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Lessons from the Kohistan episode

By Dr Farzana Bari

The writer is director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad and a rights activist

Recent media reports on the alleged killing of five women for clapping at a wedding ceremony in Kohistan invoked a strong reaction from the state, civil society and human rights activists. The shock, rage and anger expressed by people over the incident reveal two things about our society.

One, that despite frequent violations of human rights on a routine basis, the collective conscience of our society is still not dead. The media brought the incident to public notice. Civil society swiftly reacted by protesting and demanding an inquiry into the incident. Political representatives (Bushra Gohar from the ANP in particular) took personal interest in the matter and demanded that the local administration provide information on the incident. The federal government agreed in no time to provide all the logistical support in the shape of helicopters for investigating the matter. The Chief Justice of Pakistan promptly took suo motu notice and sent a fact-finding mission, which included human rights activists and civil society representatives, to the area. We have proven through this collective response that the Pakistani nation qualifies to be in the comity of civilised nations.

However, when it came to translating our emotional response into practically addressing the issue, we all faltered. The inadequacies in the performance of various sections of the state and the society in this case were highly pronounced. For example, the media reported the incident without having any substantive evidence about it. No effort was made to blur the images of the women and men shown in the video, and this may have put their lives at greater risk now. Civil society organisations and human rights activists reacted immediately to the news by staging demonstrations and protests. NGOs and CSOs (civil society organisations) have no institutional mechanism or capacity to verify such news on their own. Hence, their response on even alleged human rights violations is often knee-jerk and also without any systematic follow-up.

As for the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) administration, it appeared highly incompetent and ill-equipped, intellectually as well as practically, to handle the issue. On the order of the Chief Justice, its officials first went to the area to verify the initial report that the women had been killed without taking any female officer along. Although they did not meet even one of the five women, they still reported to the Chief Justice that all of them were alive. Their excuse was that they couldn’t meet the women in person since local tradition and custom did not permit them to meet local women. However, it seems as if this was being used as a pretext to not produce the women before the apex Court.

The first fact-finding mission left in a hurry as the Chief Justice ordered that he wanted the women to be brought before the Court by the evening of the same day. However, for the second one, there was enough time to prepare but no effort was made to include any expert on the area. Civil society representatives and human rights activists, in particular myself, had no prior experience of investigation of such cases (I was asked by the Chief Justice of Pakistan to join the mission). Ideally speaking, the K-P government should have provided assistance to the fact-finding missions and this should have been in the form of experts, interpreters and volunteers who were willing to spend a number of days in the area to find out what exactly had happened. Instead, what we saw was an ostentatious display of ministers and senior officials going in the helicopters though they served no real purpose.

The higher judiciary expressed its own mindset when it accepted the tribal tradition as a legitimate reason for not insisting on producing the women before the Court. One of the judges not only accepted but also justified the tradition of the area where men in the name of respecting local tradition strictly control women’s mobility.

However, despite all the inadequacies at all levels, the best thing is that the strong reaction by the judiciary, politicians, administration, media, human rights activists and CSOs has sent a clear signal to the rest of the country and to Kohistan in particular, that these jirgas are unconstitutional and that decrees of killing people will not be tolerated by the state and society

Express Tribune