The recent incident of murder (by burning alive) of a 16-year-old girl, on the orders given by a jirga, reflect the slow drift of our society towards the Dark Ages. This chilling story and the growing rate of female infanticide across the country clearly demonstrate that our society is ominously degenerating into pre-Islamic times.
According to the Abbottabad police, a 15-member jirga called by the Makol village councilor, Pervez, ordered for the deceased, Ambreen, to be set on fire – as punishment for allegedly helping her friend escape the village to marry off her free will. When the jirga ended after a six-hour meeting on April 28, the girl was taken from her home to an abandoned house, where she was drugged, killed and placed in the backseat of a parked van. The van was then doused with petrol and set ablaze.
The body was tied to the seat of the vehicle and burnt, so as to remove any evidence pertaining to her death. However, when the media covered the heart-rending incident, the police arrested 14 members of the jirga who were involved in her death. During the investigation, the accused confessed to committing this terrible crime.
This is not the first killing in the name of honour. The history of this country is replete with such shocking stories. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), there were 988 incidents of honour killings in the country from February 1, 2004, to February 1, 2006. In nearly half the cases, the police did not register FIRs for the crime. Guns were the weapons of choice in these cases. Moreover, 1,276 people were killed between February 2014 and February 2016, and FIRs were not registered for nearly 400 of these cases. Most of the victims were shot to death. Most of these killings took place on the orders of jirgas.
Four years ago, a jirga of elders in the Kohistan district condemned four women and two men to death for staining the honour of their families, based on a video of them dancing together at a marriage party. In 2012, in Jacobabad, Sindh, a member of the National Assembly was found guilty of presiding over a jirga that decided to hand over five minor girls for marriage to a family to compensate for a murder.
The most shocking rape case on the order of a jirga was that of Mukhtaran Bibi. On June 22, 2002, a jirga sentenced Mukhtaran Bibi, a 30-year-old woman of the Gujjar tribe in village Meerwala of district Muzaffargarh, to be gang-raped in punishment for her younger brother’s alleged illicit affair with a girl from another tribe. The trial by jirga took place in the presence of several hundred local residents, and none of them took any action to prevent the rape. Mukhtaran Bibi later said that she had appealed to all those present for mercy, but no one dared object to the council’s verdict. After the judgement, the gang-rape was carried out by four men, and the victim was reportedly made to walk naked through the streets of her village before hundreds of onlookers.
It is the failure of the country that it has allowed feudal jirgas to operate since 1947. Such jirgas, constituted to rapidly resolve criminal cases, are not only unconstitutional, they are undemocratic. Local chieftains mostly head the jirgas and give their decisions in open disregard of the law of the country.
As observed in a slew of cases, jirgas are used to settle personal enmities. The rich capitalise on their considerable wealth and personal relations with the heads of the jirgas to get a verdict in their favour. The poor have to suffer injustice due to their weak financial, political and social positions. In a nutshell, the continued existence of jirgas to settle criminal cases is a stain on the face of our slow-moving judiciary.
The girls accused in so-called honour cases are easy prey for the jirgas on account of social norms, family restrictions and transportation issues. They cannot escape the clutches of the jirgas, when the death sentence is announced. The families of such ill-fated girls often succumb to the pressure exerted by the local notables. On the other hand, the accused men can easily escape and resettle.
The question is: why have we had the undemocratic jirga system in some areas of the country since our independence? The answer lies in the criminal and dismal failure of country’s sluggish governance, outmoded criminal laws and crisis-ridden judiciary. The people hardly trust the torpid judicial system of the country, which is why they refer even serious cases to these ignorant jirgas. The uneducated, poor and disenfranchised rural population has no other option but to consult the parallel judicial system.
The media reports only a small fraction of the serious cases handled by the jirgas. Since tribal and rural areas across the country are largely inaccessible to the media, a large number of incidents go unreported. Women face severe ordeals in our rural areas due to the jirga system, which even the women of Sub-Saharan Africa do not face.
In all jirga-related cases in the rural areas, the police play a central role. The police in feudal areas are the personal employees of local influential leaders, and are at the beck and call of these local leaders. The police blatantly avoid registering FIRs in criminal cases, and rush to inform the leaders of jirgas about such cases. Sometimes, the police help chase fleeing couples, so as to hand them over to the jirga for burning or shooting.
The local influentials and the heads of jirgas should bear in mind that there is no honour in killing innocent girls. Islam strictly forbade killing girls for socioeconomic reasons 1,400 years ago. The law of the country also does not permit anyone to commit murder.
All the successive governments in the country have shown indifference by failing to abolish the jirga system and reform the unworkable judicial system. The so-called democratic leaders will continue to let the jirgas function because they depend heavily on local leaders to buy votes on the eve of ‘democratic’ elections. If we do not reform the dysfunctional judiciary and stop jirgas from dealing with serious cases, more girls will be set on fire in the future – in the name of ‘honour’.
The writer is editor of The Asia Watch.