Pakistani women use jirga to fight for rights

Orla Guerin reports from Pakistan

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Women in Pakistan's Swat valley are making history, and perhaps some powerful enemies, by convening an all-female jirga, a forum for resolving disputes usually reserved for men. Some readers may find details of this report by the BBC's Orla Guerin disturbing.

Tahira was denied justice in life, but she continues to plead for it in death - thanks to a grainy recording on a mobile phone.

As she lay dying last year the young Pakistan wife and mother made a statement for use in court.

In the shaky amateur video, she named her tormentors, and said they should burn like she did.

A young girl in a headscarf Tahira was married off at the age of 12 and died last year following a suspected acid attack

Tahira's flesh was singed on 35% of her body, following a suspected acid attack. Her speech was laboured and her voice was hoarse, but she was determined to give her account of the attack, even as her flesh was falling off her bones.

"I told her you must speak up and tell us what happened," her mother Jan Bano said, dabbed her tears with her white headscarf. "And she was talking until her last breath."

Tahira's husband, mother-in-law, and father-in-law were acquitted this month of attacking her with acid. Her mother plans to appeal against that verdict, with help from a new ally - Pakistan's first female jirga.

Start Quote

A woman wearing a black headscarf

Maybe I could be killed... but I have to fight”

End Quote Tabassum Adnan Social activist

Under the traditional - and controversial - jirga system, elders gather to settle disputes. Until now this parallel justice system has been men-only, and rulings have often discriminated against women. The new all-women jirga, which has about 25 members, aims to deliver its own brand of justice.

It has been established in an unlikely setting - the scenic but conservative Swat valley, formerly under the control of the Pakistan Taliban. We sat in on one of its sessions in a sparsely furnished front room. Women crowded in, sitting in a circle on the floor, many with children at their feet. Most wore headscarves, and a few were concealed in burqas.

Probing injustice

For more than an hour they discussed a land dispute, problems with the water supply, unpaid salaries, and murder. The only man in the room was a local lawyer, Suhail Sultan. He was giving legal advice to jirga members including Jan Bano who he represents.

"In your case the police is the bad guy," he told her. "They are the biggest enemy. " He claims the police were bribed by the accused, and were reluctant to investigate the case properly.

A woman in a burqa sitting down The jirga tackled land disputes, water supplies, and murder

The jirga is making history, and perhaps making enemies. In Swat, as in many parts of Pakistan, men make the key decisions - like whether or not their daughters go to school, when they marry, and who they marry. And oppression starts early. Tahira was married off at just 12 years old, to a middle-aged man.

"Our society is a male-dominated society, and our men treat our women like slaves," said the jirga founder, Tabassum Adnan. "They don't give them their rights and they consider them their property. Our society doesn't think we have the right to live our own lives."

This chatty social activist, and mother of four, knows that challenging culture and tradition comes with risks. "Maybe I could be killed," she said, "anything could happen. But I have to fight. I am not going to stop."

Start Quote

Taj Mehal

They glued [my daughter's] mouth and eyes closed. Just her face was left, the rest was flesh and broken bones”

End Quote Taj Mehal

As we spoke in a sun-baked courtyard Tabassum got a disturbing phone call. "I have just been told that the body of another girl has been found, " she said. " Her husband shot her." She plans to investigate the case, and push the authorities to act.

"Before my jirga women have always been ignored by the police and by justice, but not now. My jirga has done a lot for women," she said.

There was agreement from Taj Mehal, a bereaved mother with a careworn face, sitting across the courtyard on a woven bed.

Her beloved daughter Nurina was tortured to death in May.

"They broke her arm in three places, and they strangled her," she told me, putting her hands to her own throat to mimic the action. "They broke her collarbone. They glued her mouth and eyes closed. Just her face was left, the rest was flesh and broken bones."

She speaks of her daughter's suffering with a steady voice, but grief is wrapped around her, like a heavy shawl.

"When I looked at her, it was like a piece was pulled out of my heart," she said. "I was turned to stone. I see her face in front of my eyes. I miss her laughter."

Two women with their faces covered walking in a crowded street Women are a rare sight on the streets of Mingora

Nurina's husband, and his parents, have now been charged with her murder, but her mother says that initially the courts took no interest.

"Whenever we brought applications to the judge he would tear them up and throw them away," she said. "Now our voice is being heard, because of the jirga. Now we will get justice. Before the jirga husbands could do whatever they wanted to their wives."

Women are little seen or heard on the bustling streets of Mingora, the biggest city in Swat. Rickshaw taxis dart past small shops selling medicines, and hardware supplies.

There are stalls weighed down with mangoes, and vendors dropping dough into boiling oil to make sugar-laden treats. Most of the shoppers are men.

'No justice' at jirgas

When we asked some of the local men their views on the women's jirga, the results were surprising. Most backed the women.

"It's a very good thing," said one fruit seller, "women should know about their rights like men do, and they should be given their rights."

Another said: "The jirga is good because now finally women have someone to champion their cause."

The response from the local male jirga was less surprising. They were dismissive, saying the women have no power to enforce their decisions.

Men cheering in the street Most local men who spoke to the BBC expressed support for the women's initiative

That view was echoed by the prominent Pakistani human rights activist Tahira Abdullah. "I don't see it as more than a gimmick," she said. "Who is going to listen to these women? The men with the Kalashnikovs? The Taliban who are anti-women? The patriarchal culture that we have?"

Ms Abdullah wants jirgas stopped whether male or female. "The jirga system is totally illegal, and has been declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It can never be just. There are several extremely notorious cases where we have noticed that women do not get justice from jirgas, neither do non-Muslims."

One of those cases took place last year in a remote region of northern Pakistan where a jirga allegedly ordered the killing of five women - and two men - for defying local customs by singing and dancing together at a wedding.

And there are regular reports of jirgas decreeing that women and young girls be handed over from one family to another to settle disputes.

But for some, like Jan Bano, the women's jirga is bringing hope. Every day she climbs a steep hill to visit Tahira's grave, and pray for the daughter whose voice has still not her heard. Her video recording was not played in court.

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