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In former Taliban fiefdom, Pakistan’s first female council tackles abuses

The first judicial council for women was started in Pakistan’s Swat Valley last year. Its founder has now been invited to join a traditional, male-only grand jirga.

SWAT, Pakistan  — Sitting in a circle, covered in head-to-toe chadors, women from all age groups gather in a small room here. Some are teenagers, others are in their late fifties, but all of them have one in thing in common – abuse at home.

Five years ago, Swat Valley was under the Pakistani Taliban’s repressive rule. The militants no longer control the area, but women still face horrific incidents of abuse, from acid attacks to honor killings, all perpetrated by men. But a group of women is pushing back and achieving results.

Tabassum Adnan, a full-time mother of two, launched Pakistan’s first women-only jirga last year. Last month she became the first woman to be invited to participate in the grand male jirga of Swat – one of the oldest council of elders in the locality and one that had originally dismissed her efforts as a joke.  

A jirga is an informal judicial council, traditionally dominated by men, that dispenses justice in most rural areas of Pakistan. Ms. Adnan started her jirga last May. Called Khwando-Jirga, or ‘sisters’ council,’ it has around 30 active female members who come from different parts of the valley. 

Involved in decision making

Adnan, who recently remarried after divorcing her first husband, says her first husband did not allow her any freedom. She realized after her divorce that she wanted to help other women who found themselves in situations like hers – or even worse. 

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“The men would never involve us with decision-making even though they were discussing issues pertaining to women. And this inequality bothered me a lot,” Ms. Adnan says in an interview at her two-room office where she holds the jirga every two weeks. “I was married off without my consent at a very young age too and all this made me realize that if we don’t stand up for ourselves, the men will continue to use us as property.” 

Women from all walks of life come knocking at Adnan’s door. And she welcomes them all. 

Shaan Bibi, was one such case. Now an active jirga member, a few months ago she came to Adnan after her husband physically abused her for not transferring her inherited property into his name. “The police would not listen to me because I am a woman. They don’t respect us if we don’t have a man accompanying us,” Ms. Bibi complains.

Adnan accompanied Bibi to the police station and the jirga provided a lawyer who successfully filed a divorce case on Bibi’s behalf.

Security risks 

Swat Valley was controlled by the Taliban until 2009 when the Pakistan Army launched an offensive to drive them out. The Taliban had enforced a strict interpretation of Islam where most schools for girls were closed down; women had to stay home and leave only when accompanied by men. It was here in 2012 that the Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, on her way to school. She now lives in self-imposed exile in Britain. 

With the work Tabassum is involved with – especially raising awareness about the rights of women – she acknowledges that she faces similar dangers.  

“My brothers and husband are always discouraging me to stop doing this work,” she says. “I can be attacked by the Taliban, the religious clerics, common men from our community, and even at times I am scared of those close to me, but someone has to rise above this fear.” 

Jirgas are not supposed to work independently from the police or the courts and any decision by the latter is binding on the former. However, since they are culturally popular in rural areas and serve as informal courts, the formal judiciary and the police do take the councils’ decisions into consideration. 

“[Adnan’s] jirga has great symbolic value because it sends a message that women can be part of decision making too, especially in our patriarchal society,” says Samar Minallah, a women-rights activist based in Islamabad who has worked extensively in rural areas. 

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“It’s only practical that initiatives like [Adnan’s] jirga should not only be replicated around the country but also be strengthened since it’s a culturally relevant solution to stopping women rights abuse,” she says. 

Working with the male jirga

Adnan feels some men are recognizing her achievements. The invitation last month to attend the grand male jirga of Swat was especially significant.

She has started presiding over cases in the grand jirga that involve women issues. In one recent case Adnan, with the help of the male jirga, stopped a settlement where a girl was to be given off as compensation to settle a murder case. They forced the police to take action against the culprits.

Inam-ur-Rehman Kanju, the head of the male jirga that included Adnan, says that they need women like her “because they understand women issues better than us. But in a society like Swat, its hard for men to accept women as their equal, but we are trying to set a precedent.” 

For Tabassum, the invitation by a male jirga to sit with them is just the first step. “There is a long way to go from here but women should know one thing – if I can make it till here – so can all of you out there,” she says.