In South Asia, including Afghanistan, women have suffered for centuries from the punishments meted out to them by their communities and male relatives. In spite of the impressive gains women have made in participating in public life and occupying public space in Pakistan, incidents of brutality and discrimination against women surface from time to time. Many of these incidents have their roots in practices flowing from the decisions made by the tribal and feudal jirga systems. The judgments and verdicts of these jirgas, which are parallel justice systems operating outside the civil and criminal courts, were honoured even by the British who prided themselves on their sense of social justice, and have not been stamped out either by democrats or dictators. In some parts of the country, panchayats serve the same purpose as jirgas.
Traditionally, jirgas have been considered convenient instruments of resolving inter-tribal and inter-community disputes, evolving a consensus on issues of political importance and helping governments to enforce their writ to whatever extent. We have seen how jigas have been mobilised during the Afghan conflict. So what, the supporters of jirgas would say, if their judgements have brutalised women and the marginalised sections of the community? Their decisions on social issues are mostly tilted in favour of the rich and powerful and it has been too inconvenient for governments to contest them. Not only are large sums of money ordered by the jirgas to be paid out to the “wronged” party, but it is part of their established custom to hand over women and even little girls to settle disputes between tribes and families.
Bur the times have changed. The women’s movement in Pakistan and human rights activists have long campaigned for the abolition of the jirgas. In recent times, there have been many cases in which responsible officials, on getting wind of a jirga or panchayat’s decision to barter women and girls, have intervened to take them into state custody. Invariably, there is a show of force by the party considering itself aggrieved and some jirga decisions may ultimately hold in spite of the government’s intervention.
Several factors have helped to counter the effects of the jirga system. The women’s movement and the vigilance of human rights organisations are among them. Vigilance by the courts has also been helpful. On Thursday, 11 July 2013, a three- judge bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered law enforcement agencies to remain vigilant and take swift action to ensure that women and girls are not exchanged to settle local disputes through the jirga system.
Many pro-women laws have been enacted in Pakistan over the last 10 years. The Prevention of Anti Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Act of 2011 criminalises giving away women for the sake of peace. Throwing acid on a woman’s face to punish and disfigure her is a practice not restricted to Pakistan. The government has enacted the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act 2011 which criminalises acid throwing and carries a punishment of 14 years to lifetime imprisonment as well as a fine. However, because of the easy availability of acid, these incidents do occur.
This happened to 16- year old Tahira in Swat last year whose husband doused her with acid. She died a terrible death without being provided any medical help. Before the extremists took over governance of Swat, it used to be a peaceful valley. Successive governments had moved sensibly to open Swat and had established many schools for girls. After the Taliban took over, girls were prevented from going to school. Although Swat was cleared of militants in 2009, some of the fear still remains. After all, it was only last year, that Malala Yusufzai, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan were hit there by Taliban bullets.
Fed up with the custom of forced marriages for peace, the women of Swat have taken a revolutionary step under the leadership of Tabassum Adnan. She first applied for a place in the Swat Qaumi Aman Jirga to ensure justice for women. When her request was refused, she organized an all women’s 25-member jirga., the first of its kind in the country. Tabassum and her friends realise that they have to live with the jirga system for the foreseeable future and have, therefore, decided to set up their own pressure group. There is much male scepticism about this move but women’s initiatives to find justice for themselves have always been treated with scepticism by conservative men. In the end, however, it has made that critical difference and the women have won. In this slow and difficult process of fighting for equality and justice for women, let us also acknowledge the support of the men who encouraged Tabassum Adnan and her comrades.