tragic consequences when one of the marriages goes wrong.
By Mohammad Ilyas
I could not tell which of the two figures before me was Samina and which was her mother. They were identical, both swathed in worn black veils, and I could not see their faces. As is customary in my culture, Pashtun women do not show themselves to men outside their families.



But when I began the interview, one of them moved slightly and began to speak. Her voice was low, barely above a whisper, as she told her story.



“Shirdil was my husband. He was very cruel to me - his mother was even worse. I was beaten every day that I was in their house. You see this wound on my head? Shirdil hit me with a teapot.”



Samina has now been through a divorce, considered a matter of great shame in Pashtun society, but she still found that an improvement on barely one year of marriage.



“My life is better now that I am back in my father’s house,” she said. “No one curses me, no one beats me. I am happy here.”



Samina and Shirdal, who come from a small village in the Marja district of Helmand province, were married under the old Pashtun tradition called “badal”— literally “barter” or “exchange” – under which families swap their daughters as brides for their sons.



The custom is a way of cancelling out the “bride price” – the large amount of money the groom’s family has to pay to the bride’s father. In poverty-stricken Afghanistan, the bride price, often many thousands of dollars, ruins many families and keeps many young men single into their thirties.



If a family looking for a wife for their son find that she has a brother, they can offer their daughter’s hand in marriage to him to even out the transaction.



In this case, Samina’s brother was married to Shirdil’s sister.



Although Samina insists that her brother treated his wife kindly, that marriage fell apart. As the couple fought and separated, their domestic tragedy was replayed between Samina and Shirdil.



Many parents feel that badal offers some measure of protection for their daughter, since her husband should be deterred from mistreating her if his sister is effectively a hostage in his wife’s family.



But it can work the other way round. All too often, as with Samina and Shirdil, it ends in bitterness and pain.



Shirdal said that since his wife had left the house, “our family has been at peace”.



“All this misfortune was caused by my sister. She was being mistreated, so we had to do to [Samina] what her family was doing to my sister,” he said.



Asked whether he had loved his wife, Shirdal sighed and did not give a direct answer.



“I had to do what my family wanted,” he said. “My mother forced me to divorce my wife. I will not feel guilty on the Day of Judgement. I did not mistreat my wife apart from divorcing her.”



This is not an isolated case in Helmand, where women often lead difficult lives, and there is a lot of domestic violence.



Apart from the exchange of siblings, women are also married off to settled feuds or other disagreements.



“Pashtun society can be very harsh,” said Nabi Khan, a Muslim cleric and judge who mediated in the divorce of Shirdil and Samina. “Anyone who has married through badal faces the problem of divorce.”



The case of Samina and Shirdil was fairly typical, he said.



“Samina’s brother divorced Shirdil’s sister some time ago. He had been beating her,” said Nabi Khan. “So Shirdil did to Samina what her brother had done to his sister. They tried to get rid of her without a divorce, but her family was very upset that she would not get formal status. Divorce is very embarrassing in our society, but her father and brother came to me and said that either Shirdil should accept her back as his wife, or grant her a divorce. I am an imam in Shirdil’s mosque, so I was asked to help.”



It is almost impossible for a woman to initiate divorce proceedings in Pashtun society.



Men who are unwilling to go through the shame of a divorce will often take a second wife in such cases, said Nabi Khan. According to Islamic tradition, a man can have up to four wives.



“When a man has two wives, there will be fighting in his house every single day. His home will turn into a battlefield,” he said.



The disturbing case of Tawab, a quiet young man from the village of Chan Jir in Nad Ali district, not far from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, shows how violent that battlefield can be.



Tawab’s sister was being beaten by her husband, so he took a gun and went off to defend her. Because he was part of a typical badal arrangement, his sister’s husband was his brother-in-law twice over – the man was also his wife’s brother.



Tawab’s attempt to exact punishment went fatally wrong – instead of harming his brother-in-law, he accidentally shot and killed his own sister.



He then came home and divorced his wife in retaliation.



“If my uncle were not mediating, I would have killed her,” said Tawab. “But our family has been very nice about it and we have left her alive.”



He concluded, “Anyone who wants to avoid problems and sorrow should avoid badal.”



Fawzia Olumi, head of the government Women’s Affairs Department for Helmand province, said her office has seen many cases where badal has torn families apart.



“Badal has not been good for our society,” she said. “It is a very old tradition, and many families have made a business out of it. They demand a girl in exchange for their daughter, thinking that it will help her and that if the other family mistreats their daughter, they can take revenge. Families may want good lives for their daughters, but it actually causes relationships to deteriorate.”



Olumi said her department was currently handling the case of a 14-year-old girl who had been married off to a much older man as part of a badal deal. The girl had attempted suicide by taking poison, and was still refusing to return to her husband.



It is against the tenets of Islam to force a girl to marry against her will, but in practice the girl is rarely consulted - she is expected to bow to her parents’ decision.



Sitting in the Women’s Department, the girl looked very young and unhappy. Clad in dirty clothes and worn blue shoes, she had a small blue scarf on her head.



“My parents married me to a kuchi [a nomad], and my brother married his sister,” she said. “But I don’t want to be married to this old man.”



The girl would not give her name, and when pressed for more details, she burst into tears and left the room. Her mother hurried after her, apparently afraid that her daughter would swallow more pills.



Maulavi Ahmad, head of the Ulema or council of Muslim scholars for Helmand province insisted that badal was an honoured Islamic tradition, but acknowledged that it was sometimes abused.



“Mistreating anyone, particularly a woman, is prohibited in Islam,” he said. “Anyone who abuses a woman is considered a criminal before God and the Prophet.”



Mohammad Ilyas Dayee is an IWPR staff reporter in Helmand.