Women in Pakistan
Challenging the patriarchy

In rural Pakistan justice is administered on an ad-hoc basis. Men make the decisions and women can sometimes face brutal treatment. Now a group of them are fighting back. Report from the Swat Valley by Naila Inayat and Jennifer Collins

In the green hills of Pakistan's Swat Valley, it's the jirga that rules. Acting as the local council and court, this body's word is law here: traditionally it has solely consisted of men. Not anymore.

These days, 25 women sit on the floor of a small room and discuss child custody issues and other legal and judicial matters.

Leading the group is Tabassum Adnan (photo above), a local woman who turned traditional Pakistani gender roles on their head in 2013 by forming the first female jirga in the region. Here the Taliban once held absolute sway: in 2012 they shot the then 15-year-old activist Malala Yousafzai in the head for insisting that girls go to school.

Adnan said she decided to set up a women's jirga after witnessing the failure of the system of informal justice to protect a local woman.

"I have always supported the idea of clemency," Adnan explained. "A young girl was attacked with acid. When her case was presented to a male jirga, they promised their full support, but they didn't help at all." The girl begged for justice, which she did not receive. She died soon after.

Tabassum Aadnan (right) talks to a younger woman in the Jirga (Photo: Khwendo Jirga)
Tabassum Adnan (right) is fighting for women′s rights in Pakistan. She herself was married off to a man 20 years her senior when she was 14 years old. Now she is challenging the patriarchal structures – partly with the aim of helping women who find themselves in a similar situation. She founded the first female jirga in 2013

Unofficial justice

Pakistan's Supreme Court outlawed jirgas five years ago, but the ruling hasn't affected those in rural areas, far away from the strong arm of the central authorities. The Grand Swat Jirga - made up of men - is consulted in rape and murder cases, while the 25-member female jirga deals with domestic violence, inheritance, healthcare and other social issues, including child marriages.

Child marriages are common in Pakistan as part of the wani tradition: A female child is married off in compensation for a crime committed by a male relative. The male jirgas usually side with the men, said Adnan.

The child marriage cases are especially important to Adnan, who at age 14 was forced to marry a man two decades her senior. Adnan stayed in the abusive relationship for 20 years, became a drug addict and lost a kidney before she finally got a divorce - against the wishes of her family and the norms of this conservative society.

"My immediate family did not support me in the least," Adnan said. "But I stood up for myself and stopped being miserable."

A map of Pakistan highlighting the Swat District (source:DW)
The Swat district is located far from the areas under state control. Even though jirgas were officially banned in 2012, they still exert huge influence in rural areas. Tribal structures and traditional male-dominated hierarchies determine the social life of many who live in the countryside

While the women's jirga is gaining credibility within the former Taliban-held territory, conservative critics fail to see a place for the female council.

"In our society there is no concept of a women's jirga," said Mehboob Ali, a resident of the Swat Valley. "It is a fake jirga created to get foreign funding. NGOs based in Pakistan always initiate such ventures, which later no one even remembers."

Others, like former head of the male jirga, Inam-ur-Rehman Kanju, are more tolerant and say they have faith in the female council.

"We pray for their success," Kanju said. "Sometimes we invite them to our meetings so that they can learn how a jirga is run. They have a long way to go, but we don't have problem with their jirga."

First steps

The women's jirga is already changing attitudes as Kanju's acceptance indicates. Adnan, also speaker of the first women's assembly, established last year to address the rights of local women, has been invited to be the first woman to be part of the Grand Jirga of Swat.

The female jirga has also enjoyed some success. In one case, a man broke into a local woman's house, robbed her and pulled out all her teeth with a knife. The women's jirga helped bring him to justice, requesting assistance from local law enforcement, with the result that the man was sentenced to four years in jail. Adnan says the jirga makes a point of bringing criminal cases such as this one to the attention of police and the courts, which have typically ignored women.

Still, despite progress, death threats have forced Adnan to conduct the women's jirga in secret. But she is determined to continue to fight for equality.

"I want to get rid of the typical chauvinistic customs where women are only restricted to stereotypical roles," Adnan said. "I want to promote female empowerment."

Naila Inayat and Jennifer Collins

© Deutsche Welle 2017

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Comments for this article: Challenging the patriarchy

Delighted and full of admiration for Ms. Adnan for taking the initiative for women's empowerment in the shape of the female jirga as well as in her personal life. Great step for rural Pakistan, all success to the members and other courageous women standing up for their rights and against misogyny and injustice.

Palvasha von Hassell29.08.2017 | 17:53 Uhr