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Marriage Swaps Spark Tragedy

The practice of marrying off daughters to allow sons to afford a bride is sometimes doomed to failure.
By IWPR Afghanistan

It sounds like the stuff of romance: Obaidullah, a 28-year-old from Logar province, finds the woman of his dreams, Nooria, 25, but is unable to marry her because he doesn’t have the money.

So in lieu of the bride price, the young man offers to give his own sister, Sharifa, 22, in marriage to Nooria’s elder brother, Latif, 28.

Latif agrees and in short order, the families are joined by not one marriage but two.

However, this story ended in tragedy - after suffering years of abuse, both young women are being divorced by their husbands.

"Whenever my brother beats Nooria, then her brother beats me for no reason,” said Sharifa.

The custom of offering a female family member in marriage so that a male member can afford the cost of marrying his bride has been practiced for years. Since the money that has to be paid over to obtain a desirable wife can runs into thousands of dollars, female family members are sometimes seen as a handy substitute for cash.

While the practice is on the wane in the larger cities, in the provinces it continues as before.

Murad Ali Mateen, head of the Kabul family court, said that about half of the 50 divorce cases he has reviewed over the past year were the result of such exchange marriages.

“The family courts try to make peace between the two sides, using mullahs and influential elders,” he said. “But if the two sides will not reconcile, then we pave the way for divorce.”

Latif admitted he had treated his wife roughly in part because of the way the marriage was arranged.

“I didn’t get married of my own free will," he said. “My father forced me. Now my wife goes to her father's house and anywhere else she wants without permission. I would kill her, if my sister Nooria were not involved.”

Obaidullah said he has simply responded in kind, "I beat my wife because my sister is being beaten. Now that Latif is divorcing my sister, I’ll divorce his sister."

Nooria told IWPR how she had been abused because of her brother’s treatment of his wife. "Once my husband was informed that Sharifa's husband did not give her any food for one day,” she said. “So he locked me in a room for three days with nothing to eat."

Despite such treatment, Sharifa said she opposed the divorce, "I know that if he divorces me, no one else will ever marry me, and I’ll live poor and alone for the rest of my life."

Shahida Barmal, who works on women’s affairs at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said her organisation is aware of many incidents of retaliatory violence against women involved in marriage swaps.

But she says the commission is powerless to stop the practice. “We have held many workshops on women’s rights, but women are afraid to come to them,” she said. “They fear that if their husbands find out, their lives will get even worse.”

For Nooria and Sharifa, as for thousands of other Afghan women, there will be no happy ending.

"Fathers would be better off burying their daughters alive rather than exchanging them," said Sharifa.

Shahabuddin Tarakhil in an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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