May Issue 2015

By | Society | Published 9 years ago

A social activist and the leader of Swat’s first all-women jirga, Tabassum Adnan recently received the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department. She was awarded for her efforts in highlighting the issues faced by women in Swat, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Adnan founded the Khwendo Jirga, (‘jirga of sisters’ in Pashto), in 2012, in the conservative Swat valley which was partially controlled by the Taliban from 2006-2009. Khwendo works on a number of fronts to empower women who have no say in matters concerning their lives.

A victim of child marriage herself, Tabassum Adnan succeeded in securing a separation from her husband after nearly 22 years of physical and mental abuse, but at the cost of losing custody of her four children. Nevertheless, she prefers not to dwell on her own hardships as she says they are now in the past. “I can’t change the past, but I can work as much as possible to change the future for the empowerment of women in Swat and all over Pakistan,” she says.

Soon after the separation, Adnan joined an NGO in Swat where she encountered women facing various problems. “Women would come from different areas with a range of complaints, mostly related to acts of violence against them. Listening to their ordeals made me think about doing something that hadn’t been done before,” she says. Adnan remembers one woman telling her about the horrible acid attack against her daughter. It was on this occasion, Adnan says, that she became truly proactive. She went to the Aman jirga along with the victim’s family and several other women to seek help in getting justice. “The jirga assured us of their full support for the victim. But eventually nothing was done. Then we started protests on the streets and registered a case against the criminal,” she says. It was from this incident that the Khwendo Jirga was born on May 4, 2012. Adnan wanted a forum where women could raise their voice against injustices. “I contacted women in different areas. I wanted women who are allowed to leave their homes to join me in this effort. I sought out women who could identify and address issues faced by the women in their areas.”

However, not everyone welcomed her move. A decree was issued by the Jamia Ashrafia Lahore against Adnan and her fellow jirga members, terming the council anti-Islamic. “It said that we were spreading vulgarity in the name of women’s rights. That actually meant women ought to be restricted to their homes and should have no right to take decisions even about their own issues.” An all-male jirga in Swat also opposed the Khwendo Jirga. Adnan believes that some men felt threatened as their domination was being challenged. “They said that we should be beaten up for testing the patience of the Pakhtuns. Even our positive activities were considered a threat to the supremacy of men,” she added.

Adnan’s family also began to receive threats, after she received the International Women of Courage Award. “My family was told to put an end to my activities. But I have decided that even if I am under threat, I will not leave my work. I feel secure as the police are providing security to my family,” maintains the ever-optimistic, unarguably brave Adnan.

The Award, as the name suggests, is given to women around the world for their services in hostile environments.  Adnan and nine other women received the award in March this year, at a ceremony in Washington attended by US First Lady, Michelle Obama. To date, 83 women have received the award.

Recalling the occasion, Adnan says she felt proud when her country’s name was announced. “I was pleased because our work was recognised. It made me happy when they said, a ‘Pakhtun woman from Pakistan’ is the winner.” But she says that Pakistan is not the only country grappling with the issue of women’s rights. “Even the US has human and women rights problems, but there the government addresses such issues. However, in our country many politicians don’t even accept that the violation of women’s rights is a problem. In reply to a question by TV anchor Fareeha Idrees, our chief minister said that he did not even know our all-women jirga existed. The world knows about the jirga, but our own government does not,” says Adnan.

Her aim is to get the government to take the issue of women’s rights seriously. “The government should encourage women who are putting their lives and honour at risk for the rights of their gender. It needs to address this issue seriously,” she stressed. But given the situation in Parliament, even our women parliamentarians are apparently not concerned. “Our elected female representatives are not interested in working for women who are deprived of their rights. They should at least bring our issues to the notice of the legislators. What is the point of them sitting silently in the assembly?” she asks.

The Khwendo Jirga has worked for the victims of child marriage and swara, a Pakhtun tradition similar to vani under which girls are married against their will, often at a minor age, to settle blood-feuds. Adnan is proud that the Khwendo Jirga raises its voice against human trafficking, forced marriages and for the inheritance rights of women. They support the causes of women’s education, health and political rights and also advocate for transgenders. In the case of small disputes, the jirga plays a mediatory role by convincing opposing sides to settle their disputes peacefully. “For the bigger issues we take help from our legal advisors and courts. We also approach NGOs with a know-how of the law and experience with the resolution of similar issues,” Adnan maintains.

However, despite all the odds, she still believes that women in Pakistan, particularly in Swat, have a bright future. “If women continue their struggle and raise their voice, I believe one day we will be able to stand up to male domination and live a secure life.” However, she concedes, “much more needs to be done to get there.”

This article was originally published in Newsline’s May 2015 issue.

Arshad Yusufzai has worked for Voice of America and has published in The News International and Central Asia Online.