Samar Minallah Khan never felt like a “typical urbanised child”. At home, she saw a progressive atmosphere, where her father encouraged her to do all that her brothers did. “It was a feeling that something was expected of me, something meaningful,” she reminisces, while chatting with me in her Islamabad home.
Holding true to her expectations, she pursued with formidable conviction a career in documentary film-making and became a diehard women’s rights campaigner. Over the years, Samar has fought tirelessly for the issue of compensation marriages — swara and vani — as a violation of basic human rights. Her contribution is not only limited to amendments in the national laws on swara and vani, but also pursuing the courts to set free 120 girls who were victims of this crime.
For her advocacy on swara and vani, she was chosen for the Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in 2012.
Samar started her career as a freelance journalist with interest in Pakhtun women issues. She switched to the medium of documentary film-making during her MPhil at Cambridge. “I was writing in English for English publications. I felt I was not reaching my target audience. I was not achieving my purpose,” she says.
In 2003, she attempted to do her first documentary on swara and vani. “I didn’t have professional background in filmmaking but I was very passionate about it. I picked up a camera and went to the tribal areas to interview young women, as I wanted to be culturally sensitive,” Samar says.
Samar chose the issue of swara and vani because “then, there was no law to stop it — a girl was given away to the victim’s family as compensation to serve the family as a slave. The criminal aspects were far too many of this practice, such as the youngest girl in the family was given away and treated with condemnation as she constantly reminded them of the crime committed by her father or brother or uncle”.
While researching the issue, Samar travelled far and wide, and everywhere she was told that the custom was no longer in practice. One morning, as she walked towards a small hill in Matta, a remote village in Swat, little did she know her footsteps were taking her towards an arduous journey from where she wouldn’t turn back. “I came across a woman and a girl child weeding. I asked them about swara. I was holding a camera then. The woman said that her 11-year-old daughter was a swara victim. I was shocked. It seemed she wanted to talk to someone. I asked for her permission to record her story and, surprisingly, she agreed and said she wanted everyone to know the pain she was going through. She said that she was helpless,” Samar recalls.
Samar knew there and then “it was my calling and I am going to make sure that people know that this custom is taking place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and that the girls are paying the price for someone else’s crime”.
The first screening of the documentary, titled Swara Da Zhwand Mairman, at the Peshawar Press Club was a harsh experience for Samar, as she recollects, “The reaction was that of shock. They blamed me of betraying Pakhtuns”. But Samar was not going to give up. “I told them I take pride in being a Pakhtun and want to change the practices that bring injustice to my people”.
Next day, the newspapers gave her film a positive review.
Samar’s greatest strength was her passion for rights of voiceless women. She attended jirgas where women are forbidden, spoke to imams, sensitised the police and aided the victims and their families through public interest litigation. In 2004, the law was amended and section 310(a) of Pakistan Penal Code was inserted, making it a non-cognizable and non-bailable offence.
In 2005, the Supreme Court challenged the unconstitutional, unlawful and un-Islamic custom of giving girls as compensation to end disputes. The Supreme Court further instructed the inspector generals of the police in all four provinces to act against the settlement of disputes through these rural customs.
In 2011, a law on Prevention of Anti-Women Practices was passed which guaranteed greater social protection to women in Pakistan. But this was only a beginning, as creating an understanding of the practice as a violation of human rights and implementation of law demanded greater commitment from judiciary and law enforcement agencies.
Samar has studied both religious and cultural perspectives regarding the custom. She explains, “Surah Al Fatir states that no bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden. There is qiyas and diyat option. In jirgas, there is always a maulvi of that community. A KP based maulvi remarked that the decision is always cultural and not based on religion”.
Recently, Samar was in Sukkur where a jirga was giving away a seven-year-old girl as compensation. “The police wanted to introduce her family to a lawyer who would acquaint them with the law. That’s when I realised how important is access to information”. So, with the help of donor funding, Samar has recently compiled a booklet for law enforcement agencies, which guides the police as to how to enforce the law in the communities and jirgas. “They can arrest jirgas too in this regard.”
Samar believes the real change comes from within the community and by changing attitudes of elders in the jirga system. “In all my documentaries I interview persons from jirgas and local imams. I ask them if this practice is Islamic. But they feel encouraged to discuss the issue. If a community has even two persons that matter it is enough to bring attitudinal change”.
Samar documented the practice in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan in Urdu and short videos in which community heroes are highlighted. The compensation marriages in other parts of the country are also called Sang Chatti, Irjaai or Bhaan.
Samar has insightful tips on working with communities in development. She points out that when it comes to the development sector, we are still not working at grassroot level, on follow-ups or long-term commitments — all is based on funding. She says projects lack community based dialogue which allows the community members to think of choices and community level solutions. That’s how sustainability can be addressed.