Pakistan: The free women of Kalash

By Nosheen Abbas
Kalash valley

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women in kalash

During festival time in Pakistan's Kalash valley, almost anything is possible for women.

They can declare their love for a suitor and end their marriages, as long as the community knows about the impending split in advance. They can even elope.

It is a far cry from large swathes of Pakistan where a conservative Islamic outlook dictates how women behave and the rights they have.

But in the Kalash valley a more liberal approach prevails, partly because of its unique religion and culture. The Kalash people are not Islamic - they worship a pantheon of gods and goddesses and hold exuberant festivals inspired by the seasons and the farming year.

"In our religion, you can choose whoever you want to marry, the parents don't dictate to you," says Mehmood, a 17-year-old Kalash girl who accompanied me as we scaled a labyrinthine puzzle of small houses set into the mountain face.

In this close society, one person's roof is somebody else's veranda. Little staircases connect one house to another and it felt like climbing into a tree house in the clouds.

Through the wooden window frames and ladders of the houses were panoramic views of immense jagged stones and gloriously green mountains surrounding this secluded valley.

Festival elopers

Sahiba, a happy-go-lucky, 20-year-old with two children, lives in one of these houses and she told me about how she ran away with her husband during one festival.

Image caption,
Sahiba says she was able to run away with the man she loves

"I met my husband the way I'm talking to you... I got to know him for three years before marrying him," she said.

"When there is a festival whoever the girl is in love with she can run away with him... and that's how I left with the man who is now my husband."

She explains how after they ran away together they went to stay at his parents house.

"You can stay for as long as you want, there's no specific time, but finally after two months we got to my parents house and after that we got married."

It's an unconventional courtship but this is an unconventional place. Certain tasks are still segregated. Women generally do the housework while the men do trade and labour work. Both men and women farm.

The Kalash attitude to gender is also defined by notions of purity. Some rituals can be executed only by men. The temple itself near the area of the seasonal spring festival is off-limits to women as well as Muslims.

Women must wash clothing and bathe separately. And during their menstrual cycle and in pregnancy women live a separate house outside the village. They can go to the fields to work, but they are not meant to enter the village.

Yasir, one Kalash man, said: "Women are considered impure, but women are highly respected in society.

"There are only a few things women are not meant to do."

Bold women

Indeed marriage and divorce is simpler for women than for men. Jamrat, 22, left her husband after a year and now lives with another man at his parents' house. Her ex-husband converted to Islam, re-married and moved to a neighbouring village.

But there are financial considerations too.

"The second husband needs to give double the amount of money the first husband gave at the time of the marriage because for the first husband it's like he lost his money AND his wife," she says.

If the woman does not re-marry, the ex-husband has the right to retrieve the money from the bride's father. Although Jamrat is technically not married to her new partner, he nonetheless had to give 60,000 rupees ($700; £425) to the first husband.

The Kalash women I met in Rumbur and Balanguru are bold and outspoken. They look you in the eye when talking and do not hesitate to speak their mind.

In this small village - far above the hot chaos of Pakistan's main cities and towns - the patriarchy that informs most aspects of life in the rest of the country is clearly non-existent.