Oppression of Tribal women for cultural relativity

The concept of 'independent and free tribesmen of FATA' advocates their cultural superiority and discourages tampering with their traditions regarding women

The Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) (1901), operating and functioning in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, has been in the news and media discussions lately when dealing with the question of the future of FATA post-Operation Zarb-e-Azb. For nearly a century now, FATA has been under these British promulgated laws which are concerned with the suppression of people residing on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

FATA is the most impoverished region of Pakistan and the majority of it population lives in rural areas. According to official records, FATA’s total population is 3.17 million, of which the female population is 1.5 million. The literacy rate of FATA is 17 percent, notably below the national average of 40 percent, while female literacy is even lower at less than three percent.

In the debates about mainstreaming or bringing about reforms in FATA, one comes across all sorts of opinion and suggestions, however for a long time cultural relativists have dominated. The cultural relativists advocate retaining the so-called independent status of the Tribal areas as well as the continuation of the tribal Jirgas (council of elders) following Riwaj Dastoor (local tradition and culture). Moreover they argue that the office of the political agent and FCR are the administrative mechanisms best suited to the needs of the area. This debate, however, has made women of FATA the worst causality of state oppression, along with that of social and personal oppression.

Women are oppressed by the state by the FCR

Women are oppressed by the state by the FCR, which is a series of oppressive colonial laws that have no space for them. Only one section of FCR (Section 30) deals with women and that too simply concerns adultery. Section 30 of FCR states that a woman (married) involved in physical relationship would be fined and imprisoned up to five years on the complaint of her husband. In most cases, her fate will be decided by the brutal patriarchal structure of a Jirga but she herself will have no representation in the set up. No other matter concerning women is subject to a tribunal, and the only available one lacks clarity and exists to support and strengthen the position of men.

On a personal level, women of FATA are oppressed because of the prevailing patriarchal culture, norms and selectively religiously incited edicts used against them. The lives of women in FATA are circumscribed by traditions, which enforce extreme seclusion and submission to men.

According to all the cultural relativists, culture and traditions are the sole source of the validity of a moral right or rule to subjugate or guide the existence of women. Cultural relativists hold that tribal traditions are exempt from legitimate criticism by outsiders, a concept that is strongly supported by notions of communal autonomy and self-determination.

Women are not represented in the jury or justice system in the tribal area.

The concept of ‘independent and free tribesmen of FATA’ advocates their cultural superiority and discourages tempering with their traditions regarding women. Most of these advocates for relativism proclaim that even though mainstream Pakistani legal system offers fundamental rights to people, these rights are not granted on the ground, so FATA is better off under a system which is speedy like Jirga. However they tend to forget that it is not a just system since half of the population are kept out of it or have no representation in it.

I have my own complicated relations with both the oppression of state and society, and I know when one aspect opens an opportunity for women in FATA another one can easily override and cancel it. The possibility of abrogating the old colonial FCR makes some of the cultural relativists very nervous in FATA and they fear that by streamlining the system our personal issues would be made political and public.

“How can we tolerate our women going to courts asking for a divorce?” one advocate asks. Most of them see and defend this inequality of sexes as being divinely ordained. Even though Islam is used to justify the form of local cultural practices, the authenticity of religious terms being invoked is rarely looked at. In fact, entrenched cultural and traditional practices of tribal societies usually override Islamic laws, which are only used selectively or adapted in accordance with cultural traditions.

Government is treating women as the invisible entity in FATA

Government sponsored oppressive laws like FCR and the office of the political agent claim the monopoly on the threat of violence or use of violence. But this claim on violence by the state is illegitimate since it is based on oppressive and unjust laws. Therefore, the enforcement of those laws in FATA is a case of oppressive state-sponsored violence. The invisibility and oppression of women in FATA is thus solidified by the administrative unit operating in FATA.

Cultural or religious justifications along with patriarchal ideologies dominate these communities. Tribal women face extra obstacles that prevent them even from struggling against their own oppression. Even the current debate which has caught on in Pakistani media about mainstreaming FATA has no aspect of inserting gender into the social transformation of the tribal set up. The Pakistan government formed a committee to look at the reforms in FATA, but that too has no female representation. It seems the government is not looking at the reforms mainstreaming from gender balanced approach and treating women as the invisible entity in FATA.


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