Council Of Thieves: There Is No Place For Panchayats In The 21st Century

The Indian sub-continent has a lot of medieval traditions and cultures that have no place in today’s society. One such system is that of the panchayat or jirga: a village council primarily made of up illiterate old men, who hold power over the community. There is never any representation of women in this council, which makes rules and passes judgement at the village level to settle disputes between and amongst families and for various crimes.

Such councils have been present in rural societies for centuries, have evolved over generations, and have the support of local populations because they claim to base their decisions on culture and tradition. More often than not, their judgements are misogynistic and women and girls are their main victims.

An example of the Panchayat’s judgement can be found recently in the case of a 12 year old girl, who was raped while cutting grass in a field. The council comprising of 40 men was convened, and what was the judgment of this esteemed body? That the 16-year-old sister of the accused be raped by the brother of the victim. This crime was committed in front of the panchayat and the girl’s family! An incident of “an eye for an eye” in which the victim is always the woman. The point here was of “honour”. A girl’s family was “dishonoured” by a man, so the perpetrator’s family must also be dishonoured in a similar way. No punishment for the perpetrator though.

“Honour” is a tenuous and ubiquitous aspect of Pakistani society. Women and girls are barred from doing many things because it dishonours their family. The panchayat or jirga system gives decisions that disproportionately victimize women and girls in the name of this honour. They can decide to give girls as compensation to settle disputes and even debts. In recent years, they have barred women from voting in elections.

But the most horrific of their acts are the decisions that promote revenge rape. “Honour” is the property of the men in our society. It is their honour that is maligned when their other property, their women do something of their own free will. And it is this property that has to suffer to pay for the crimes of her male family members. I say property of men because this is a patriarchal society and men make the rules of morality in their families, tribes or communities. But let’s be clear, many times women are equally involved; mothers or sisters will support and even encourage the men in their family to kill in the name of honour or even openly support vile Panchayat decrees. This is how entrenched this idea of honour is, which places the responsibility of its maintenance firmly on women and girls. Village councils legitimize such honour based anti-women practices in the name of tradition, often openly flouting the country’s laws.

In the 21st century, there is no place for these panchayats anymore. Anyone who supports them and romanticises their utility is either misguided or a criminal himself. Traditions and cultures are not static. They evolve with new information, technology and time. Holding on to practices such as revenge rapes and giving girls as compensation are something that should have gone away with the iron maiden (look up what it is).

The village council system should be abolished. Completely and irrevocably. This can only be done with the changing of feudal mind-sets and the idea that “elders” of a community know best. The revenge rape decision that happened this week shows that they do not. And the way such mind-sets can be changed is with the implementation and wider reach of Pakistan’s laws that give proper recourse to victims.

Now with the rise of social media, such cases are being given coverage and at least some action is taken. For example, 40 people of the panchayat were arrested when the family of the 16 year old girl on whom this “revenge” was taken reported it to the newly established Violence Against Women Centre (VAWC) in Punjab. How these cases are resolved is still anybody’s guess, because more often than not the perpetrators are allowed to go free because they are powerful. Unfortunately, the rest of the provinces still have to set up centres for victims of violence and the implementation of laws that support women is still not perfect.

More importantly though, the hardest thing to get rid of is the idea that men’s and their families’ honour is the responsibility of women. This idea is still perpetuated in society. Unless this is idea is done away with, panchayats will continue to pass horrible judgements that punish girls for the crimes committed by their brothers, fathers or husbands.

To me the panchayat that passed the revenge rape judgement is a council of thieves. Even if they are brought to justice (not a great chance of that happening), they have robbed a young girl of her dignity, while not punishing her brother who committed the crime in the first place. Now, whatever happens, two girls have been robbed: one because of a man needed to show his power over a 12 year old girl and the second because she was sacrificed in the name of honour by the elders of her village.

(Published in Dunya News)


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Saima Baig

I write on science, history, nature, environment, climate change, feminism, politics and religion.