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


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.

At the station, the police chief, Shah Mohammed Khan, presided over a gathering of elders from the families of the fiance and the two men who kidnapped Sofia. Elders debated for 11 hours, trying to persuade her father to accept their ruling: Sofia would marry Naveed, one of her kidnappers, and her fiance would marry one of the kidnapper’s sisters.

When Sofia’s father, Niaz Mohammed, refused to accept the verdict, Khan locked him in one of the station’s cells. With the police chief watching, one of the jirga elders put a gun to Mohammed’s head to force him to give in, Sofia said. “I told them: ‘Don’t torture my father. I will agree to marry Naveed.’ Under pressure, I accepted,” Sofia said.

The ceremony was held at the lockup. A month later, Sofia escaped from Naveed’s house and sought the help of a local human rights activist, who took the case to court. A judge granted Sofia a divorce and initiated criminal proceedings against her kidnappers, the jirga members and the police chief.

“There should be a special punishment for people who do such things,” Sofia said, “so that other girls don’t have to go through such misery.”

Authorities also made arrests in Shehnaz Bibi’s case. Although it’s rare for police to take action against jirga participants, charges are pending against the four men who dragged her from her home in the village of Nilour Bala, along with three other men who led the jirga. That’s little solace to Bibi, however. She is too ashamed to return to her village, and her family worries about reprisals by relatives of the arrested men.

Provincial government officials have given her a tiny flat in a weed-choked cluster of concrete apartment buildings on the edge of Haripur, a small city about 25 miles northwest of Islamabad. Outside her flat, a police officer wearing aviator sunglasses sat slumped in his lawn chair, a member of the 24-hour guard duty she and her family now receive.

“It’s impossible for us to get our lives back,” Bibi said, sitting on a cot in her darkened, bare-walled living room. “What happened to me is a curse that will stay with me for the rest of my life.”