Two years ago to this month, Ardeshir Cowasjee opened his column in The Dawn with the statement ‘In this fair land of the pure, we have the military, the judiciary, the executive, the administration, the police, and the paan wallahs all at odds with each other, all pulling in opposite directions, none able or willing to work in tandem.’ In May 2004 as he wrote his column titled ‘The evil of the jirga system’ Pakistan (and the rest of the world courtesy the BBC report) was shocked with the news that a local jirga in Multan district had ordered the public raping of two sisters as compensation for their brother’s alleged affair with the daughter of an influential landlord in the area. Memories of the Mukhtaran Mai verdict (in the same district) were still fresh, but it was only after the initial furor in the media that the local administration sprung into action. Though as Cowasjee wrote that in late April Justice Rehmat Husain Jaffery of the Sindh High Court had banned ‘throughout the province of Sindh the homemade DIY justice system presided over by a jirga’ the evil continued as the local administration and political elite chose to ignore the continual constitution and exercise of formal jirgas in the province. As others reported subsequently a jirga was held inside the Sindh chief minister's house over a marriage dispute in 2004. Chief Minister Arbab Ghulam Rahim has repeatedly justified the jirga system, saying ‘there should be no objection to giving legal cover to jirga judgments’.
Two years later to this column on May 9 2006, an 11 year-old boy is strangled in Karachi. Why? A local jirga had ordered him to marry a woman of a family that had kidnapped his sister. Some time before, his sister had been kidnapped and their father had approached a jirga for justice. The elders ordered the family accused of kidnapping the girl to marry off one of their daughters to the boy to ‘compensate’ for any loss of honor. They chose not to agree to this verdict and strangled and later burnt the little boy.
On May 13, 2006 a local jirga in Aliabad, Sindh convicts a 10-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl of adultery. The girl has to marry someone else within six months, the boy has to pay a Rs.150, 000 fine and remain exiled from the village for six months. The boy’s father insists that these charges have no basis and have been raised as part of a family feud.
During the 2000/1 local body elections Zubaida Bibi, a courageous widow and mother of three submitted her nomination papers for a reserved seat in a local union council in upper Dir. By doing this she challenged the local jirga’s ruling that ‘no woman be allowed to vote, leave alone contest the polls’. During her tenure she took up essential civic programs and instituted social services in her area. Come the 2005 local body elections her many supporters (including men) in her village suggested that she now contest for a general seat or even for a district council seat. Angry jirga members had once again issued their dire warnings against women voting (in NWFP most of our political parties were also accomplices to the agreement that any man whose wife voted would be fined Rs 5 lakhs). The jirga member retaliated to Zubaida Bibi’s continual defiance and slight to their honour by gunning down her and her nineteen year old daughter in their house. What kind of ‘ghairat’ or honour do the perpetrators plan to recover? As they vow to maintain the standards of their elders one should remind them of their valiant elders who during skirmishes with the British during the Second Afghan war of 1878, had stood up and shouted at the British officers to adjust their weapon’s sights as for a while the British had shot off target. They did so for they wanted to fight a fair and honorable fight with an adversary who had an equal advantage. Ghairat for them was not to kill someone unarmed and in the sanctity of their own home.
In the past month we have had this alternative judicial system refuting the Pakistani government (slow and half hearted at best) legal and administrative attempts to curb honor killings in the region through the much publicized edict of the jirga of Nehag Dara of Upper Dir which decided that anybody reporting so-called 'honour' killings or filing a police complaint must also be put to death. Meanwhile a couple who’s marriage had the legal support of the Lahore High Court hides from the panchayat that has ordered them to be ‘shot at sight’. The panchayat has also asked of the families comprising the aggrieved community to contribute five thousand rupees each towards a group pool to fund the desired goal.
The Pakistani populace misplaced romanticism of community justice is costing the country’s women dearly. As Beena Sarwar has written elsewhere regarding this misperception of ‘speedy and efficient justice’ that though the jirga system is justified by some of us ‘as being necessary given the common man’s lack of access to the formal judicial system, which is expensive and long drawn out’, but the jirga system can be no less so draining the parties involved of their time and resources. Besides reinforcing swara (where female members of the family are handed over in compensation), the jirgas instituted have imposed huge fines on those pronounced as guilty - Rs 80,00,000 in one case, liable to be paid over six months by a poor family - while a Jatoi-Maher dispute that started in 1990, has claimed 200 lives despite the sitting of as many as eight jirgas. Proving that the common man’s justice is no more efficient than the formal!
And while Pakistan’s federal government has rushed to request the NWFP government to start an inquiry into the Dir jirga edict, it is all set to institute a ‘grand jirga’ to resolve the Wazirstan issue. As I write fourteen ‘tribal elders, Ulema and spiritual figures from North Waziristan have been short-listed to become members of the jirga, no final names but short listed names are under consideration’. What kind of conflicting signals does our government want to give? Denouncing jirgas and banning them in one forum and then turning to them at another? Can we expect this meeting to come up with any kind of long- term resolution to the conflict without reforming the composition of these jirgas? Are the jirga members selected representative of the political, class and gender concerns of the region? In the 1930s during the Khitmatgar movement the jirgas were reformed to become 'problem-solving bodies at local and village levels' rather than the clumsy traditional grand tribal council which sadly is back with us again with it’s archaic rulings. How can an institution which has become the source of most of the injustice in the region now become a solution to the conflict without first going through certain transformations itself? Women are facing the impact of the military action in the area, whether it is as civilian casualties or the conflicted demands on them as wives of foreign fighters in the region. Will their concerns be redressed in the jirga? The meager rights that the Pakistani government was allowing to bestow them—would we seem them being bartered off in the jirga by the political and military officials representing us in order to get ‘negotiated’ peace on the governments terms? Will the Pakistani government’s grand pronouncements of allowing women in the region to access educational and health reforms would, as our political pundits are fond of saying, be held back until a time when the situation is more conducive?