PESHAWAR: Ayesha was 22 when a 50-year-old man fired bullets at her door to announce to the entire village that she was his from now on. Anyone coming with a proposal for her would be inviting his wrath and perhaps starting a feud that could go for generations.

For next 28 years, the tribal woman from Kurram Agency braved the family pressures and continued to refuse that man, who condemned her to this fate. The spinster finally set herself free from the Stone Age’s custom of ‘Ghag’ by hanging herself quietly in her room at the age of 50.

That is how a tribal girl condemned to a life governed by customs lived her life in a part of the country called tribal areas. There are many untold stories of girls, who were bartered for cattle or simply a hefty amount of cash under the guise of customs in a marriage ceremony. Their liking is never asked, nor their opinion matters to the families.

Families do what customs force them to do but the federal government, which has formed a six-member committee to recommend reforms in tribal areas and work on codification of Riwaj (customary laws), is exactly doing the same to the tribal women.

Reforms committee seems unconcerned about half of the population of Fata

The committee has recommended repealing Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR), termed by many as draconian and black law, and replacing it with ‘Tribal Areas Riwaj Act”. The FCR was imposed on all tribesmen by the British but Riwaj is being looked at as another draconian law that would suck the blood of tribal women, marginalised and victimised by the customary laws.

Taqrha Qabaili Khwenday, a network of strong tribal sisterhood, is the first to voice its concerns over legalising the jirga or ‘Council of Elders’ (obliviously having no women’s representation so far) by enacting Tribal Areas Riwaj Act.

“This committee did not hold any consultation with the tribal women. Their recommendations reveal how much they have ignored people of Fata especially women,” said Naheed Afridi.

She believes that customary practices like Ghaag (announcing a forced engagement), Walwar (bride price) and Swara (giving girls in exchange to settle family feuds) are customs, which reflect the tribal Riwaj that is very discriminative towards women. There is no punishment for these violations of women’s rights.

“In jirgas, decisions are taken under this Riwaj. Now if these jirgas are legalised and made part of the judicial system, I feel they would continue to victimise women with their decisions,” opined Ms Afridi.

As proposed by the committee, the jirga system would be retained for both criminal and civil matters and judge will appoint a ‘Council of Elders’ to decide factual issues in accordance with Riwaj. Although the committee suggested that any legal instrument, which would incorporate Riwaj as part of a judicial process, must ensure that fundamental rights and other substantive laws administered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were not violated.

However, the Council of Elders’ qualification for playing the jury’s role is still not clear. Looking at the past record of jirgas in the settled and more urbanised cities, their knowledge and obedience to the human rights’ charter or fundamental rights as enshrined in Constitutions of Pakistan seems too fancy.

“There are many strong women, educated women and even uneducated women have very good suggestion for women issues. Unfortunately they were never consulted in this entire Fata reforms process,” said Nadia Dawar, another member of TQK from South Waziristan.

The TQK now with some 200 members is a network working for the awareness of tribal women. It is slowly gaining its voice as it holds small sessions with tribal women on their rights. They held a press conference in Peshawar Press Club to call on the government to involve and consult women before setting up any committee or taking any step about bringing reforms in tribal areas. Looks like their voice did not reach the quarters concerned that are still unconcerned about half of the population of Fata. There is no woman member in the reforms committee.

Tribal women had concerns that women were not included in consultation in the entire reform process. “Now imposing Riwaj is another injustice to them,” said Shahida Shah, a rights activist working with TQK.

“First there was FCR imposed by the British. Now there is going to be Riwaj imposed by the tribal elders and administration affecting women’s life in tribal areas. It is no better than what was already there for women,” she said.

Naseehat Begum, another member of TQK from Bajaur, feels women are suffering under the tribal customs, which do not allow them to express their feelings, take their own decisions or exercise their basic rights.

The six-member committee with Sartaj Aziz, adviser to prime minister, as its chairman and Governor Zafar Iqbal Jhagra, Safron Minister Abdul Qadir Baloch, Minister for Law and Justice Zahid Hamid, National Security Adviser Naseer Khan Janjua and Safron Secretary Mohammad Shehzad Arbab, as its members, having no representation at all from tribal areas, eagerly recommends repealing one draconian law (FCR) must tread carefully as it might be replaced with another that is no better than the one that sucked the blood of tribal people for more than a century.

Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2016