Of Tribes, Trials And Tribulations

A bizarre procession crept through the Pakistani village of Abba Khel last Wednesday evening. It was the finale of a double wedding, but it seemed more like a funeral march. The older bride, 17-year-old Wazira Khan, was weeping inconsolably. The younger, her 14-year-old cousin Tasneem Khan, had to be hauled by force from her parents' house. The two girls were on their way to consummate their marriages--Wazira to her 83-year-old great-uncle Atta Khan and Tasneem to her great-aunt's 55-year-old son, Maher Khan. Tribal custom--and a family blood feud dating back nearly half a century--gave the girls no choice. Consenting to the union was the only way the girls' families could save their fathers from being hanged.

Just before dark, a detachment of district police arrived to rescue the girls. Reports of the case had reached President Pervez Musharraf, and he was determined to keep it from becoming one more international symbol of Pakistan's backwardness. Much of the countryside is controlled by tribal groups that have never bowed to central authority. Some have sheltered Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan. Others have created problems all their own.

In June, three men in the village of Meerwala accused an 11-year-old boy of an affair with their 30-year-old sister. As punishment for the boy's supposed offense, a tribal council decreed that the men should gang-rape his sister Mia, a teacher. The sentence was carried out in front of 500 witnesses. Authorities later determined that the three men had invented the accusation to cover up their own rape and sodomy of the boy. The government is prosecuting the alleged rapists and the council members; if convicted, they will face the death penalty.

The Khans' story is another tribal mess. The villagers of Abba Khel are divided into two inbred clans, the Noor Khans and the Hussain Khans, named after the two brothers who first settled the place in the 1920s. It was Wazira's great-uncle Atta, a member of the Noor branch, who began the vendetta in 1956 by killing a Hussain named Bahadur. "Family is something very complicated," says Azim Khan, 55, a Noor. Atta was sentenced to life in prison, and an uneasy truce prevailed for the next 30 years. Then a property dispute stirred up old grudges. Atta was out of jail on parole by then, and Bahadur's brother Sardar--Wazira's father--decided to settle old scores. He and three cousins laid an ambush for Atta. They missed and killed Atta's brother and one of his nephews instead. Sardar and his accomplices were caught, tried and sentenced to die.

Under Pakistani law, convicted murderers can bargain with the victims' families for a reprieve. The Noors demanded 8 million rupees (about $130,000) and eight of the condemned men's daughters in marriage. Tasneem and Wazira, the first girl in her family ever to finish high school, were the oldest. The others ranged from 2 to 9. Their weddings were held, too, but by local custom the consummation was postponed until puberty. The Hussain Khans sold almost all they owned to raise the money. The Noors were not satisfied. "They [the Hussains] can easily pay money," says Azim. "The girls were included just to inflict humiliation on them."

The police arrived just in time. The district superintendent, also named Sardar Khan, ordered the Noor men to divorce their teenage brides immediately. Atta balked, but he was outmanned. The provincial law minister, Rawa Ijaz Ahmad Khan, was also on hand, having commandeered an Air Force jet to reach the village. He wore a suit and tie, although the temperature was close to 110 in the shade. As the news cameras whirred, he proclaimed an immediate ban on the use of girls to pay blood debts. Then he flew home again.

Human-rights activist Asma Jahinger, also at the scene, was not impressed. She accuses Musharraf and his ministers of "behaving like fire brigades," racing from emergency to emergency without making any basic changes in the tribal-dominated system. "I don't think the president has fooled anyone in Pakistan," she says. "He may have fooled people in the West, but he hasn't fooled people here." Her assessment of Musharraf's reforms may be too negative. But the struggle between tribal law and central authority is far from over.