In the remote hills of the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan — an area that was once a controlled by the Taliban — local resident Tabassum Adnan has formed the region’s first female “jirga.” A jirga is a form of village council, historically comprising solely men, whose word in some rural parts of Pakistan is tantamount to law. Adnan’s decision to set up the Khwendo Jirga, or “sisters’ council,” was revolutionary, but she said it had to be done to protect the region’s women. “A young girl was attacked with acid,” Adnan explained. “When her case was presented to a male jirga, they promised their full support. But they didn’t help at all.”
Pakistan’s Supreme Court declared jirgas illegal in 2012, but in tribal areas of the country, out of reach of official law enforcement, the jirga retains singular authority. Tradition dictates that a jirga can order gang rapes or “honor” killings as a means of settling disputes — just in April, 17-year-old Ambreen Riasat was set on fire by the local jirga for helping a couple to elope. “Killings in the name of honor have become commonplace in our society,” Adnan said. “Riasat’s death was especially barbarous.”
Adnan’s council has helped nearly 1,000 girls and women to date, and in some of the girls she can’t help but see herself. Adnan is a former child-bride, married off at 14 to a much older husband. She divorced him after 20 years of abuse, bucking local traditions to do so. “In the end,” she said, “I stood up for myself and stopped being miserable.” With the help of the sisters’ council, Adnan hopes more women will be empowered to do the same.
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