IT is difficult to believe that in a country that boasts of female fighter pilots, not to mention a twice-elected female prime minister, women and girls can still be parcelled out like chattel to settle scores in tribal feuds. Yet that is so, despite the practice — usually known as swara or vani — having been declared illegal through a criminal law amendment in 2005 and again in a subsequent piece of legislation in 2011. The Supreme Court on Thursday took notice of a recent jirga in south Punjab which had decreed that three girls be handed over in marriage to settle a case of murder. Fortunately, timely intervention by the police prevented the decision from being carried out. It’s heartening to note that through a combination of legislation, judicial and civil society activism, and media reportage, the inhuman custom is reportedly on the decline.
This shows that even the most entrenched patriarchal traditions can be countered with persistence backed by institutional support. And so a group of women in Swat has decided to shake the foundations of the definitively male bastion of tribal culture — the jirga — by forming Pakistan’s first-ever female jirga.
A particularly gruesome case of domestic violence, in which a 16-year-old girl died of acid burns inflicted by her husband, was the catalyst for the women to defy local convention in which public space and the right to dispense justice belong to men alone. Their objective is to counter the typically misogynistic decisions that, in the absence of the female perspective and coupled with women’s low status in society, are often handed down by the traditional jirgas. Unfortunately, weak systems of civil administration allow the anachronistic jirgas to survive in many parts of the country as a means of inexpensive and speedy ‘justice’. Although they must in time be replaced by the formal justice system, for now jirgas could certainly do with a shake-up to their male-centred approach that treats women as little more than dispensable bargaining chips.