Women’s rights activist Tabassum Adnan in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times 

Tabassum Adnan is in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times Bureau Chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Amjad Hilal. Photo by TOT

Tabassum Adnan is a Pakistani women’s right activist from the Valley of Swat—Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. She is the founder of Khwendo Jirga, or Sisters’ Council, an NGO and a woman only-jirga. Recently, she was awarded the 2015 Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in recognition of her services for women’s rights. She is a remarkable woman doing remarkable things for women in Pakistan’s formely Taliban controlled Swat Valley. She is recognized as one of the rare groups of people in Pakistan to stand up against patriarchy and take active steps towards defending women’s rights. Tabassum established the first ever women –only Jirga. Tabassum is currently working on youth to inspire them to come forward and make their own contributions in forging a more inclusive and non-violent society.

Tabassum Adnan is in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times Bureau Chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Amjad Hilal, where she spoke about her work, the problems being faced by women in the region, her work within the male domain and human rights issues pertaining to the region.


Congratulations to you on winning the prestigious 2015 Secretary of State International Women of Courage Award. Our readers would like to know about your early life and how you started off your journey—the journey of standing up for a cause.

Thank you. It is a great honor for me to be the recipient of the 2015 Secretary of State International Women of Courage Award. It is indeed a privilege and honor to win this global award this year. Awards are recognition of one’s endeavors and professional commitments—a source of encouragement that boosts our enthusiasm, and a drive that enkindles new fires that steer you to take up a new challenge. I am grateful to Allah Almighty, my family, friends for their consistent support when I stood up for a sacred cause—the cause that serves humanity.

I was born in 1977 in a village in Saidu Sharif—the capital city of District Swat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. I got married when I was just 13. My parents pushed me to tie-the-knot with such a man who was much older than me. After enduring abuses for three decades, both physical and mental from my husband, I decided to give up on marriage-bond. The decision cost me custody of my children, money and home. After moving back to my parents’ home, I felt rejected and humiliated. I was near committing suicide, but I kept going on. That time, I found myself helpless and without any means of support. “The hardships I came across after I was pushed into tying the knot with a man who was much older than me and the scars of divorce, finally I realized that now is the time to stand for a cause—the cause of women’s right and not only to speak form myself but to stand up for hundreds and thousands of voiceless women”

I realized that now is the time to break all the traditional barriers and to give a voice to the voiceless women in the male dominated society. Therefore, I formed a women‘s empowerment program to enable women to participate in decision making process. Initially, I approached male jirga, but I was refused to sit in that jirga. In Pashtun society jirgas are traditional community assemblies, made up of male only where most of the times the decisions are made against women and without their consent or presence. After this rejection, I vowed to stand against such patriarchal injustices and in May 2013, I started my own jirga with the name “Khwendo Jirga or Sister’s Council,” the first ever run jirga by women in the country.

“I pioneered a female-jirga in the history of Pashtuns, thought I faced severe reaction from the society including my own parents and other family members, but I had to be a woman with steel nerve to succeed in my objectives of serving women, giving them and voice”

Many objected at me, even my parents and brothers, but my ambition was strong and I wanted to do something for humanity, particularly for women

We keep hearing this term “Khwendo Jirga”, when it comes to women’s rights issues in Pakistan, what does this term refer to? 

Traditionally women in our society and region have been used as chattel to settle disputes of men, traded in marriages to absolve debts, claims of honor and retribution of crimes for the reason that women have  little power. I recognized that now there is need to put  pressure on authorities to act .I have more than 25 members all female jirga members .Our organization is providing justice support to the victims through our lawyers both male and female , protection of women and girls’ health ,training in both traditional domestic and nontraditional vocational skills , micro financing , access to women to peace negotiations, justice, voting and laws which protect women from violence specifically honor killings, dowry, early child marriages, acid attacks and torture.

In 2014, a girl was raped and the authorities failed to act. I along with my female jirga members organized a protest walk and brought visibility to the case. The suspects were apprehended and for the first time in our Pashtun society, I was asked to sit in the male jirga .Since then I have been invited to participate in other cases related to “women issues”.

