Amna, Abida, Sajida, Assia and Fatima Niazi never had a say in this. Nine years ago, a tribal council in a Punjabi village ordered, in their absence, that they marry the illiterate boys of an enemy family. Really, “marry” is the wrong word: they were effectively given as compensation when a member of their family shot dead a family rival. They were to be nothing more than payment of a debt. At the time, the eldest was 13-years-old, the youngest just 6-years-old.
This appallingly tribal and un-Islamic practice of trading women to resolve disputes, known as “vani”, is tragically common in the poorest, most illiterate tribal villages in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has condemned it as a “barbaric custom”, and last year, after a 3-year-old girl near Multan was betrothed to a 60-year-old man in similar circumstances, the Pakistani Government passed a law banning it.
But the illegal practice continues and for the five Niazi women, it remains all too real. Now aged between 15 and 22, their lives are in grave danger. Their fathers have refused to honour these so-called marriages, and the village council has ruled that they should be abducted, raped or killed as punishment.
But Jehan Khan Niazi, the father of three of the women, will not buckle. His daughters are young, educated women pursuing tertiary studies with bright futures ahead of them. They have said they will commit suicide if he obeys the council’s ruling. “I have refused to give in to the council’s request as it is un-Islamic. I cannot hand over my girls like goats to marry these illiterate boys,” said Mr Niazi. The council has ordered that he and his brothers be killed, too.
Amna, the eldest of the Niazi women, has taken inspiration from her father’s principled stand: “Despite having little money, he has educated us and shown us that we must stand up in society and demand our rights,” she said. Friends have told her younger sister Abida that they are “fighting for the oppressed women of Pakistan”.
It is impossible for most of us in Australia to appreciate the courage of these women and the madness that oppresses them. This level of barbaric violence against women tends to occur where poverty and illiteracy have been entrenched for generations. We should be thankful that in more affluent communities like ours we almost never encounter anything so extreme.
But let us not pretend for a second we do not face our own problems. Serious problems. Violence against women is not something that only happens elsewhere. It has become a true pandemic: an international scourge that is among the most hideous stains on humanity’s soul. And in this regard, Australia’s soul is far from stainless.
According to a study last year by the Australian Institute of Criminology, nearly 60 per cent of Australian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence in their lives. Over one million Australian women have suffered violence in, or after, a relationship. The women most abused are young and disabled.
Children are also abused in the process. In well over a third of cases where women are beaten, children are too. A whopping 90 per cent of children in violent homes have seen violence perpetrated against their own mother. This is psychologically damaging and can lead to health and behavioural problems.
This violence spans all racial, cultural and religious borders in Australia. It occurs across different occupations and education levels. At some point we have to acknowledge that we are talking about a pervasive phenomenon that wreaks havoc across generations. It tears societies apart.
For too long, we have left responsibility for solving this problem at the feet of women. This places an unjust burden on the most powerless, humiliated victims. We will only defeat this blight when, as men, we claim ownership of the problem and say emphatically that we will not tolerate violence against women any more.
Today is a day for making precisely that statement. It is White Ribbon Day: the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It is about saying violence against women is a men’s issue too.
A world away, Jehan Khan Niazi has sacrificed his own safety for his daughters. He is making a heroic stand against the oppression and violence women suffer in his part of the world. Our circumstances may not be as extreme, but they are still deadly serious. Australian men should take his lead.
Waleed Aly has been appointed a White Ribbon Day ambassador. Versions of this article appear in The Courier-Mail and the Advertiser on November 24, 2005.