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Pashtuns & Jirga System:

By Qasim Swati (United Kingdom)

Being a traditional, tribal assembly or council of elders, a jirga is responsible for settling disputes in Afghanistan and among the Pashtuns in Pakistan. As defined on, “It is a term used for gathering of elders in the Pashto language of the North-Western region of Pakistan and in the Pashto-speaking areas of Afghanistan. A jirga is a conflict/dispute resolution process where the disputing parties, after agreeing to the jirga process, plead their case in front of elders from within their community, while reaching the outcome of the process, based either on the decision recommended by the elders of the jirga or dependent on achieving a two-thirds majority by one of the disputing parties.”

Having both its merits and demerits, a jirga is held for resolving numerous disputes, including issues relating to women, property and/or land, wealth, struggle for gaining political, religious or other superiority in the Pashtun society and other such disagreements.

Being a fundamental component of Pashtoon culture and civilization, jirga system has been playing a prominent role in the process of conflict resolution in the Pashtoon society for ages. It has many benefits and merits, which both the concerning parties or sides can benefit from. The process is simple and straightforward and not as much complicated as the one prevalent in the courts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This is also cost-effective and not much expensive when compared to other judicial systems of these countries. So, this is both accessible to and affordable for, almost, every individual in the Pashtoon society. The process of jirga system does not take a long time, but can provide a quick justice to the parties concerned. Being traditional and customary in nature, the system is easy for the people to understand and implement properly, as it is based on local traditions, customs and language of the local population.

Notwithstanding its several advantages and merits, the jirga system is not as much transparent, fair, ideal and beneficial as used to be in the past, because this is to blame for numerous flaws, shortcomings, demerits and defects that undermine the system. For example, neutrality or impartiality is very essential for the successful process of the jirga, but both the disputing parties can have their own supporters among the jirga members who can negatively influence the process of negotiation in favour of their own relatives, friends and allies, from among the disputing parties. Thus, favouritism can spoil the process and affect the outcome of the decision negatively and unfairly.

It is claimed in favour of the jirga system that both the relevant parties can have the right to approach members of the jirga, but, in reality, the powerful and aggressive disputing party can dominate and influence the decision-making process of the jirga in many ways. Some jirga members can be selfish, greedy and dishonest, who can easily be bribed and threatened by the powerful party in order to decide in their favour.

Although both the disputing parties are bound by the jirga’s rules to accept the decision, made by the jirga, but implementation of the decision is, sometimes, very, very uncertain, because it has been observed that the trailing/losing party (the party affected by the decision) is reluctant and  unwilling to accept the decision easily.

Generally, the jirga members are influential people of the community who have their own personal interests, likes and dislikes, aims and objectives, who want to benefit from the matter in question in some way. Some of them do not want the disputing parties to end their dispute, because the relevant selfish and crafty jirga members may not be able to benefit from the dispute in the future, in case, the disputing parties resolve the issue and come close to each other by mending their relations again.

In the past, the majority of the jirga members used to play a positive role in the whole process of the jirga. Nevertheless, some of the jirga members are cunning, manipulative, selfish and corrupt these days. Therefore, they try not to make just and correct decisions nor do they intend to implement their own decision, because they want the dispute to continue between the concerning parties, in which case, this is possible for them to obtain their personal benefits from the conflict and manipulate the arguing parties in the future, accordingly.

Even though the jirga members are expected to be knowledgeable, intelligent, honest, sincere, impartial and uncontroversial, however, some jirga members, sometimes, make very weird, unusual, funny, biased and unjust decisions.

Generally, women, the poor and other vulnerable people can become victims of the outcome of the jirga’s decision-making process in various ways, and, thus, their human rights can be violated.

It is also argued in favour of the jirga system that everyone is equally treated and that no one is denied justice in the process, but, again, the aggressive and powerful disputant can influence the decision-making process and manipulate its outcome, as it is said that ‘Might is right.’

The code of Pashtunwali is said to be the pivotal guideline for the process of making the decision under the jirga system, nonetheless, vested interests, bias and partiality of some of the jirga members can unfavourably affect the outcome of the decision made by the jirga.

It is commonly believed in favour of the jirga system that both the relevant parties are free to choose jirga members by mutual consent and independently, but the weaker party can be manipulated and disadvantaged in the selection process, too.

The decisions, made under the jirga system, are said to be mainly based on evidence, but some of the selfish, devious, deceitful and manipulative jirga members can twist the facts and change the outcome of the decision-making process for the sake of their own personal gains and interests.

Qasim Swati is a freelance journalist, writer and human rights activist, based in the UK, and can be reached at or

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