“A  girl was raped in 2014 and when I found that the govt officials have failed in delivering justice, I along with my female-jigra members not only took out to the streets but also made the police officials to nab the perpetrators, since then I have been invited to many jirgas—dealing with women issues”

 In a country where women’s rights is like a distant dream,where even today approximately 50 percent of girls still drop out of school, you have been an advocate for women rights for the last couple of years – what has been your cause of motivation?

Motivation behind my work for women is solely because of my bitter past. As a matter of fact, bitterness of situations can only be felt if one him/her self has tasted or gone through it. Likewise, sustainable cure lies in proper diagnosis of illness. I have seen the cultural conservatism to which the women  are subjected to, victimized since ages in the name of oldest traditions like  early and forced marriages, gender based violence, “Swara—a tradition where girls are married to resolve feuds” and so on which are often left unreported & unnoticed. I think that is the intrinsic driving force behind my work.

How significant is this award for your work?

For me this award is also an opportunity to raise my voice against threats and violence that my fellow human rights activists in Pakistan are subjected to. This award is not an individual’s award but recognition of all rights activists of Pakistan who work in very difficult circumstances. It is a tribute to a large number of Pakistani who has worked relentlessly for better human rights in the country. It is also an award for the voiceless people and all other who have consistently struggled against oppression over the years. I hope this award will further promote the culture of “courage” in Pakistan. It is not easy to be an advocate for human rights in Pakistan these days.

You say difficult circumstances; could you please elaborate what you mean by that?

Photo Courtesy:Lubpak.com

Photo Courtesy: (Lubpak)

Well, difficult circumstances mean to work in a traditional society; it is a country where there has been dictatorship for a long period of time. We are still in a very fragile transition. We have religious extremism and militancy, where freedom of expression is very limited in certain areas. So these are the taboos that you have to break all the time. It’s really a daunting and riskier job to break these taboos.

What about threats? What challenges do you encounter working in your region?

 It is difficult for a woman to lead human rights campaigns in a male-dominated society. Many times, I took on difficult and sensitive cases dealing with early marriages,’swara’ cases, and acid attacks. Yes, I constantly receive threats, and to be very honest, at times it is very scary. But I have to continue my work. We face challenges due to tribal norms, cultural values, and the interpretation of religion. You work in a community for 10 months and just one statement by an imam in a mosque can destroy your hard work within minutes.

“In a conservative society like ours, it’s quite risky to be an advocate for women’s rights, but despite that I took on sensitive issues like Swara and acid throwing attacks”

 What are the problems being faced by the rural women of Pakistan?

16 Days: Two girls reading - Pakistan

Two young girls standing outside their class room. in rural Pakistan.(Photo Courtesy: World Bank/Curt Carnemark)

Violence against women exists in rural areas. It deprives them of their fundamental rights. Education is the only effective tool that
goes a long way in empowering women and helping them in shielding their rights. Feudalism is among the key detrimental factors that bar women from being empowered.  The feudal system is also responsible for atrocities against women in rural areas. Media has been playing a crucial role by reporting honor killing, torture and harassment cases in rural areas. I believe that until material development (infrastructure) such as roads, electricity, water supply, and schools) is accompanied by an attitudinal change, the quality of life for women will remain unchanged. In rural Pakistan, women are unable to derive any benefit from most developments in their communities because of customs that discriminate between men and women. I am enabling young girls to go to school and become educated and empowered by removing the economic barrier. But yes optimism is there as things are changing now. Thanks to awareness campaigns launched by different non-profit organizations, civil society stakeholders the media and judiciary.

What needs to be done to change the situation of women’s rights in Pakistan?

I think a lot needs to change for women’s rights,  particularly the attitude that a woman is subservient to a man. There is still some anger if women do better, although there is a lot of lip-service paid to women’s rights from Benazir Bhutto down to Malala Yousafzai. If a woman is recognized, certain extremist lobbies feel anger because a woman is being recognized and because she has done better than men. Violence against women is rampant, although the government has done what it could, there has to be education for men, so that they also begin to recognize that it is also in their interest for women to be treated in a non-discriminatory manner and with dignity.

