Thursday, April 28, 2005

Pakistani Justice

The next time one hears a multiculturalist pontificate on how all cultures are essentially equal, with none being superior to others (especially not racist, sexist, imperialist Western culture), one might want to bring up the case of Rabia, a two year old Pakistani girl, who unfortunately represents a perfect case of why all cultures are not equal.
Chewing on a biscuit and gurgling with laughter, two-year-old Rabia plays with her elder brothers outside their mud-walled farmhouse, amid a sea of green wheat. The barefoot toddler flashes a smile as her first words tumble out.

But that innocence will be shortlived if local elders have their way, because Rabia is already promised in marriage - to a man 38 years her senior.

A village court determined her fate after her uncle, Muhammad Akmal, was accused of sleeping with another man's wife. After an hour-long deliberation, the elders found him guilty and fined him 230,000 rupees (£2,070). They also ordered him to marry his niece to the wronged man, 40-year-old Altaf Hussain, once she passed her 14th birthday.

Such village courts are very common throughout Pakistan. Until recently, their power was generally unchallenged.

Poor farmers still turn to informal justice systems, known variously as jirgas or panchayats, to settle disputes about land, honour and money. The courts have many attractions. In contrast with the plodding, expensive and often corrupt public courts, a panchayat can be convened at a few hours' notice in a house or under a tree. The gathered elders act quickly, cost little, and are unequivocal in their judgments.

But the justice rendered is often rough, say human rights activists, who say panchayats favour the rich, fuel old notions of bloody revenge, and perpetuate feudal inequalities.

"They nearly always decide in favour of the most powerful," said Rashid Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan in the southern city of Multan. "In these areas the people are living in the 16th century. And still the state is sleeping. Why?"

Panchayat decisions can be as bizarre as they are cruel. A panchayat in Lodhran district last year ordered seven women to divorce their husbands, in an effort to end a feud between two clans with marriage ties. Their 25 children were handed over to the fathers.

In another case, a woman claimed by two rival men had her fate decided by the flip of a coin. Panchayats are also central to the phenomenon of karo kari, or honour killings.

Oxfam estimates that between 1,200 and 1,800 women are murdered by their relatives every year in the name of preserving family honour. Many killings are sanctioned by village courts.

The most notorious "honour" case of recent years concerned Mukhtaran Bibi, a 29-year-old Punjabi woman who in 2002 was gangraped on the orders of her local panchayat.

She became an international human rights heroine when, in defiance of local custom, she confronted her attackers in court and had six men sentenced to death.

But an appeal court sparked a national outcry by freeing the convicted men, citing flaws in the original prosecution. Now the supreme court has said it will decide the matter.

But Mukhtaran Bibi's is an exceptional case - most panchayats go entirely unscrutinised. The weak writ of government in remote rural areas allows rough justice to thrive, according to Mr Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Only the negative attention of the Western media and Western human rights groups has precipitated some effort by Pakistan to deal with the problem. Not that Western culture, with its emphasis on human rights and the equality of women is better than rural Pakistani or Islamic culture or anything like that. Perish the thought.


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