Earlier this week, news emerged of the tragic death of Ambreen, a teenager from Abbotabad who was drugged and then strangled to death as the result of a sentence handed down by a local jirga. Ambreen’s ‘crime’ was that she helped a friend elope with the man she wanted to marry; for the Jirga, the notion of a woman marrying someone of her own choosing represented an unacceptable insult to the ‘honour’ of the community, and facilitating this act was seen as being grave an offence as the elopement itself. Not content with presiding over the unconscionable murder of a blameless young woman, the jirga also decreed that her body be burnt so as to serve as an example to any other women who might contemplate challenging the patriarchal order and the repressive constraints it places on female choice, sexuality, and mobility.

The members of the jirga in question have reportedly been arrested although, as is usually the case in the Land of the Pure, it is unlikely that they will be punished for what they have done; crimes of ‘honour’ have a long and inglorious history of being ignored by the state.One of the great yet often unremarked paradoxes of the present is the way in which so much that is held to be ‘traditional’ is often anything but that. Jirgas, panchayats, and the other local forms of judicial organisation have often been decried as unaccountable and parochial manifestations of a parallel legal system that is symptomatic of a broader lack of capacity, on the part of the state, to enforce its writ across its territory.

This argument often emphasizes the ‘backward’ and regressive nature of these local ‘courts’, highlighting their overwhelmingly elite and male composition, as well as their often draconian and inhumane punishments, and sees their continued existence as being anathema to the delivery of justice and the rule of law in Pakistan.This, however, is only a partial view of the problem, and one that overlooks important questions about the origins and intentions of these systems of local justice. As a wide body of scholarship on South Asia continues to show, jirgas and panchayats, as we understand them today, are an outcome of colonial interventions in society aimed at buttressing the control exercised by the colonial state in this part of the world.

Rather than representing vestigial bastions of tradition that have resisted the transition to modernity, these local courts were institutionalised and formalised by colonial administrators grappling with the question of how to most effectively govern a diverse society characterised by a multiplicity of identities, norms, and allegiances.While jirgas and panchayats have long been a part of South Asian society, they tended to be relatively ambiguous and informal organisations whose composition, remit, and authority were constantly subject to reformulation and contestation. It would be mistaken to assume that they did not represent dominant interests and worldviews, but it would also be a mistake to suggest that their authority was absolute or unquestionably accepted. Furthermore, according to the anthropologist Mukulika Banerjee, pre-colonial jirgas in modern-day KPK had a ‘restitutive rather than penal nature’, essentially focusing more on mediating disputes and arriving at settlements rather than punishing alleged criminals and individuals deviating from local norms and customs.

However, under colonial rule, these local level organisations were seen as a means through which to achieve the twin aims of empowering collaborative local elites while simultaneously acquiring legitimacy through a discourse emphasising respect for customs and traditions. The result was an outsourcing of authority to local tribal leaders and landlords who, with the backing of the colonial state, acquired formal powers of adjudication and enforcement that gave these systems a rigidity and fixity they had previously lacked.All of this is important because the parallel sovereignty that characterises the relationship between the state and local justice systems is one that is built into the design of post-colonial mechanisms of governance. Indeed, even today, the many defenders of jirgas and panchayats continue to emphasise how they represent a form of local justice that is easily accessible, comprehensible, and effective. Rather than existing in spite of the formal state and its institutions, jirgas exist in tandem with it.Understanding the colonial origins of modern jirgas and panchayats tells us a lot about the power dynamics they embody in the contemporary context.

That they represent bastions of patriarchal and elite privilege is utterly unsurprising when considering how it was precisely these forms of power that the colonial and post-colonial states have sought to coopt and reinforce. Similarly, the punishments meted out by these organisations, and the ethos that underpins them, are cast into sharper relief when seeing how they were designed to perform a regulatory function, policing communities and bodies at the local level to produce quiescent subjects. After all, ‘crimes’ against ‘honour’ have always really been about protecting property and boundaries of caste and kinship, controlling female sexuality as a means through which to preserve the hegemony of ruling groups and the patriarchal order.Discussing the colonial genesis of modern jirgas and panchayats is not intended to attribute blame for contemporary problems to events that happened a century or more ago. Instead, the aim is to demonstrate how colonial mechanisms for the establishment of control and authority continue to due to the active collusion of the post-colonial state, with the outsourcing of justice to informal local bodies being a key means through which the traditional elite has been able to continue exerting power of their subordinates.

It should be absolutely clear that honour killings and other forms of violence and discrimination against women must be challenged and ultimately ended as a matter of utmost priority. Those who stand in the way of this project, in the name of tradition or religion or anything else, must be exposed as the agents of reactionary patriarchy and male privilege that they are. However, it should also be understood that jirgas, panchayats, and the like are indicative of a system that has long been geared towards protecting and advancing the interests and dominance of the elite. Ending the oppression and injustice that is intrinsic to this system cannot be accomplished without destroying the edifice of elite privilege upon which it is built.