Not surprisingly, the problem is framed in terms of “tribal” issues and not any religious ones. But the tribal courts and the societies that depend on them are informed by the letter and spirit of Islamic law, which cannot be discounted in a discussion of the challenges of improving the rights of women in Islamic countries. Qur’an 4:34 validates the idea of violence as a recourse against “disobedient” women. Qur’an 2:282 renders a woman’s testimony as worth half that of a man, and women’s testimony is routinely inadmissible in cases of adultery under Sharia. And Qur’an 24:13, a conveniently timed revelation that took the heat off of Muhammad’s wife Aisha when she was accused of adultery, has led to the nearly impossible requirement of having four witnesses to establish the crime of rape under Sharia.
These concepts, believed to originate from the mouth of Allah, have played a role in forming the consciences of those who operate and seek the judgment of local jirga courts, contributing to the treatment of women as possessions and commodities, the use of violence to “control” or make an example of them, and the under-reporting of crimes against them, including honor killings and rape.
Women who report the crimes face a second wave of assault — one that is often court-ordered. “Rape, mutilation: Pakistan’s tribal justice for women,” by Rebecca Conway for Reuters, August 12:
MULTAN, Pakistan (Reuters) – On April 14, two men entered Asma Firdous’ home, cut off six of her fingers, slashed her arms and lips and then sliced off her nose. Before leaving the house, the men locked their 28-year-old victim inside.
Asma, from impoverished Kohaur Junobi village in Pakistan’s south, was mutilated because her husband was involved in a dispute with his relatives, and they wanted revenge.
Her fate is familiar in parts of Pakistan’s remote and feudal agricultural belts, where women are often used as bargaining chips in family feuds, and where the level of violence they face is increasing in frequency and brutality. […]
In its 2010 report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says almost 800 women were victims of “honor killings” — murders aimed at preserving the honor of male relatives — and 2,900 women reported raped — almost eight a day.
The bulk, or almost 2,600, were raped in Punjab alone, Pakistan’s most populous province.
And the numbers are rising: media reports say crimes against women have risen 18 percent in the year to May and the human rights commission believes its figures represent only a fraction of the attacks which take place across the country. […]
In rural areas, women are often shut out of the justice system, which is compromised by powerful landowners and feudal lords who dominate a hierarchy that makes it difficult — and deadly — for those with little education or social standing to speak out.
Zarmuhamad Afridi, who also attends jirga rulings in Pakistan’s northern tribal belt and works within the mainstream court system, said the jirga system survives because in many parts of Pakistan, a man’s honor is intrinsically linked to how his wife or daughter behave.
“If a couple is not married and they are having a relationship, a jirga may rule that the woman should be shot,” Afridi said. “That is okay for many, because they have to protect family honor.”
The slightest transgression by a woman — being seen talking to a man on the street, perhaps, or having an unknown phone number in a mobile — can bring harsh punishment and social ostracism of the family, he says, making the quick, harsh judgment of the panchayats popular.
Remember this revealing quote the next time an apologist says Islam honors and elevates women:
“Women are cherished here,” he said. “Men protect them. If a woman is out of her house then what is she doing? That is what people think here.”
Many women are unable to speak out because they lack the support and education to understand their rights, activists say.
But even those who dare often get nowhere.
The most high profile instance of a violent ruling by a tribal court against a woman is that of the gang rape of Mukhtaran Mai, which took place near Multan in 2002.
Mai was allegedly attacked to settle a matter of village honor, as decided by a panchayat. She was then paraded naked through her village.
Unlike most rape victims, who face stark recriminations for speaking out, and who are sometimes even expected to commit suicide, she filed a criminal case against 14 men.
Six men were convicted and sentenced to death that year, but in 2005 the Lahore High Court commuted one sentence to life in prison and acquitted the rest.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld that decision in April this year, in what rights activists said was a crushing blow to women’s and minority rights in Pakistan.
The men were released days later. Mai said she is afraid they will return and kill her.
Ali Dayan Hasan, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s South Asia division, said the lack of justice for women in cases like such as Mai’s is “a structural failing of the criminal justice system”.
“The verdict also lays bare the misogyny of Pakistan’s judicial system because it is a judiciary that is instinctively unsympathetic to women.”