Panchayat and Jirga Justice?


*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.”

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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.

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[Excerpt from an Express Tribune report]

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 its legality into doubt and emphasizes 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.

-Hafsa Khawaja

It Hurts, Deeply


*Originally published on the Dawn Blog. Unedited version below:

It hurts, deeply.

Lahore. Quetta. Mohmand Agency. Peshawar. Sehwan.

I wonder, will we ever live without this sense of fear and foreboding? This anxiety and fright of you or your loved ones stepping out of the house only to be separated forever.

One of the ways I spend quality-time with my younger sibling is to go to the cinema with him. There have been times when we’ve been there and I’ve been struck by anxiety, and seized by apprehension. What if someone blows this place up today? What if terrorists burst in here? Where is the nearest exit that I will be able to push Abdullah towards? How can I hide him? No, he’s too tall now to be hidden. What will we do if something happens? We shouldn’t be here. What if something happens? What if?

I wonder.

But I am distressed when he goes to school too.

I worry.

I worry someday the Badshahi Mosque, Minar-e-Pakistan, or other monuments and places of historical and cultural significance might come into the focus of terrorists. I worry my historical and cultural heritage will be irrecoverably taken from me.

Because nothing is sacred, nothing is certain.

This sense of fear, the sense of loss doesn’t lurk in the dusty corners of our minds, they loom on our hearts, crushingly. 

There are texts and emails every now and then. Identifications of potential targets. Security alerts and warnings. Places to be avoided. Emergency drills to be conducted and participated in. Fears to be grappled with.

For how long?

Normalcy eludes.

I thought nothing was left there to break me further after Peshawar, and yet we learn that what is shattered can be broken further. The past few days have reminded me of the 2008-2009-10 days, when we had ninety suicide attacks and five hundred bombings in a single year.

I thought we were past this. I hoped we were. I prayed we were.

The rising death toll. The need for blood donations. The full impact of the attack. The same old condemnations. The same old rhetoric. The same old statements. The same lies, the same passing the buck, formation of commissions, orders for inquiry etc. Until another attack. And repeat.

50,000 and counting.

We have come to a point where the names of cities are symbolic of the violence, loss and tragedy they have borne. Peshawar is not its history, Peshawar isn’t Fort Bala Hisaar, Peshawar is not Khyber Pass, Peshawar is not its heritage, its beauty, its culture, Peshawar is the APS Attack.

Quetta is not Quetta, Quetta is Hazara killings.

Cities are no longer cities, they are signifiers, signposts of tragedies. Of losses borne, of lives mourned.

The violence, the loss has subsumed everything.

The casualties of terrorism go even beyond the lives. They are tragic ruptures in what was once our cherished collective and celebrated cultural and social life and identity. I see cricket and I relate that too, to a loss. The loss of a nation’s love to foreign lands, the exile of a nation’s love.

Everything is a reminder of what we face. There is no distraction, there is no relief.

I am at a stage where I shut myself from social media when a tragedy occurs. Because I am a coward, I can no longer face it. I am selfish, because I don’t want to.

I am tired.

Where does one summon the strength from when all is sapped?

I can shut social media for a while, but I cannot shut torment and turmoil of my heart.

I think of the lives taken, I think of the promise held by their presence in others’ lives; the promise held by their existence for Pakistan; a promise betrayed.

I think of the healers, teachers, sportsmen, artists taken from us, who were never given the chance to know it themselves. I think of the ordinary person toiling all day to put bread on the table of his family, wanting to just return home at the end of the day. I think of the love, warmth and hope plundered from multiple lives and generation with the robbery of a single life, in a single moment.

I wrote this before, I’ll say it again:

There are times when I want to escape Pakistan, perhaps not physically, but certainly emotionally. There are times I want to close my eyes, my ears, my mind and my heart to the suffering in this land, for my own sanity and survival; only to wake up with seething pain realizing that its suffering and mine are inseparable and one.

Each gash and each scar you, Pakistan, have is mine, because your soil is my skin. I feel it, I live it. How can I rid myself of my skin but crush my soul? How can one ever disentangle from one’s roots?

The Algerian writer Kamel Daoud wrote, “How he must have suffered, poor man! To be the child of a place that never gave you birth” but I wonder, how much does one suffer, to be the child of a place that did give you birth; a place tormented and tortured.

It hurts, deeply.

-Hafsa Khawaja