Members of the all-women jirga say they will not back down from any case without good reason | Photo by the writer
Members of the all-women jirga say they will not back down from any case without good reason | Photo by the writer

She recalls days when women were treated as mere commodities, victimised by men in her village, and neighbouring villages too. If they received inheritance it was with a drastic cut, the largesse left to male offspring.

“A man dragged his sister on the ground for seeking a piece of ancestral land and threatened her,” she says, describing an incident that took place in Ghoraphair village, neighbouring her village Bararkot — a boundary to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir in the Garhi Habibullah union council in Mansehra district.

“But I stepped in and took that woman to Garhi Habibullah police station,” says Ruqayya Bibi, now 45. The matter was resolved in the police station.

This, she says, was the turning point in her life. She had rescued a woman who was once prey to her brother’s brutality, and was now content at having received her due inheritance. It filled her with a new purpose.

Women in Mansehra district have come together to form their own jirga to resolve domestic issues often ignored by men

Ruqayya was inspired to bring a group of like-minded women together to challenge oppressive norms. A group of 17 bold individuals coming together led to the creation of the first women-led jirga in the region in 2017.

“Society is accustomed to men-only jirgas and is still hesitant to accept our decrees but, even then, we recently achieved a big milestone — of dispensing out-of-court justice to as many as 100 families,” says Ruqayya.

In addition to addressing violent cases such as attempted murders and murder, the women’s forum also tackles issues of early and forced marriages, honour killings, women’s inheritance, sexual and physical harassment and bloody feuds faced by marginalised segments of society — particularly women.

Members of the jirga were administered an oath by the then Assistant Commissioner Balakot, Rooman Burana, in the inaugural ceremony held in Garhi Habibullah. The event was attended by community members and female students, Ruqayya recalls and says that the jirga members continue to abide by that oath even today.

People who live in hamlets around the Kunhar River in Garhi Habibullah, Bararkot, Kurnool, Jahgir and adjoining localities, often take their complaints to this forum for out-of-court settlements.

“The women-only community forum has now surpassed its embryonic stage, and has grown to a 35-member strong jirga in its five years of case proceedings,” explains Ruqayya, who heads the jirga. She says that, while she and other jirga members have received threats, they soldier on enthusiastically.

She narrates an incident where one man threatened to kill her because she had his wedding to a girl in the ninth grade stopped. Ruqayya says the student had approached the jirga and asked for its intervention, so the members spoke to her parents to scrap the marriage. “We also kept the police in the loop and announced the cancellation of the event,” she says.

Ruqayya adds that the jirga also intercepted, and stopped, the marriages of four minor girls in Goraphar, Pilyany and Bararkot villages. “Then we also took female clerics and their students with us, sensitised the parents to what sorts of offences they were going to commit, and what Islam says of such marriages,” she says.

The jirga addresses several marriage-related issues. For example, Ruqayya recalls that, in 2020, a widowed school teacher complained of harassment at the hands of her brother-in-law, who was pressuring her to marry him.

The man, who runs a seminary in Abbottabad, used to come to the government middle school for girls in Bararkot, where the woman taught, and threatened to disgrace her in public if she didn’t marry him.

“The victim got our forum involved and we passed our decree,” Ruqayya says, adding that it was enforced by the Garhi Habibullah police. “The police picked him up, and made him face the music,” she says smiling, adding that he hasn’t been seen “roaming around the school since, while the woman will soon be transferred somewhere else.”

While the jirga members come from nearby localities and are from different backgrounds and tribes, they are bound by their oath: they will not back down from a case without good reason.

Khatija Bibi, 60, a jirga member who is a homemaker, says that although every case is treated with utmost honesty and sincerity, local politicians and men sometimes hatch conspiracies against the women-only jirga, questioning whether their decisions are in accordance with Islamic principles.

“Despite all this, we have achieved a milestone of a century [of decisions] by successfully resolving cases, hoping to change the old-fashioned notion that men are superior to women and the latter should be limited to domestic affairs only,” she says.

Clerics and religious scholars have more influence and are often preferred over the women-only jirga for settling domestic issues. This is understandable, since clerics perform all rituals in people’s lives, from leading daily prayers to solemnising marriages. They also recite the azaan into newborns’ ears and offer the funeral prayers.

But one person, who asked to stay anonymous, says that women usually don’t approach men-only jirgas with their problems, as they consider them biased.

“A local dragged me to a field and wanted to rape me,” a woman narrates. “I cried for help and managed to flee from his clutches. I then approached the women-only jirga, who took me to the police in Garhi Habibullah,” she says.

She says her entire family was hesitant to go to the police to get an FIR lodged, but she was emboldened because she had the support of the women-only jirga. The man was arrested and taken to task.

Another victim who approached the women-only jirga for help says her husband used to severely torture her, even in public, and she was once hospitalised after being beaten.

“I dared to speak to the jirga, which called my husband and warned him of dire consequences, but it was of no use. Then jirga members took me to the police in Garhi Habibullah and that worked,” she says.

Although the jirga system was once seen as a prestigious forum, over the years, it has lost its glory. In 2021, the Deputy Inspector General of Police for Hazara range, Mirvais Niaz, banned jirgas, saying “victims could no longer be left at the mercy of such forums which are mostly biased and under perpetrators’ influence.”

The women-only jirga, however, continues to function.

“We have witnessed a significant reduction in the gatherings of private jirgas since the police put an embargo on public forums to the decide taffairs of the people,” said Zardad Khan, an educationist from Bararkot. “These so-called judicial entities used to execute decrees under politicians’ and elders’ influence.”

He says that, despite the marginalisation faced by women in society as a whole, and particularly in Garhi Habibullah and the rest of the Hazara division, the environment is rapidly changing because of the effective awareness campaigns conducted by non-governmental organisations.

“In our society, a woman victim cannot share her ordeal and sensitive issues with men, even with cops, and this is why they, along with other marginalised segments of society, look to the women-only jirga for justice,” says Khan.

Dr Mohammad Munir, a social worker in Garhi Habibullah who has worked to uplift socially marginalised segments of society, agrees. “I also used to hold jirgas but the women-only justice forum is better and seems effective,” he says.

“Locals influenced by the political elites came in the way of the women-only jirga and raised questions premised in Islam to challenge their decisions, but were defeated because of the impartiality executed by its members in their decrees,” he says.

“As a social worker, I can surely say that, because of the effective contribution made by the women-only jirga in settling cases of gender-based and domestic violence, sexual and physical harassment and other crimes inflicted by those in power on women have significantly declined in our society,” Dr Munir adds.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Mansehra. He tweets @nisarkhan1269

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 23rd, 2022



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