*Originally published in The News. Unedited version below:
A married woman recently set herself on fire in Gujrat upon learning that she was pregnant as a result of being subjected to rape by the order of a panchayat.
In Rahim Yar Khan, a nine-year-old girl was given as Vani to a boy of fourteen as a settlement of a murder dispute by a jirga.
In Umerkot, it was reported that a case of gang rape was “settled” for a compensation of 30 mounds of wheat.
In the capital, a bill called the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill was passed by the 23 members of the National Assembly who were present that day, in hope that it would lead to “a speedy resolution of petty civil matters and reduce the burden of litigations on the courts.”
This bill provides legal and constitutional status to jirgas and panchayats. This ADR system is set to settle 23 types of civil and criminal disputes.
Jirgas and panchayats have often been the purveyors of archaic traditions, customs and inhumane practices, which the three cases above only offer a glimpse of. And it ostensibly in view of this that the government has proposed a number of alterations and adjustments to jirgas and panchayats which the bill contains.
The bill proposes the appointment of mediators or panels of ‘neutrals’ in districts who will, after consultation with the high courts, be drawn by the government from “lawyers, retired judges of superior and subordinate judiciary, retired civil servants, social workers, ulema, jurists, technocrats and other experts..”.
However, it is a point to ponder whether the conflicting parties and the people of the districts will accept the authority of the jirga and panchayat if its leaders are not drawn from their own milieu and their decisions are not in line with their entrenched local traditions and local values, such as those of honor. There might also exist the possibility of opposition by the local elders and elites, which have traditionally constituted and headed these jirgas and panchayats, to this replacement and dislocation of their authority. There may also come into being or already exist parallel jirgas and panchayats which will further contest and complicate the process. Therefore, it is essential for the government to have a plan in hand for ensuring acceptance of the appointed mediators’ authority, adherence to their decisions and neutralizing potential opposition and conflict.
The Law Minister had added that the disputes will “be settled with consent of both parties in the dispute and if any woman feels that she is not being given justice, she can move the court.” It is here that the main issue arises. Alternate mechanisms for justice are important, but it is also necessary to keep the nature and character of jirgas and panchayats in view, which have been notoriously misogynist.Last year, 16 year old Ambreen was hanged and her corpse set ablaze in Makol on the order of a local jirga after it was learnt that she had facilitated an elopement.
In 2015 in Kohistan, a local jirga’s order for the murder of five women after a video of them dancing at a wedding emerged, made it to international news. One need not elaborate at length the long list of verdicts and orders given by jirgas and panchayats in Pakistan that are repugnant and obnoxious to basic human rights, especially with regards to women. It is precisely for this reason that women’s rights organizations have voiced concern regarding the passage of this bill. The Women’s Action Forum has termed ADRs “in the patriarchal and socially unjust and unequal conditions that prevail in Pakistan” as unacceptable.
To carry on from the Law Minister’s statement, if at the end of the day an aggrieved party has to take the route of the courts, then how exactly is the provision of a legal cover to these panchayats and jirgas a step in the direction of speedy resolution of issues and a lessening of burden in litigation?
In her article on jirgas in 2015, written in wake of Ambreen’s case coming to light, lawyer Sahar Bandial located the need for jirgas and panchayats in the “inaccessibility of and delays in the dispensation of justice by the formal legal system.” Her conclusion is echoed by Abuzar Salman Khan Niazi in his comments to Pakistan Today on the passage of the ADR Bill: “Justice delayed,” he pointed out “is justice denied. And where a property case can take up to ten years to reach resolution in a court of law, a communal gathering or jirga could bring the matter to a conclusion in a matter of weeks.”
It is evident that Pakistan’s mainstream legal system possesses a plethora of problems and burdens, which necessitate that it is streamlined, and in the meanwhile, alternative avenues for dispensation of justice are provided.
However, attempting to provide legal status to institutions as deeply problematic and flawed as jirgas and panchayats seems to be a solution thought in haste, without a thorough examination of their nature and without an elaboration of the mechanisms to ensure the dispensation of justice by these in its fullest measure. That this bill was passed in the National Assembly by a mere 23 out of the 342 members also tosses doubt upon its legality and emphasises the elected representatives’ scant sense of duty and regard for the institution.
While the passage of the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill in the Senate is uncertain, the possibility of the dispensation of justice in its fullest measure by jirgas and panchayats, given their history, the existing social and cultural realities and power structures they operate in, the questions given rise to by the provisions in the bill itself, remains equally doubtful.