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Last Updated: Monday, 5 December 2005, 18:29 GMT
Forced child marriage tests Pakistan law

By Barbara Plett
Sultanwala, Punjab province

The three Khan sisters (from l to r): Abda, Amna & Sajda Khan
Abda, Amna and Sajda have threatened suicide if forced to marry
Coming of age was a painful experience for the three Khan sisters.

They discovered they'd been promised in marriage to their enemies when they were children, a practice in Pakistan known as vani.

"When we grew up we came to know that a great injustice had been done to us," says Abda Khan, now 18.

"Vani is equal to a murder. If we were to marry those boys, it would be the same as killing us."

Vani is a tribal custom in which blood feuds are settled with forced marriages.

The bride spends her life paying for the crime of her male relatives.

"She's just like a slave in their house," says community activist Zia-Ullah Khan, "because she comes from the enemy's family, and the people took vani to compensate their revenge. They try to give pain to the girl and her family members."

No one knows how many women suffer this fate in Pakistan, but anecdotal evidence suggests a lot.

Few resist it.

That is why anti-vani campaigners see the Khan sisters of Sultanwala in Punjab province as so important - they hope their refusal will set a precedent for others.

"When this case appeared, 20 to 30 other people approached us, and they are waiting for the outcome," says Mr Khan.

"This is a test case."

Vani brides

The story began 14 years ago, with the girls' uncle, Mohammed Iqbal Khan.

Mohammed Iqbal Khan, the man who carried out the murder that led to the vani
Mohammed Iqbal Khan's daughter and four nieces were betrothed
He killed his cousin and went into hiding to escape a death sentence.

Eventually a tribal council offered to pardon him - in exchange for the vani of his daughter and four nieces.

"When I refused the people there told me you cannot escape," he says, "they told me it is better to save your skin, otherwise you will be murdered. It was only because of fear that I agreed."

It is an ever present fear, as the rival family lives next door.

The houses are in compounds surrounded by brick walls, and a road about six metres wide divides the two enemies.

Mohammed Aslam Khan is the uncle of the man that Mohammed Iqbal killed.

His son is betrothed to one of the brides.

He is a man with fiery eyes and a shock of windswept white hair and is eager to tell his story.

It is very clear to him who is the guilty party, and what will happen if the vani agreement is not upheld.

"They have betrayed us, they have insulted our honour," he says.

"According to our culture the girls are already our daughters-in-law. If they do not come to our homes, the two families will start fighting again and more than 200 people will die."

His demand for tribal justice clashes with the law - the government banned vani earlier this year.

At gunpoint

But it is a ban which critics say is not being enforced by the police, and Zia-Ullah Khan has gone to the district police station to find out why.

Jehan Khan Niazi - brother of the murderer - and father of the three sisters
Jehan Khan Niazi supports his daughters' refusal to vani
According to the police chief, Zarit Kiyani, the law punishes both the takers and the givers of vani brides.

"The girls could come to us," he says.

"If they are being married against their will, if they have any complaints against their parents, they could come here."

"That is impossible," counters Mr Khan, "no girl will come to the police and say go and arrest my parents."

This is especially so for the Khan sisters.

Their father, Jehan Khan Niazi, is their strongest supporter.

He says he agreed to the vani at gunpoint, but has moved his daughters away from the village so they could get an education.

"They stand against this because they are educated," he says.

"Illiterate girls cannot understand and express themselves. My daughters are innocent, why should I infringe on their rights and their demands."

Suicide threat

Abda and her sisters are indeed armed with a weapon rare for women in this conservative area, and they are using it to fight a campaign.

Mohammed Aslam Khan - from the victim's family - his son is one of the five grooms
Mohammed Aslam Khan says refusal would lead to bloodshed
"If we do not take this step the government would not act," says Amna, who is doing a masters degree in English Literature.

"We want the authorities to solve our problem, and the media should raise awareness. It will be a long struggle, but if we get justice, so will other women."

The sisters do not know whether they will be successful.

They do know they would not give in.

"If the government does not help us, we will commit suicide," says Abda.

"We will burn ourselves alive to protest vani. I know this is prohibited by Islam, but so is vani, and God will forgive us."

The sisters say they have law, religion and family on their side.

What they have against them is the weight of tradition, tribe and patriarchy.

Much depends on whose justice will prevail.

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