'Ghagh': The Pashtun Custom of Men Forcing Marriage Proposals on Women

... and the campaign to ban it in Pakistan

Pashtun women banner.jpg
Pashtun women walk past wall covered with campaign posters in southern Afghan city of Kandahar on September 15, 2005. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

Gul Ghotai has bitter memories of the day her suitor proposed marriage. The reason? This was no ordinary proposal but one made under an ancient Pashtun custom called "ghagh" that entitles a man to force his marriage proposal on a woman.

Once invoked, ghagh -- which means "a call" -- can have various outcomes, none of them happy for the woman. She might end up being married against her will, or stay single for life, or see her family drawn into a dangerous, lingering feud.

After months of petitions to Ghotai's father in 2005, her suitor sent him a final message through a courier to consider his marriage proposal a ghagh if he was still reluctant to accept. "It was devastating to learn that a married man, whose elder daughter was my age, had asked my father for my hand," the 30-year-old schoolteacher from the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province recalls. "He had done so in the name of ghagh, so it was depressing to know that my dreams for having a normal family might never become a reality," says Ghotai (not her real name).

Abusive Cultural Practices

Overall, the ancient tribal custom of ghagh is in decline among Pakistan's 30 million Pashtuns, who live chiefly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the adjacent Pashtun regions of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan. But human rights activists, journalists, and tribal leaders say ghagh persists in FATA and other underdeveloped areas such as the southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In FATA, the situation is worse because years of insurgency have eroded social solidarity and government control.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's provincial government -- a coalition of secular parties -- now wants to declare this custom illegal in its ongoing bid to stamp out abusive cultural practices. A bill approved recently by the cabinet recommends a seven-year jail sentence or a nearly $6,000 fine for a man who engages in ghagh. The provincial assembly is expected to pass the law before its current five-year term expires in March. "Ghagh is an ancient custom in our land, but it has harmed many women," says Sitara Ayaz, the provincial minister for social welfare and women's development. "We are now moving this bill through the provincial assembly to turn it into a law to protect women. This custom is more prevalent in the southern part of our province."

A Model for FATA

Mariam Bibi, a social worker in Peshawar, says that ghagh is shocking for women because it deprives them of the prospects for a happy marriage and family life. She welcomes the draft law but says enforcement will be key. "They should not only make a law and a policy," she says. "They should look into its proper implementation as well." Ayaz, the provincial minister, says the law should serve as a model for FATA, too, and is urging the federal government to adopt similar legislation.

Some residents of those tribal areas would welcome such a step. Javed Mehsud, a young man from the Waziristan tribal region where the custom is still prevalent, says he will be happy to see the practice of ghagh vanish. "This custom contradicts the long-standing norms of our society. We do not want to see it continue. This is a cancer for our society," Mehsud says. "People who engage in such acts are social outcasts and their acts only malign our society."

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