Similarly, if everyone among us start thinking & contributing in person, regardless of how little difference it makes , he should play his part with crystal clear intention for betterment of  girls and women. These small contributions when combined will result a major and distinct change around us. Additionally women need to be more aware of their basic human and legal rights. Ignorance from their own rights further keeps them disadvantaged and therefore tends to be vulnerable in male dominant domains.

What other pertinent issues need to be dealt with urgently in Pakistan?

Women’s rights have to go hand in hand with other rights. The fact is that there is large scale impunity in Pakistan for all kinds of violence, particularly violence against the vulnerable. That needs to change, which means better governance, better institutions of state. What needs to change are the taboos on freedom of expression, not only for women but also for men, and we need an open debate on the rights of women without bringing tradition and religion into it and a recognition of the role that women have played in building society in Pakistan in a positive way.

Women’s Right Activist, Tabassum Adnan with The Oslo Times Bureau Chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Amjad Hilal. Photo by TOT

How do you rate civil society organizations, particularly NGOs, in promoting the issue of women rights?

Civil society organizations are playing the sheet anchor role for the elimination of women issues because they have practically delivered by generating viable results. Yet their approach and number with respect to prevalence of issues is pretty limited due to capacity, budgets, regulatory and limited authority. And for this I personally urge the state to strengthen the civil society’s culture and extend the level of trust in them by overall monitoring with consistency and coming up with comprehensive policies to eradicate women issues.

Some people believe that if they want to be activists they should devote themselves to this work; so can you tell us how do you balance your personal life and human rights activities?

At times, human rights activism made me a busy bee, which cost me my family time. I attempted to bring a balance between my work-hours and the time for family and rest while taking into consideration that I was doing work in order to secure a living for my family and that human rights advocacy has been and remains voluntary.

I always tried to keep an interactive relationship between my private life and human rights activities. I usually confer with my husband and children regarding these activities.

We ask all our guests to us their views on human rights. And being a guest today, what’s human right to you? 

It is a key for a peaceful life irrespective of who you are and what is your religion, color, gender, tribe or creed.The right to live is the most fundamental one.  If you do not respect this right, how you can enjoy the other rights?

 Where do we fall short vis-à-vis human rights in Pakistan today?

PAKISTANPeople, in our society, who champion the rights of women and children, but haven’t experienced those very problems themselves, cannot understand. When they chalk out plans they are destined to be fallible because the target communities don’t accept them. You can’t go to a village and ask the people there if they have experienced sexual and gender-based violence?  They are uneducated people. When they hear the heavy terminology they shy away immediately. As a nation, we’re complete hypocrites. We don’t speak our hearts. What we’re propagating is what rarely meant for implementation. This is our biggest dilemma in Pakistan. That’s why change doesn’t come.

“The problem is with those who work in right activism sector and the problem is their inexperience as they cannot understand what’s the degree of pains victims have gone through and who knows it well other than the victim-turned-activists”.

Do you believe there is freedom of expression in Pakistan?

  “Yes” and “no”. Previously, the masses had fewer forums to express their opinions but after the revolution of media especially after the rise of social media in Pakistan, every common person with access to internet uses facebook, twitter and many other forums where they can speak their lungs out. The social media interactive sites provide customization of posts at the convenience of its users. Yet despite that a user living in Swat simply cannot openly and fearlessly express his political opinion against a certain political party. Similarly, one cannot express his disagreement with any political or religious figure. If someone dares, he is the sole responsible for the consequences. One cannot openly speak and write against the mighty and ruthless terrorists, political parties (including self-proclaimed liberal parties), religious heads etc. There are certain issues which require debate, deliberations, exchange of ideas and discussions for better formulation.

Any message for the young women of South Asia?

Our women live a formula life. Everything is set and decided for them by the society. I just want the women in South Asia to be the masters of their lives and be ambitious while not letting others to decide for them what is good and what is bad for them.


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