BAHRAIN, SWAT: The recent death decree by a jirga in Indus Kohistan and probably its execution, of five women should wake all Pakistanis from their slumber. While there is still confusion about the fates of the five women, with eyewitnesses claiming they were killed as long ago as May 30, and with the local administration claiming that they were alive, one thing is for sure, the women of the district need the help of civil society to protect them from grotesque customs masquerading as tribal tradition.
I pray that what the government is saying is true and that the women indeed are safe but looking at the way women are treated in Kohistan’s tribal society, I do not have much hope. The local people, particularly the ones associated with civil society organisations are so scared that nobody dares intervene in the matter. The judicial authorities should also take to task the local police and administration because they seem to have done their best to obfuscate the matter for everyone.
Demographically, the people of Indus Kohistan are scattered all over the rocky terrain on both the western and eastern sides of the Indus river. Used to a hard life, and because of lack of education, Kohistanis are prone to religious extremism and cultural exclusiveness. They have their own version of ghairat (honour) and this is compounded by a certain rigid and orthodox interpretation of religion which is in vogue in that region. I am a resident of upper Swat and can speak with first-hand experience that some notable mullahs of Kohistan brought with them sectarian strife to Swat (quite a few of them are associated with the JUI-F).
Another aspect of the way of life of the people of this area is the culture of revenge that ends up sometimes in the murder of whole families. And as with every tribal society, here too, those who suffer the brunt of the violence and feuding are also the ones who are the most vulnerable: the women. Ironically, it is the women of the area who are responsible for herding cattle, tilling the little amount of cultivable land that there is and for bringing wood from the forests. The women even grind the maize that is grown — while all that the men do is carry their guns and ‘safeguard’ their women lest anybody looks at them.
Whenever there is a feud arising out of a woman’s ghairat — and there are many — it is the women who are usually killed. For instance, in many cases women were killed by their brothers or husbands just to justify the murder of an innocent man before a jirga. Furthermore, an abysmally low literacy rate, especially for women, further compounds the problem. The fault also lies with the state for not delivering even an iota of good governance to the region and the result is that the people, especially the women, have been left to fend for themselves.
Even the rich timber resources of the area have been lost, to the timber mafia, mostly because the state has looked the other way even as some of its officials have connived with the mafia to allow it to cut trees with impunity. The overall consequence of this is that Kohistan has no semblance of an educated population and the only body or group that enjoys any power/authority is the local jirga and it operates under the influence of local clerics.
I will quote a poetic narration (translated into English) that I once heard from a woman depicting the misery of women in all tribal regions particularly Kohistan: “I live a miserable life/ Incurred by poverty, diseases and my husband/ I bring wood from the forest and till the field/ I keep his house warm and fed/ I take his pains, and yet/ I become the victim when he fights his foes
I get the scars when he finds a rod/ I am killed because ‘he’ lives with ‘grace’/ This is my life.”
Published In The Express Tribune, June 7th, 2012.
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