A panchayat sanctions the rape of a 17-year-old as retribution after her brother rapes a 12-year-old girl in the village. In this ‘rape-for-a-rape’ brand of justice, the body of the initial culprit’s sister becomes the unfortunate and unwilling vessel through which he is punished and made to experience shame.
The panchayat’s choice of punishment articulated the traditional understanding of where shame still ‘resides’ and how it can be evoked. In men’s interactions with each other, women’s bodies are war zones and collateral damage. And in this process, a woman’s personhood falls away and loses all meaning and significance.
Everything about the events that transpired in Multan district leads back to the festering repository of pain in our national consciousness. What adjective expands enough to engulf and describe the gaping wound that Mukhtar Mai’s story has left there? Nearly 15 years on, the story repeats itself as two women in the same district pay the price for our inability to effectively tackle violence against women.
From 2004 to 2016, 15,222 cases of honour crimes were registered in Pakistan according to the Human Rights Commission Report 2016. In 2016, World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2016 ranked Pakistan at 143 out of 144 countries.
In the same year, honour crime survivor Saba’s story was narrated to us. When it made international headlines and bagged an Oscar, there was a sharp contrast in the way the state chose to address the issue this time. Whereas Mukhtar Mai had been blamed by men at the helm of affairs for maligning Pakistan’s international image, Sharmeen’s venture to bring Saba’s story into the limelight was appreciated by the head of government. And though the battle for equality was far from over, there was reason for optimism when the landmark anti-rape and anti-honour killing laws were passed. With a law in place, there was hope that society would eventually catch up.
And then, Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her brother. The case was a classic manifestation of how when a woman’s actions rattle existing social order, male relatives fashion themselves as victims and consider it their duty to save it from toppling over. A heated debate ensued during her life and continued after her death about her legacy.
With the Alternative Dispute Resolution Bill, 2017, legal cover was extended to jirgas and panchayats. The state chose to merely appoint a judicial officer in charge, leaving the rest of the justice business to councils comprising wise and male village elders. It was argued that the overburdened and under-resourced courts and state apparatus would be assisted by this Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) system. After all, these exist all over the world – even in the developed world – to mete out speedy and cheap justice.
According to a report titled ‘Women, Violence and Jirgas’ published by The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW), “a gender lens illustrates the systemic bias, showing how asymmetric the notions of accessibility and affordability are, and shreds the claim of jirgas being participatory, equitable and focused on reintegration of community members”.
The most important questions to address are often the easiest to formulate.
Why are these kangaroo courts still operational and being provided legitimacy when the very way in which they operate is in direct conflict with basic human rights values? Why are they allowed to operate when – as is obvious from the tragic stories of maimed, tortured and dead women – these courts have only shown their understanding of justice to be revenge and their idea of peace to be the maintenance of the status quo? Why are they still functional when the name with which these all-men institutions are addressed may change across provinces, but they remain unified in their non-inclusion of and inaccessibility for women and their exchange of zan to settle disputes?
Factoring in all of these realities, it may well be worth examining how exactly has the existence of kangaroo courts lessened the burden of the judiciary and how it would continue to do so in the future.
While the aforementioned report attributes ‘the local resonance’ to the vernacular nature of the evolution of jirgas or panchayats through time, a study conducted by the same commission back in 2010 titled ‘A Study of Formal and Legal Systems Prevalent in Pakistan’ sheds light on the perspective of communities on their experiences with village councils.
There were many disadvantages of ADR that the communities acknowledged. The system is illegal and unauthentic, lacks suitable support structures and resources to conduct even the smallest of investigations. Inhumane, outdated and surreptitious methods are employed to carry out investigations. The ‘justice’ that they are able to provide is based on outdated, discriminatory, unequal and twisted interpretations of Islam and the punishments provided are often both illegal and horrific. Men of wealth and wisdom who are a part of these councils use their power to suppress those who are weaker than them. And there is no way to appeal against their decisions.
The advantages they were able to enumerate involved the fact that decisions were given on the spot at little or no cost. There was also a great deal of awareness among the community about these systems and many people reposed faith and trust in them because they knew the adjudicators.
The impressions and observations of the communities that are heavily based on traditions are important because they are not only insightful, but also provide the necessary impetus for legislative reform.
In the recent revenge-rape case, the 25 people who sat on the panchayat have been arrested while the main culprits are still roaming freely. Five of Mukhtar Mai’s 14 tormentors were acquitted back in 2011. Human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir has come out in strong condemnation of these parallel justice systems that have “no legal standing” and have been notoriously claiming the lives of innocent people.
This is yet another moment of truth for us and unless we wholeheartedly commit to bringing about real change that does not shy away from tackling outworn and unjust structures of oppression head-on, it will unfortunately not be our last.
The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday.