Jirga, panchayat system, and women in Pakistan
By: Hafiz Muhammad Irfan
Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women in the world, according to the study conducted last year by Thomson Reuters Foundation
Jirga and panchayat (community courts) system has a very long history in Asia, especially in the subcontinent. Although it is the fastest medium for dispute resolution, it has been used to protect the powerful while weak, poor people are victims of its negative processes. The current example in this regard is of Maryam Bibi who was stoned to death in Khanewal, a district of Punjab. Media reports say, “Maryam Bibi, 25, mother of five, was cutting grass on the fields of a local landlord who reportedly forced her to submit to his sexual advances. When she refused, the landlord levelled allegations against the woman and took the matter to a local panchayat, which ordered that the woman be stoned to death. The order was carried out in her home in the wee hours of July 18. Her husband, Sarfaraz, was abducted, but later recovered.” This is one of the worst examples of decisions that are made in jirgas and pachhayats in Pakistan. This is terrible; people in general have less respect for women across the country and specifically it can be witnessed in rural Sindh and south Punjab.
Our society is a male-dominated society where a woman is used as an agency of man, not treated as an independent human being. Most of the time they are discriminated against and harassed; they face domestic violence and they become victims of honour killings due to the jirga and panchayat system. Some people would argue that panchayat is part of our ethnic traditions. However, this is a flawed argument because the panchayat system reflects the bias of a society, and society in Pakistan has evolved under the influence of the overall environment. In short, the panchayat of a society that has turned more militaristic and militant cannot be fair to women. It is a higher form of abuse that we are practising in Pakistan. With the passage of time, the mood of society changes but we are practising the same old draconian traditions. Over the years, militarisation has increased in the country and due to this the jirga and panchayat system has also strengthened. In its pure form, it is a speedy form of justice for small dispute resolution but it has been wrongly used in the country, especially for women. Issues that come on the media grab the attention of civil society, human rights organisations and other stakeholders but a number of women become victims of these jirgas and panchayats on a daily basis and no one knows about them.
Pakistan is the third most dangerous country for women in the world, according to the study conducted last year by Thomson Reuters Foundation. The poll showed “less publicised risks, which don’t grab headlines, are sometimes just as significant for women than physical perils.” The incidents that appear on media get some attention, but what about the hidden dangers which, according to Thomson Reuters Foundation’s survey, include threats to women, consequences of poverty, discrimination, cultural factors and lack of healthcare. Last year’s incident where a 50-year-old woman was paraded naked in the streets of her village, Neelor Bala of Haripur district reminds me of the cruelty of some jirgas. A jirga handed down the heinous verdict. Another very similar case is of Mukhtaran Mai where also a jirga gave the decision for the horrible act done to her.
Speedy justice is the need of the hour for mistreated women in our beloved homeland. It seems we still live in the Stone Age where there is no respect for women. The current democratic government has taken many steps to give rights to women like the Domestic Violence Bill, which was passed unanimously by the National Assembly in 2009 but it lapsed after the Senate failed to pass it in the required period of three months. Then this year on February 20, the Senate unanimously passed the Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Bill. Last year in December, the Senate unanimously passed two historical bills upholding the rights of women, The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill 2010 and the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices (Criminal Law Amendment) Bill 2008. Despite the passage of these bills, women are still suffering; they are not aware of what their rights are as jirgas and panchayats give rulings to lynch them publicly. The writ of the state is violated every day and the sad thing is it that besides some voices, no one including politicians, ulema and media has the courage to condemn these acts of violence. Until that happens, nothing much will change, and women will go on suffering.