Women ‘col­lat­eral’ in Pak­istan jirga jus­tice

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

The rape of a teenage girl in re­venge for a crime com­mit­ted by her brother has left res­i­dents of Raja Ram in cen­tral Pak­istan shaken and ques­tion­ing a deeply en­trenched sys­tem of vil­lage jus­tice. Last month, a coun­cil of vil­lage el­ders or­dered the rape of the 16-year-old vic­tim after her brother was ac­cused of rap­ing a 12-year-old girl.

The rul­ing high­lighted the role such coun­cils - known as pan­chay­ats, or jir­gas play in the lives of many ru­ral Pak­ista­nis, who see the coun­try’s court­rooms as a dis­tant pres­ence. The coun­cils have tra­di­tion­ally en­joyed broad sup­port, thanks to their abil­ity to of­fer im­me­di­ate jus­tice, com­pared to courts that can take years to set­tle a crim­i­nal case, and as much as a decade to re­solve a civil dis­pute. But the re­cent rul­ing, which al­lowed a rape vic­tim’s brother to sex­u­ally as­sault an­other in­no­cent girl, has un­set­tled Raja Ram, home to some 3,000 peo­ple.

“May God have mercy, it was such a strange day and it was such a big in­jus­tice,” said vil­lager Amina Bibi. “In our area there is nei­ther a school nor a hospi­tal, and poverty and ig­no­rance rules here... This in­ci­dent is a mark of this ig­no­rance,” said 46-year-old Im­tiaz Matila. “It’s a stain on the name of the pan­chayat,” agreed an­other vil­lager, 65year-old Man­zoor Hus­sain.

The girls have since been taken to a women’s shel­ter in con­ser­va­tive Mul­tan, Pak­istan’s fifth-largest city. Raja Ram is just a few kilo­me­tres down the road, but feels a world away away from ur­ban life. Men sit around on char­poys, shel­ter­ing from the blis­ter­ing heat, while women are con­spic­u­ous only by their ab­sence, shielded from view be­hind the rough stone walls that sur­round each of the crudely built, sin­gle­storey houses.

‘Noth­ing more dis­hon­or­able’

Cen­tral Pun­jab is also home to one of Pak­istan’s most prom­i­nent ad­vo­cates for women’s rights-Mukhtar Mai, whose own story of­fers a win­dow into jirga jus­tice and its bru­tal mis­treat­ment of women. In 2002, a jirga or­dered Mai to be gang-raped after her brother was falsely ac­cused of rape. Mai, who lives a few hours north of Mul­tan, made the un­usual de­ci­sion to defy her rapists and take them to court.

But in one of South Asia’s most in­fa­mous mis­car­riages of jus­tice, her at­tack­ers walked free, and peo­ple con­tin­ued to rely on pan­chay­ats, even as she went on to be­come a high-pro­file ac­tivist. “It’s an honor-based sys­tem and there’s noth­ing more dis­hon­or­able than the rape of a woman within your fam­ily,” ex­plained women’s rights ac­tivist Aisha Sar­wari. The men of the ag­gres­sor’s fam­ily must be shamed through the loss of their women’s dig­nity, Sar­wari ex­plained. “That’s the bal­ance of power in these com­mu­ni­ties, which makes sure that women are some kind of col­lat­eral.”

‘Jirga law’

The Supreme Court, try­ing to bring jir­gas to heel, de­clared them il­le­gal in 2006. But in an ap­par­ent back­track this year aimed at un­clog­ging the slow-mov­ing court sys­tem, the gov­ern­ment passed a new law that pro­motes vil­lage coun­cils as an al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tion to small civil dis­putes. The de­ci­sion, dubbed the “Jirga Law” by ac­tivists, has raised con­cerns about women’s rights, given the prece­dents set by the pan­chay­ats.

MUL­TAN: In this photo taken on July 27, 2017, a Pak­istani po­lice­man (R) stands be­side ar­rested mem­bers of a vil­lage coun­cil, who or­dered the rape of a teenage girl as pun­ish­ment for a rape com­mit­ted by her brother, at a po­lice sta­tion in Raja Ram vil­lage on the out­skirts of Mul­tan.

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