Footprints: For the women, by the women

Updated February 22, 2015

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WOMEN assemble at a gathering for the Da Khwendo Jirga, a council of sisters, in the Aghwara Kela area of Swat.
—Photo by writer
WOMEN assemble at a gathering for the Da Khwendo Jirga, a council of sisters, in the Aghwara Kela area of Swat. —Photo by writer

It is a bright afternoon in the Aghwara Khela area in the north-east of Swat’s Batora village and we’re waiting in Shaan Bibi’s courtyard: the area’s women are gathering for a jirga.

The mashar (elder) of the jirga, 39-year-old Tabassum Adnan, says it is an unlikely day to assemble but they must because some women couldn’t discuss their issues in the last meeting. These range from the psychological and gynaecological to legal advice sought to file either for a divorce or a police case against an abusive husband or in-laws. “It took me two years to earn this respect,” Tabassum says.

Recently, an eight-year-old girl was raped by a labourer in Saidu Sharif. Before informing the police, the child’s brother informed Tabassum and her legal adviser Suhail Shaukat. The man confessed and is now behind bars.

In a recent case a 13-year-old girl, an orphan, was about to be married off to a man old enough to be her father.

When the police arrested the girl’s uncle, the family held a sit-in. Tabassum was called by the police to speak to the girl and decide. The marriage plans were eventually cancelled.

These are some of the achievements of the Da Khwendo Jirga, a council of sisters, working since the latter part of 2012. To be heard. And taken seriously.

In a male-dominated community, Tabassum has had it tough. Doors were shut in her face when she first began protesting against a girl being burned to death and wanted to gather the women together. Women were told not to speak to her. Despite the pressures, she pressed on. But the threats are getting more dangerous now.

A fatwa was issued against her by Jamia Ashrafia, Lahore, and an elder of a jirga in Swat said that these women need to be beaten for maligning the Pakhtun community. As a result, Tabassum is fearful; she reiterates often that it was she who started the jirga and if something happens to her, she would want her mother to run it. She says she can’t decide for other women: “My mother knows and accepts the consequences.”

The fear made her register her 25-member group in November. As young girls around her spread sheets and bring in cushions, Tabassum speaks about her first marriage, when she was 13, and the violence she endured that made her take up this cause. “I understand how it feels when things are wrongly decided for you by someone else and you suffer the consequences,” she says.

When the women are finally assembled, Shaan announces that first they’ll discuss the water issues faced by the women of Taal Dardiyal. One woman says her daughter was punished for taking water from that side, by the Malik’s clan, and asks if they should speak to representatives of the local administration. Another talks about getting psychiatric care at the main hospital in Mingora. Tabassum observes that in January alone, 23 women committed suicide in Swat. “Witnessing violence or bearing it can become burdensome. Issues of Wani and Swarah crop up every other week. These issues are not taken up in the Masharano jirga [elders’ jirga],” she explains.

But the mashar of the Swat Amn Jirga, Zahid Khan, says that in Pakhtun culture, a jirga is held by a man. “It needs to have representation from all parts of the communities. Issues like Wani and Swarah need to be brought up, which we do as well. But I request her not to change what is traditionally a man’s domain,” he says. “She can keep a different name and we will support her, which we do even now, especially when she speaks about female education.”

Speaking about Wani and Swarah, Zahid explains that the concept has been bastardised. Swarah means asawari, or the mode of transportation a woman takes to reach the home of one of two warring groups to initiate peace. “It is an old custom to send the most precious belonging of a family, a mother or a sister, to end a conflict with another family,” he says. “Nanavatay, the act of forgiveness, is carried out by women because they are respected and strong. Some of our people, after travelling to other provinces, learned this act of honour-killing and keeping women to bargain with, and started the practice around here.”

Zahid, himself a product of activism in Swat, is fighting his own battles. In August 2012, his criticism of the Taliban earned him a bullet in the head.

Suhail, legal adviser to Da Khwendo Jirga, says: “We can’t work in isolation because then we’ll become dictatorial in our actions. The need to take the administration along is important because we are not above the law and most jirgas do operate on that notion. What we are working for are the women and even the men or transgender people who can’t speak up for themselves.”

As the last of the women leave Shaan’s home before the sunset, Tabassum observes: “We’ve come a long way and it won’t be easy to back off now.”

Published in Dawn February 22nd , 2015

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