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A jirga of women, by women and for women

A jirga of women, by women and for women

Looking committed to claiming rights for the women in their remote, small village of Mansehra, a group of 16 women have pioneered a women-only jirga.

Complaining about the local men-only jirgas letting those subjecting women to excesses, especially in honour killing and blood feud cases, off scot-free, these spirited members of a conservative society took oath as members of the new dispute resolution council on the grassy premises of a girls school in Lass Mera village of Garhi Habibullah union council.

Interestingly, men also showed up in the event presided over by Balakot assistant commissioner Rooman Burana.

Mostly veiled, jirga members having no formal education strongly felt the initiative would go a long way in dispensing justice to the suppressed female population in the region and thus, ensuring their development.

They pledged not to be prejudiced in issuing decrees in disputes laid before them.

“Though Islam gives us (women) a share in inheritance and say in decision-making process, men deny all that to us. They are jealous of us and don’t give us representation in jirgas,” said a jirga member.

Ruqia Bibi, another jirga member, said the incidence of violence against women in Mansehra district was on the rise but ironically, men-only jirgas didn’t dispense justice to them by and large forcing them to rise up against excesses and claim rights by forming a jirga of themselves, by themselves and for themselves.

She said the jirga had been formed after a constant struggle and many months as the incidence of honour-related killing and vani cases was higher in Mansehra compared to other parts of the country.

“We faced a lot of opposition while deciding about this jirga but disregarded it for a big cause i.e. the protection of women’s rights,” she said.

Ms Ruqia said most honour killing cases were settled out of court through the so-called men-only jirgas with perpetrators going unpunished.

“We have members in each village. In case of any violation of women’s rights, we will spring into action,” she said.

The jirga member said she and her colleagues sensitised ulema, administration and police to the cause and got the sought-after support for it.

She said in the recent months, four cases of violence were reported in the region but perpetrators didn’t get punishment due to the ‘prejudiced’ role of existing jirgas.

“In future, we won’t let that happen not only in Garhi Habibullah union council but in the entire district, too,” she said.

Ms Ruqia said the jirga was in contact with the district women assembly constituted by NGO Sungi Development Foundation in Mansehra for action against brutalities committed by men against women.

“Our district has a high incidence of honour-related killings and violence against women,” she said.

The jirga member said the jirga had members in local governments, who would highlight not only the unjust decrees of men-only jirgas but also the women’s health and education issues.

The Sungi Development Foundation working in the district since 1989 for the rights of women has appreciated the initiative.

“We set up the Awaz District Forum three years ago, which produced tremendous results for women’s empowerment and the formation of women-only jirga is one of them,” SDF district programme manager Mohammad Naseer said.

Mr. Naseer said if the jirga strived for the protection of women’s rights, especially by ensuring end to violence against women as well as outdated customs discriminating against women, that is really a positive change in society,” he said.

However, the initiative hasn’t sit well with certain circles in the district.

“Though there is no legal position of a men-only jirga in Shariah, it can function through pious people. But as for women-only jirga, there is no permission for it in Islam as women are weak human beings,” Maulana Ahsanul Haq, the prayer leader at the city’s Markazi Masjid.

He said under Islamic teachings, all cases, including those of violence against women, should be taken to the qazi (judge) for decision.

The cleric said though a source of the out-of-court settlements of cases in remote parts of the country, especially tribal areas, men-only jirgas could function.

“The issuance of prejudiced decree by a jirga is liable to punishment. Islam orders its followers to judge or reconcile only for the dispensation of justice without differentiating men and women or on the basis of gender or creed,” he said.

He also said it would be better for women, who constituted the jirga, to contact with pious and trustworthy people in their community for setting up jirga to dispense justice to them in cases of injustices against them.

The women jirga has a challenge in sight.

In the recent times, the police took action against members of some jirgas for making controversial decisions and even made arrests but as for the women jirga, they may struggle to do so.

“We recently took into custody jirga members and ulema in Oghi and Battle areas of Mansehra for ordering the handing over of two girls of a family to another for marriage to settle feuds,” district police officer Ahsan Saifullah said.

The DPO said the police never encouraged the out-of-court settlements in cognisable cases and that whatever jirgas decided was never acceptable to them.

He warned if women jirga showed prejudice against anyone, the law would take its course.

Mr. Saifullah said the police had formed a dispute resolution committee to settle cases not cognisable without legal formalities.

He said the jirga had been part of local life for centuries but most of its decisions were biased and unjust and thus, becoming a hurdle to the dispensation of justice to the people.

“We are vigilant to deal with jirgas, which deny rights to the vulnerable segments of society, including women and children, by letting perpetrators of crimes off scot-free. In such cases, the law takes its due course. We even book jirga members,” he said.

The DPO said as the society was modernising and things were fast changing, jirgas were coming to a logical end.

“The role of jirgas is now limited to minor cases, which even the relevant parties can settle by themselves,” he said.

Published in Dawn, January 8th, 2017

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