HINA Shahnawaz was 27-year-old when she was murdered in Kohat in February 2017. Working for a non-governmental organisation in Islamabad, she was her family’s sole breadwinner.
Educated and with a promising career trajectory, hers was an extraordinary achievement for an unmarried tribal woman — so extraordinary that it evoked the anger of her semi-educated male cousin.
When she refused his marriage proposal, he shot her in the heart in her own home because, according to rewaj (tribal custom), she was a blot on his clan’s honour.
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For women like her, achieving socio-economic emancipation is often tantamount to death. “Women are treated worse than dogs under rewaj,” explains a young woman from Kurram Agency who has been ‘exchanged’ through a jirga decision to settle a feud.
In the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, women have been invisible and voiceless for centuries.
Because women cannot be seen to be counted, their population is based on estimates in the absence of official figures.
According to the 1998 national census, Fata’s female population is 1.5 million, with around a three per cent literacy rate.
The region has long been considered a difficult, if not impossible, area to access. And because Fata and most of the Pakhtun belt is a militarised and controlled space, it is impossible to investigate incidents of abuse and violence against women.
“Fata has always been treated as a strategic space where people have been denied their political rights for 70 years,” says Bushra Gohar, a senior member of the Awami National Party (ANP).
Deprived of basic education and healthcare, women have suffered the most from this neglect.
Dowry is legal, property is denied to women when it involves shared lands and a woman is considered her family’s honour — to be bought, sold, bartered and killed.
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“Women risk punishment, even death, if the honour of the clan is violated,” explains Sakeena Rehman, an ANP representative from Mohmand Agency. When Noreen Naseer, an activist from Kurram Agency, conducted a survey in her area of women’s views on tribal practices, most matriarchs were resigned to their fate — but younger women expressed anger at oppressive customs sanctioned through the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR).
Ms Naseer, who teaches at the University of Peshawar, claims that “even a 21st century Pakhtun man believes his cultural practices are superior and that tribal society is egalitarian.”
In the process to mainstream the tribal areas, is the state acting like its colonial predecessor and bargaining away women’s rights?
Absent from the table
There are no mechanisms in the almost 120-year-old FCR to protect women against practices such as swara, badala-i-sulh (‘exchanged’ to settle feuds), valvar (‘exchanged’ for money), ghag (being forcibly ‘claimed’) and honour crimes.
According to Ms Naseer, most tribal families have experienced at least one honour killing. Given the prevalence of such violence, why have crimes against women gone largely undocumented?
“There are no police stations in our tribal areas to register cases; there are no courts or independent tribunals. Women are at the mercy of informal justice systems,” Ms Naseer explains.
She is involved with the Qabaili Khor (tribal sisters) network, comprising about a hundred women, including Ms Rehman.
Explore: The Fata merger: The proposed Rewaj Act — a new FCR?
Advocating in favour of mainstreaming Fata, they want the judicial system to extend to Fata — but is anyone listening?
“Our women and girls want to go to school, but all they do is collect sticks from the mountains and walk miles for water.
Change will come only with a legal system that replicates the [country’s] judicial mechanism,” Ms Rehman posits.
One of two women on the seven-member ANP reform watch committee, she believes women’s voices must also be heard through jirgas, especially if they are to have a role in a reformed set-up.
Whether that actually happens is to be seen, but disrupting a centuries-old patriarchal order will require time and political will.
Ms Gohar concedes that it is not easy for women to be nominated onto all-male consultation committees.
“Political parties must take responsibility, as the reform package will go through a parliamentary committee.
Parties must be put on the spot for not nominating women to key decision-making forums. Women should not be absent from the table,” she says.
The FCR and the Rewaj Act
There is no mention of women in the colonial-era FCR, with one exception — Article 30, Chapter IV: “any married woman, who knowingly and by her consent, has sexual intercourse with any man who is not her husband, is guilty of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which many be extended to five years or a fine or both.”
The complaint must come from a husband or a guardian, leaving women vulnerable to abuse.
In November 2015, Fazeelat Bibi, accused of committing adultery, was killed by her brother-in-law in Khyber Agency.
Her husband filed a case with the FCR commissioner in Peshawar against the jirga and political agent in Landi Kotal, who had sanctioned her murder under rewaj.
“She was property, so she was used as a sacrificial goat,” says Ms Naseer. Even if justice is served in her case, it will come too late.
“Our state has forgotten women,” human rights activist I.A. Rehman says.
When a six-member, all-male government committee made recommendations, including replacing the FCR with the Rewaj Regulation for Tribal Areas, women’s rights were sidestepped.
Recommendations include the jirga system — with no reference to women’s inclusion — for civil and criminal matters, with the court appointing a council of elders to adjudicate in accordance with tribal customs.
“The jirgas will inherit all the traditions of the FCR jirga, including indifference and hostility towards women. There is no reference to women’s inclusion in the new jirgas,” Mr Rehman says.
Ms Gohar concurs, “Rewaj is the new face of the FCR. Vested interests want the status quo to remain untouched, and they include the civilian bureaucracy, the military and the maliks.”
Having witnessed jirga decisions followed in her area, Ms Naseer says, “Almost all jirga members have killed female family members in the name of honour.”
She believes that most jirgas comprise illiterate people with no knowledge of forensic sciences or DNA tests.
“Elders are paid allowances by political agents for sitting in jirgas so, yes, they will resist abolishing this centuries-old system. Customs of rewaj are also manipulated for their benefit,” she tells Dawn.
The way forward is marked with uncertainty: how will the state allow the people of Fata, women included, to move into a new social and political status?
“Laws cannot be made without social development and education, and without women’s participation,” Mr Rehman points out.
So far, the voices of tribal women have been ignored. Just how much say is allowed to women in male-dominated consultative bodies in the future can only be imagined.
But without their participation, it will be impossible to mainstream tribal communities and bring reforms to this historically neglected part of the country.
Published in Dawn, May 23rd, 2017