Women, patriarchy, and traditional methods: A postcolonial feminist critique of pashtun Jirga

Farooq Yousaf


In recent years, especially after the end of the Cold War, scholars and peace practitioners have focused their attention more on exploring the role of cultural and traditional methods in peace and conflict resolution strategies. This is because post—Cold War conflicts are mainly “intrastate” and are confined within, and not between, the state borders. However, before this recent shift in focus on exploring traditional methods, there remained a major divide between “western” and “non-western” perceptions of conflict, as western ideals of conflict resolution mainly focussed on the role of “individual” in conflict, whereas non-western, native, and Indigenous perspectives analysed the “society” as a whole (Okafo, 2006). However, due to the rising criticism of “liberal” (top-down) methods in peace and conflict resolution, global peacekeeping and peacebuilding bodies, especially the United Nations, have also changed their strategies and assumed the additional role of “mediators”, to incorporate “custom” and “tradition” in their intervention strategies. Even with this “evolution” of the UN in terms of its perception of conflict, the global body has failed in containing the “new” intrastate conflicts that are more local and warrant a (re)evaluation through a cultural “context”. Carrie Menkel-Meadow emphasises the importance of such “context” arguing that finding true solutions to local and global conflicts can only be made possible by opening up to “as many and different contextually specific ideas as it will take” (Menkel-Meadow, 2003, p. 352).

Traditional peace and conflict resolution strategies, even today, are common in various parts of the world. The Indigenous Andes community in Latin America, for example, uses traditional methods to settle community disputes. In Africa, the Gacaca courts in Rwanda and Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa employ the Ubuntu philosophy. In South Asia, the Jirga system in Afghanistan and northern-western Pakistan is also a common traditional system of peace and conflict resolution followed even today among the Pashtun people. In the Middle East, traditional and religious mediation and arbitration mechanisms — especially Sulha — are also used in personal and interpersonal cases (Ozçelik, 2007; Johnstone, 2015). Feminist scholarship in critical peace and conflict studies has often criticised the marginalisation and exclusion of women from the conflict resolution process, both conventional and traditional (Jayawardene, 1985; Menon, 2012; Naqvi and Riaz, 2015; Naseer, 2019). Additionally, this absence of women from peace and conflict resolution processes exacerbates vulnerabilities and risks for them in post-conflict situations, especially when there is a cessation of armed conflict (Smith, 2017). Donna Pankhurst (2012, 2000) theorises this absence of women and continuation of violence as “post-conflict backlash against women”. This backlash is characterised by “high rates of violence and restrictions on women’s access to political, economic and social resources post-conflict” (cited in Smith, 2017, p. 66).

Therefore, many societies pursuing traditional means of conflict resolution for local and interpersonal conflicts have also come under criticism for excluding women from peace and conflict resolution mechanisms (Naseer, 2019; Sev'er and Yurdakul, 2001). Moreover, traditional practices, in many cases, are criticised for enabling or in some cases supporting violence against women, especially by male stakeholders operating under the justification of “tradition” and “religion” (D’costa, 2016; Wood, 2019). Incorporating traditional methods in contemporary peace and conflict resolution strategies can, therefore, become especially problematic for feminist peace scholars and human rights advocates. Similarly, “traditional patriarchal”1 societies, where traditional methods are practiced, are also criticised because aggression against women in such societies is justified by their “choices” and “natures” (Becker, 1999, p. 26). Moreover, a deviation from “male-defined” and “male-dominated” norms and dynamics in these societies provides permanent anxiety for “traditional patriarchal” societies, which forces men to strictly police women’s sexuality and choices (Menon, 2012, p. 7). Uma Narayan further elaborates on this phenomenon by arguing that,

mistreatments (of women) are significantly rooted in particular practices and institutional arrangements, embedded in a material reality that includes our culture and traditions as well as a variety of ongoing changes, and the powerlessness they inflict on many women.

(Narayan, 1997, p. 12)

Even though masculinity, patriarchy, and male-dominance are more or less a global phenomenon, instances of aggression against, and mistreatment of, women are especially visible in societies where male-domination and exclusion of women from public life are justified under “tradition” and state-defined “religion”.

Keeping this introduction in perspective, this chapter aims to discuss “traditional” societies in the context of participation of women and their inclusion in peace and conflict resolution processes. The chapter also analyses the case of Pashtunwali (Pashtun culture) and Pashtun Jirga (tribal councils) and argues that in traditional and religiously conservative societies, even seemingly effective traditional methods of peace and conflict resolution often enable and support gender rights violations, and contribute to exclusion of women from the public life. This chapter aims to put forward a feminist critique of traditional societies and the threat of, and limitations imposed by, patriarchy towards the participation of women in traditional peace and conflict resolution processes. In terms of the chapter’s vocabulary, the simplified use of “peace and conflict resolution” encompasses all forms of interventions; including dispute resolution, negotiation, mediation, conflict resolution, peace enforcing, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping. Additionally, the use of “traditional patriarchal” societies is confined to those societies in the global south that are characterised by male authority and decision making at home, rigid gender roles, definitions of masculinity that are linked to male honour, and socio-economic inequality between men and women (Aderinto, 2001). The rural Pashtun society in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where men justify the exclusion of women under “custom”, “tradition”, and state-defined versions of religion, falls under this definition of “traditional patriarchal societies”.

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