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Pakistan's tribal justice system: Often a vehicle for revenge

Jirgas, or meetings convened by elders, are a cornerstone of Pakistani society. But their verdicts often condone violence, and the targets are often women.

August 01, 2012|By Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Shehnaz Bibi was dragged from her house, stripped naked and dragged through her Pakistani village square by four men carrying out revenge against her son's actions. The attack was sanctioned by a local jirga, a meeting of tribal elders. She now lives in Haripur, afraid for her safety.
Shehnaz Bibi was dragged from her house, stripped naked and dragged through… (Alex Rodriguez, Los Angeles…)

HARIPUR, Pakistan — Suleman Khan demanded justice from the tribal elders. His wife had slept with another man, he said, and he wanted their permission to seek revenge. The elders deliberated for an hour, and then announced their verdict: Punish the man and his family any way you see fit.

Within minutes, Khan and his three brothers had broken into the man's house. Only his 45-year-old mother, Shehnaz Bibi, and her teenage son were home. Armed with rifles and canes, they dragged Bibi out of the house and brought her to the village square. As dozens of astonished villagers watched, they stripped her naked and dragged her by the ankles, making several circles in the dirt with her body.

After about an hour, Khan and his brothers left. Bibi crawled over to grab her shawl and covered her dust-caked body with it.

"All the time, I was thinking, 'I just want to die right now,'" Bibi recalled, using her head scarf to wipe away tears from her sun-weathered face. "I thought to myself, 'I just can't bear this anymore.'"

Pakistan straddles the line between centuries-old traditions and iPhone-era modernity, and few societal dilemmas illustrate that better than tribal jirgas, meetings convened by tribal elders such as the one that led to the attack on Bibi a year ago.

Jirgas are a cornerstone of tribal societies in Pakistan, from the badlands in the country's northwest to the plains of Punjab and Sindh provinces. They decide issues such as property disputes and squabbles over debt, and in regions where conventional courts are not trusted, locals embrace them as a swift means of obtaining justice.

Often, however, they serve as vehicles for violence and revenge, and often the victims are women.

Jirgas routinely settle disputes through a tradition called vani, in which a family is ordered to agree to the marriage of one of its daughters to a male in the "plaintiff" family. The daughter can be in her teens, and in some cases she is only a few days old when the marriage contract is signed.

Other verdicts are tantamount to murder. Last year in a village outside the eastern city of Bahawalpur, a Punjabi council of elders known as a panchayat sanctioned the electrocution of a young woman by her family after the woman eloped against their wishes.

"These jirgas are dominated by men from the elite class, local influentials who usually have a very conservative mind-set," said Farzana Bari, a prominent Pakistani women's rights activist and director of gender rights studies atIslamabad'sQuaid-i-Azam University. "Their rulings usually give men control over women's lives. It's the responsibility of the state and law enforcement agencies to make sure that these jirgas don't take place."

Pakistani law on jirgas is murky. The country's Supreme Court and other review courts have issued rulings that deem jirgas illegal, but those rulings don't lay out what constitutes a jirga and don't establish penalties for taking part in one. Pakistan's legal code has no specific law banning jirgas.

Though jirgas routinely issue rulings that amount to a crime — such as giving a village the go-ahead to harm or even execute someone — federal and provincial authorities balk at acting against the councils, experts say, because they don't want to risk alienating tribal communities and elders who embrace the tradition.

Human rights groups have been pushing for reforms, calling for laws that would make it illegal to convene or participate in jirgas that result in extrajudicial convictions and punishments, said Fouzia Saeed, director of the Mehergarh human rights institute in Islamabad.

The issue has gotten the attention of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who in March ordered the country's top provincial police officials to clamp down on jirgas that involved vani rulings.

"It seems we are living in the Stone Age," Chaudhry remarked at the hearing.

In some parts of Pakistan, jirgas operate as an unsanctioned parallel justice system. Local police tolerate, and even participate in, the meetings.

The jirga that decided the fate of Sofia Niaz, a 15-year-old doe-eyed girl from a village outside the northern city of Mansehra, was held in a police station.

Sofia was already engaged when two men, one of them a distant relative and the other a stranger, kidnapped her in the dead of night and took her to a local madrasa, or Islamic religious school, the young woman said during a recent interview at the courthouse in Mansehra.

The motive behind the kidnapping never became clear, and the madrasa's imam returned Sofia to her family unharmed later that night. Nevertheless, Sofia's fiance insisted that the episode had tainted the girl, and demanded that a jirga be held to settle the dispute.

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