Tabassum Adnan: Challenging Patriarchal Norms

“Working in this community made me realize that men never bother about women’s issues and they can’t understand the real issues facing women. That’s why I decided to form a women’s jirga,” says Tabassum Adnan.

In response to an ever-worsening situation in terms of women’s rights, in the Swat valley in northern Pakistan, the winner of the Individual Activist category of the CIVICUS Nelson Mandela –Graça Machel Innovation Awards started the first-ever Pakistani women-led council called the Khwendo Jirga.

Married as a child bride at 13 to a man 30 years older, Adnan was physically and psychologically abused. By the time she was 20 she had three children and at age 33 she finally got a divorce. Attending a local women’s empowerment program inspired her to get involved in decision-making processes but she was not permitted to join the local male-only council.

These all-male jirgas make decisions against women – without their consent or presence – and they bypass the local justice system. To make matters worse, those who commit brutal acts against women are never charged. This spurred Adnan to found the Sisters’ Council in 2013. This 25 all-female group began by providing legal assistance to seek justice for women, whilst bringing pressure to bear on the police and court system to act in cases where previously they would turn a blind eye. In 2014 the group organized a protest in response to a child being raped and the authorities failing to act. This resulted in suspects being apprehended and for the first time in Pashtun history, and a woman, Adnan, was asked to sit on the male jirga and assist with dispensing justice.

Since their first success, Adnan has been invited to participate on other cases. Advocacy work is on-going, to protect women’s rights and protect them from violence; particularly honor killings, dowry harassment, murder and torture, mostly at the hands of the husband or in-laws, and in some cases so extreme that it has resulted in death. And as the Khwendo Jirga successfully gains justice for survivors, and the families of those who have died, the era of impunity is ending.


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