Sitting on haynak, a small stool made of wood and cowhide, 22-year-old Hazar Bibi is busy making the colourful bead necklace that she would wear in next month's Chawmos, the winter festival of purification. Six years ago, during Chawmos, Bibi eloped with her then boyfriend, Rustam, a soldier in the Pakistan Army. Rustam is now posted in Swat district, 85 kilometres away from Hazar’s village in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, bordering Afghanistan. He will be home in December to celebrate their sixth anniversary and Chawmos together.
“When we got married, Rustam was 30, and I was 16,” Bibi told VICE World News. “My father didn't want me to get married to a man who was double my age. So, I ran away to Rustam’s house during Chawmos.”
Women at Rustam’s house welcomed Bibi with flour and a garland of beads as a mark of acceptance, a ritual that confirmed their marriage. A traditional feast of goom tasili, a local thin wheat bread, and chamani (cottage cheese), was served to the guests who came to bless the newlywed.
Chawmos, a month-long festival in December, is considered to be auspicious by Kalash, the tiny pagan tribe comprising 4,114 people, settled in the three valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir in the province. Many young women in the community choose Chawmos as the occasion to elope with the men they want to marry.
“Women have followed the tradition of marriage by elopement for generations, it's nothing wrong for us,” Bibi said.
Despite living in Pakistan, the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women and ranked the second lowest country in the world on gender inequality, the animistic Kalash tribe never believed in drawing boundaries for females. Interestingly, this smallest minority group in Pakistan sets a trend of gender equality in an otherwise conservative country.
The threads in Kalash women's traditional s'us'utr (headgear ornamented with cowrie shells) —red, yellow, orange and green — resemble the colours that fill their life. Women openly mingle with men. They dance with men along with the beat of the drums during the seasonal festivals — Ucaw, Zhoshi, Pu'n’ and Chawmos. Some girls, as young as 17 years old, stay up late at night and drink D'a, or grape wine, which they brew at their homes.
“We don't face any moral policing by our men,” 21-year-old undergraduate student, Reshma Kalash, told VICE World News.
The seeds of liberty in her, Reshma said, were sowed early by none other than her father.
“My father always asked me to make my own decisions,” she added.
Reshma said that her father's generation, which was economically dependent on farming and raising livestock, remained mostly unlettered but they wanted their children including the girls to study. Quite a few Kalash women of this generation work as teachers, nurses and doctors.
“I am learning computers to get a good job,” said Bibi, who recently appeared for the final-year undergraduate exams at a local government college.
The world outside is often curious to see the liberal lifestyle of Kalash women. They look certainly unique in a province which recorded around 900 cases of sexual assault against women between 2015 and 2019. Last year, the authorities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa directed all girls in government educational institutions to wear abaya, a garment that covers a woman’s body from head to toe. But the directive was withdrawn after social media backlash.
Domestic and foreign tourists arrive in large numbers in Bumburet during the festivals to explore the Kalash tribe. Bumburet is seen as one of the upcoming tourist centres in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It takes about 10 hours by road to reach Bumburet from Pakistan's capital city, Islamabad. After crossing the country’s longest tunnel, Lowari, a three-hour drive through the rugged roads leads to Bumburet — a land of walnut and oak trees, sparkling streams and green meadows — overlooking the Hindu Kush mountains.
But Reshma complained that outsiders, especially Muslim men, visit Bumburet only to see ”green-eyed unveiled Kalash girls, dressed in colourful long embroidered robes.”
“Many men take our photographs without our consent,” Reshma told VICE World News. “Since they know that we have a custom to run away with men we want to marry, they think, we are loose, and ready to elope with just anyone.”
A section of women in this polytheistic community, however, has converted to monotheistic Islam to marry Muslim men, either visitors or settlers in Bumburet, in quest of a better life. Some in the community also alleged that women are forced to convert by the Muslim men, who are growing in numbers in the areas, originally inhabited by them. Interfaith marriage is one of the biggest concerns for the community as it grapples with its dwindling population.
“A lot of my friends ran away with Muslim men but their marriages mostly failed as Kalash women cannot adjust to conservative Muslim families. Their freedom is curtailed when they marry a Muslim,” 20-year-old Sabah Kalash, an undergraduate student, said. “Many have come back to the community after facing abuse in marriages.”
But integration back to the community is difficult for Kalash women who convert to Islam.
“Once they convert to Islam, the community doesn't let them participate in the festivals,” 25-year-old Ekbal Kalash, a young community leader, who also runs a travel agency, told VICE World News. “And our life revolves around our festivals."
Additionally, Kalash women married within the community enjoy the liberty to walk out of the marriage and remarry – albeit with some dowry.
If the woman wants to walk out of the marriage and remarry, the second to-be husband needs to offer cash and gifts to the first to have her as his wife. But the gifts should be worth double the amount the first husband had paid to the woman at the time of their wedding.
“In other parts of Pakistan, divorce is a taboo for a woman. It isn't here," 26-year-old Shamil Kalash, a homemaker, said. "The woman is never blamed for ending her marriage.”
In Pakistan, husbands often intimidate wives, who are seeking divorce, to return to marital homes by using restitution of conjugal rights (RCR), a legal mechanism under Pakistan’s Muslim Family Law Ordinance, a law which was originally conceived to help the couples reconcile.
Shamil fears that a new marriage law which the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government is drafting to legalise Kalash marriages might interfere with the liberty that women in the community exercise in marriage, divorce and remarriage.
“We don't want the Pakistan government to impose any laws that interfere with the rights that our community has bestowed upon women for generations,” Shamil said.
Nabaig Shahrakat, 39, the first lawyer in the community, who is assisting the government to draft the law, told VICE World News that it will only “codify the traditions and customs” of the Kalash tribe and “not interfere” with them.
But Sabah alleged there are already attempts by the government to integrate the Kalash tribe into “mainstream” Pakistan.
“Even though we speak our indigenous Kalash language, we are made to study Urdu in schools,” Sabah said. “Many Muslims are allowed to run businesses in Bumburet which has influenced our indigenous way of life.”
The traditional way of greeting, “Ishpata” has paved the way for Islamic greeting of “Assalamualaikum.” Kalash girls now address women visitors as baaji, the Urdu word meaning elder sister. Popular Kalash names, Kizila Matoni and Shura Gal'I, for men and women respectively, are rare now; Islamic names such as Iqbal Shah and Gul Bahar are more popular.
But Bibi believes that their indigenous customs will keep the tribe’s uniqueness alive. “Who will save our customs if we don't?”
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