While writing about FATA women and gender imbalance in the tribal society I have often been accused of being a bourgeoisie feminist or western NGO corrupted mind. Obviously my critics have not been reading what I have been writing about FATA, which has been about complete overhauling and disbanding of colonial system functioning in the seven agencies of Pakistan. After years of campaigning by people of FATA the government however finally seems to have woken up to the reality of FATA streamlining.

Recently Adviser to Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said:

“The committee formed to deal with FATA reforms has completed its task and its recommendations would be presented to the prime minister for approval.”

He was also part of the FATA Reform Committee. The starting point would be the legal framework and to extend judicial jurisdiction gradually in phases in all seven tribal areas and the adjoining frontier regions. The very first act of the mainstreaming would be to repeal the draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation of 1901 and replacing it with the Code of Civil Procedure 1908 and the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 while keeping in mind ‘the need to amalgam Riwaj — the customs, traditions and usages of tribes in FATA — into the legal framework’. This would be followed up  with the appointment of district and sessions judges by the federal government in consultation with the high court, which could be helped  by a Jirga — a council of elders, with four or more members appointed by the district and sessions judge.

Now that the national newspapers and the government have been mentioning and dropping hints about such reforms in the region, why is the word ‘reforms’ making me uneasy? I am no doubt trying to be very positive and grateful as a stakeholder in my region for the eventual disbandment of the draconian law FCR (1906) but the possible alluded mention of Jirga, traditions, Riwaj and customs are making me uncertain about certain aspects and I want the readers to understand it from a gender perspective. I am intrigued and curious to know how the customs, traditions and Riwaj in usage will be made part of the code of civil procedure keeping in mind the patriarchal nature of these traditions. So far the government committee has no female members in its formation and no input regarding the status of women in FATA had been taken into consideration according to my knowledge.

The women of FATA have been continuously marginalised and considered as an invisible entity having no voice in the above-proposed reforms. What I want to understand is whether references to customs and tradition in the reforms, mean allowing customs like child marriages, denying her property and divorce  rights, Swara (settling dispute through her), Valver (bride money) Ghag (masculine roar) – and some other cultural practices –, and will  the state continue  perpetrating semi-structured violence against her which offers no protection of her civil rights? What does the above stated tradition, Riwaj entail for her? After all, it is very easy to proclaim that “what is more reassuring, more innocuous, than the beliefs and practices of the past? The best cultural practices” and its continuation — all in the name of “stability and respecting the whims of the tribal men". And we all know that it is the women, upon whose shoulders the burden of upholding cultural norms and values often falls; traditional values can be used as a tool that curtails their rights. 

The debate could be used against her in all these proposed reforms  “a better understanding of traditional values of Tribal Pakhtun culture,” and Riwaj could be used as an excuse to bury her rights under a mound of cultural relativism. I have heard tribal men asking ‘do these legal reforms means our women going to courts to settle divorce disputes?’

Although women in rest of Pakistan suffer no less than her fellow tribal women in FATA but the state laws of divorce, marriage, and her property rights are in much better structure. We also tend to think that the economic, social and educational opportunities offered to them are far better than their tribal counterparts. In my own research thesis on FATA women’s educational condition, the 3% literacy rate was not a positive sign. But I found FATA women aware to a great extent as to how they would feel if they had more say in the all-male dominated Jirga system, and how discriminatory educational opportunities were offered to them by state and society. The government formed committee or the people they spoke to in tribal area about the reforms obviously are unaware that the tribal women had a come a long way.

From being a part of prolonged war, internal displacement and victim of economic hardships – braving the militant blowing up their schools, colleges – restricting their already limited movement and numerous Pakistan army military operations – they are the bravest women of Pakistan. They are ready for opportunities to grab, learn and unlearn and being a part of the mainstream Pakistan.  I fear that that the highly patriarchal nature of Pakhtun culture traditions and, Riwaj and the debate of the cultural relativists will fail her in these reforms. 

Jirga is an all-male institution and by no means an egalitarian setup as most Pakhtun men would proclaim. It has no concept of gender equality which has been taking guidance from the patriarchal Riwaj and Dastoor of the tribal set up. How will the proposed Jirga work and who will be the final authority if the clash comes between the Riwaj and Pakistan civil procedure? How will this clash, which already exists in tribal setup between cultural norms and religion regarding women educational and property rights, work out? For example, the cultural practice of distributing or giving out inheritance to only distant male cousins rather than daughter or wife of a mirath (who is son-less or issueless)?

I am dismayed that despite FATA being managed under tradition, customs, and Riwaj for more than half a century we still feel the current climate of political uncertainty, social upheaval, and economic crisis in FATA. It is still important to evoke the timeless universal essence that traditions, customs and Riwaj claim to embody! Evoking a static and vague concept of “tradition” not only fails to account for these shifts, it fossilises society like it did in the past century in FATA, resulting in one of the major crises of this country. A humble request is to disband the corrupt FATA secretariat and invest that money in the extending of complete national justice to the region.