Pakistani woman's body found by roadside after marriage deal goes awry

The Sindh Commission on the Status of Women met Waziran Chhachhar’s family on July 6 to provide support to seek justice for her death.
PHOTO: Facebook

She was 25 years old and eight weeks pregnant when her battered body was found dumped by the side of a motorway in Sindh province, southeast Pakistan.

Waziran Chhachhar had been stoned to death, it is believed, after a bride bartering agreement involving her family and her husband's family known as watta satta (give and take), reportedly went wrong.

Stories of the Pakistani woman's death soon sparked outrage on the country's social media, with many sharing a video of her father Gul Mohammad begging for the killers - thought to be members of her husband's family - to be brought to justice. The hashtag #JusticeForWaziran trended on Twitter.

Watta satta involves paired marriages between members from two households. Most commonly, a brother and sister from one family are matched with a pair from another family.

Occasionally, uncle-niece pairings or cousins may be matched with a pair from another household. Matches can involve children as young as 12 years old.

The tribal custom - which is based on a belief that a mutual exchange of daughters would secure a better marriage outcome for the girls - is commonly practised in Sindh, a province of about 47 million, and the southern part of Punjab, home to about 110 million people.

As part of the tradition, families also exchange possessions, eliminating the burden of having to pay a dowry.

Manthar Ali, Waziran's neighbour, said watta satta accounted for about 80 per cent of the 40 or so marriages that had taken place in his village over the past five years - mostly between families of farmers and stock-raisers.

In a 2015 paper published in the Open Journal of Social Sciences, researchers said watta satta often leads to the physical and emotional abuse of women.

"Exchange marriage provides security for both families, but at the other end is a double-edged sword. A husband who abuses or mistreats his wife in this provision can accept [her] brother to strike back in kind against his sister," the researchers wrote.

"A woman's reaction to abuse is often limited due to lower economic capacity and support, concern for the children's emotional dependence, lack of education, [and] the support of friends and family."

A 2019 Human Rights Watch report said rape, honour killings, acid attacks, domestic violence and forced marriages of women remain problems in Pakistan. The country witnesses about 1,000 honour killings every year, the report noted.

According to police reports, 132 women were killed in Sindh from January 2019 to January this year.

Islamabad-based activist and former academic Farzana Bari said women in Pakistan are treated as "property" under watta satta, a custom which "takes away their autonomy" in marriage.

"In many cases, if the marriage of one couple goes awry, the other couple gets affected," said Bari, the former director of the gender studies department at Quaid-i-Azam University. "On both sides, the women always suffer."

The Sindh Commission on the Status of Women meets Waziran Chhachhar’s family on July 6 and also urged police to conduct a fair and transparent investigation.
PHOTO: Facebook

Some women have protested against the custom, but few have managed to change their fates.

The 24-year-old fiancee of Manthar Ali, Waziran's neighbour, was one of the lucky ones. Eight years ago, she rejected her family's watta satta arrangement and refused to marry her sister-in-law's brother - prompting her father to beat her up.

Manthar was also threatened by the man his fiancee was supposed to marry, but both he and his then-girlfriend stood firm. They finally got engaged when she turned 18.

Failed deal

According to Waziran's relative, Allahwarayo Chhachhar Wada, her marriage to husband Ali Bux Chhachhar was based on watta satta, he said in a telephone interview.

As part of the agreement, the niece of Waziran's husband was supposed to marry her younger brother. But when Waziran's father brought up the engagement a few months ago, Ali Bux's family declined to honour it, Allahwarayo said.

Both Waziran's brother and her husband's niece are 12 years old.

Backtracking on the deal soured relations between both families and led to Waziran's fate, Allahwarayo said.

"Gul and Ali Bux's brother Kareem exchanged a few blows over an argument on this a month ago," Allahwarayo said.

"Eventually, they took revenge by killing Waziran," he said, adding that he thought the killers deserved the death penalty. Murder is punishable by hanging in Pakistan.

Police said three people, including Alix Bux and Kareem, were arrested for Waziran's murder, which took place on June 28.

Rasool Baksh Shaikh, one of the investigating officers on the case, said there was a "dispute between the two families related to watta satta", but the complaint went to the community leader of their village, who helped to "settle" the matter.

Waziran's mother said her in-laws were not happy with the settlement and threatened to kill Waziran unless the family withdrew their complaint, according to a report by the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women sent to the government. The SCSW is an official agency that promotes women's rights in Sindh.

It sent a delegation to visit Waziran's family after Nuzhat Shirin, who chairs the group, received a complaint regarding the case on July 4. In its report, the organisation recommended a "high-level inquiry" into the case, and that an active helpline for women should be set up.

Emphasising that the SCSW was still in the process of compiling data on watta satta, Nuzhat Shirin said: "Poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, coupled with patriarchy, have kept anti-women practices alive."

According to Mahnaz Rahman of the Aurat Foundation, a women's rights organisation, crimes against women in Pakistan are often recorded by police in such a way that allows offenders, especially those who are influential, to evade punishment.

A fact-finding team of independent women activists said Waziran's clothes were not sent immediately for forensic examination, and the postmortem report did not record the injuries in her genital areas observed by her family before she was buried.

Former academic Bari said anti-women feudal practices continue to thrive because "Pakistan does not implement its existing pro-women laws adequately".

Pakistan's Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act 2011, that criminalises marriages under any custom or practice for settling civil dispute or criminal liabilities, does not include watta satta within its purview.

"The problem is, the parliamentarians see watta satta as a matter of personal issue between families, instead of a social evil," said Farooq Tariq, an activist.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post