Mobilizing Women for Change

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Tabassum Adnan and the ‘Da Khwendo Jirga’

“We’re fed up with male-only Jirgas which decide in favour of men and sacrifice women for their own mistakes,” says Tabassum Adnan. She is known as the Khwedo Jirge Mashra – leader of the first ever Women Jirga in Pakistan.

The Jirga is a community assembly that functions as part of an unofficial Pashtun justice system, which settles local conflicts and grievances. It is traditionally made up of men. Often, decisions are made against women – without their consent or presence. Most cases involving murder, for example, are settled by giving a girl or woman of the perpetrators family in marriage to an elder member of the victim’s clan or family. In such a situation a girl is not asked her opinion. In other words, she pays the price for a crime she never committed. This is where the efforts of Tabassum Adnan come in.

“The Women Jirga evolved as a necessity due to the continuous violence against women in Pashtun society”, she says.  Tabassum has vowed to fight back, hereby challenging the norms of Pashtun culture. In January 2013 she formed a group by the name of Da Khwendo Jirga (The Sisters Council) with the purpose of raising the voice of voiceless women in Pashtun society. Tabassum herself suffered great hardships in her marital life. At the age of 13 she was married to a man who was 30 years older than her. At the age of 20 she was mother of three kids. She had to obey a person whom she didn’t want to live with and was tortured physically and mentally every now and then.

“We simply can’t leave women at the mercy of the male Jirga”, says Tabassum. She first asked to join the main Aman Jirga to ensure justice for women, but the men refused. “So, we have formed our own Jirga now and we will decide on cases involving women”. Tabassum and her Jirga are striving to fight injustices and stop heinous crimes against women and girls in the Swat valley. 25 female members are committed to the Women Jirga. These women make decisions based on mutual understanding and consensus. Lack of awareness about laws is a problem in the region. Tabassum explains that there are many pro-women-laws, but due to the common lack of knowledge of their existence, most women don’t know where to get justice from. The Da Khwendo Jirga  defends women’s rights by supporting innocent girls and women in legal matters.

Tabassum conducts bi-weekly sessions of the Jirga. She and the other members visit different villages and inform women about their rightful place in the society. Through these encounters, the women become acquaintant with the female Jirga. “Though they don’t directly coordinate with us, out of fear of the men near them, many have contacted the Women’s Jirga indirectly, asking for support, and many have shown willingness to become members of the Jirga. Those women who’s cases have been resolved with the support of the Jirga have joined us and we are increasing in number”, says Tabassum.

The Da Khwendo Jirga has some very vocal and influential female personalities who use their communication skills and knowledge about laws to pressurize the police and district administration.With the support of a local NGO called ‘The Awakening’ their protests in front of police stations and government offices are being heard.

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Here are two examples of cases that the Khwendo Jirga has dealt with:

In Swat valley a girl was brutally murdered by her father-in-law and her husband, both of whom were accusing her of having committed adultery. Through the pressure exerted by the Women’s Jirga – who legally assisted the family of the murdered girl – the men were not only caught but prosecuted and sentenced to death. Tabassum’s efforts in this case were recognized by the male Jirga and she was invited to be a part of it.This marks a milestone in the history of Pashtun culture.

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Most recently Tabassum raised her voice again for 17-year-old Shahida Bibi.  The young woman’s husband, a policeman by profession, chopped off her nose for ‘honour’ on May 11, 2014 and then kept her locked in a room of his home for almost 20 days. Tabassum and the Khwendo Jirga strongly condemned the cruel act, stating that torturing a housewife is totally unlawful and unacceptable in every society. Shahida was wedded when she was only 7 years old. “I met her at the hospital,” Tabassum said,adding that marks on her body revealed that she was brutally tortured by her husband.  She demanded that the government take a stern action on this issue and propose a proper law for girls’ marriage.

To strengthen her cause, Tabassum works with youth, inspiring them to come forward and make way for their sisters, mothers and daughters: “so that all women of the society could enjoy freedom”. She attends meetings with women and makes use of media to raise awareness about women’s rights.  Thanks to her, women in Swat valley have actually gone to the streets to protest about injustices reaching from electricity shortages to child rape. In other words, Tabassum encourages women to get involved, to participate and to fight for their rights – she mobilizes women for change.Tabassum2

Authors: Tabassum Adnan, Da Khwendo Jirga and Andrea Grossenbacher, PWAG 

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