Flaws in Pakistan's judicial system also lead residents to rely on the jirgas. "Traditional courts in Pakistan have very bad records. There are unsolved cases going back more than 30 years, still in process, and the whole justice system is seen as highly corrupt," says Khaliq. "It is also very expensive. Courts charge for each and every service, so the poor can't afford it, whereas the Islamic courts [jirgas] are free and speedy."
The rise of Islamic militancy in Pakistan could only make things worse. As extremists grow more powerful, they have started imposing their own draconian rules on society -- including even more discrimination against women.
No women's land
In December 2012, I crossed from Islamabad into the heart of Pashtun lands. In the scenic Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Army now strictly controls journalists' access, Khaliq and I tried to visit the family of an 8-year-old girl who had just been given away as a swara. Her mother, however, was too afraid to speak. We made other attempts, but Taliban militiamen were still around, locals said, and an informal code of silence remains in force despite the heavy presence of the military.
Once a tourist destination for the Pakistani bourgeoisie and even British monarchs, the Swat Valley was under the sway of a faction of the Pakistani Taliban from 2007 to 2009. Radicals bombed schools, banned girls' education, and held public executions.
After an offensive that left thousands dead and caused a massive exodus, the Army eventually regained control of the region. But terrorists continue to carry out attacks, such as the shooting of Malala and the bombing of four schools in the northwestern tribal belt this past February.
In the valley, we hardly saw any women on the streets. The few outside wore burqas and were always accompanied by men. In Mingora, the capital of Swat district, women are only allowed in the markets for a few hours each day, and even then most husbands don't let their wives go. Those women who can go to the markets buy enough to sell to others in improvised bazaars at home.
During the evenings, as we sat around the fire, the women in the village would describe episodes of violence against them as nighttime fairy tales. The stories were retold to me by one of the men, as none of the women spoke English. Although these men were the perpetrators of the acts being described, they showed no shame in translating them.
City of men
On my way back from Swat, I stopped in Peshawar to meet Samar Minallah, an anthropologist and award-winning filmmaker who has worked with Pashtun women for years.
Peshawar is the nerve center of the tribal belt. It was the headquarters of the Afghan insurgency against the Soviets in the 1980s, and the Taliban rushed back in after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Partnering with local extremist movements, the group has been tightening its grip on the city. In 2012 alone, rockets fell on the local airport, police stations and checkpoints were bombed, vehicles transporting government officials were targeted, and senior public figures were gunned down in daylight. Bombings have continued this year, and sectarian violence in on the rise.
Today, Peshawar is under siege. Vestiges of the old city are now hidden behind sandbags and spirals of barbed wire, while heavily armed soldiers in bulletproof vests guard its ancient, tree-lined avenues. We were stopped three times and interrogated while officers checked the car for bombs. Eventually, they cleared the way ahead toward Edwardes College, which was founded in 1900 by Christian missionaries and has survived in recent years thanks to a heavy security presence.
To my surprise, a teenage female student in a green uniform and white chador came to guide me inside. Up until 2007, Edwardes College did not admit women. Today 305 girls are enrolled alongside more than 2,000 boys. Although still a minority in the classroom, these are the privileged -- two-thirds of girls from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are illiterate.
I entered a crowded gymnasium, where about a hundred teenagers, boys and girls, were awaiting a lecture by Minallah about swara.
"Education alone can't stop violence against women, for there are many educated parliamentarians who sit in the tribal jirgas and they are the ones who decide these little girls should be given.... To stop that we have to change the mindset, and you are the ones who can do it," Minallah began.
She turned suddenly to the boys: "And especially you." A loud murmur filled the room; the boys looked confused. "How?" called out one Justin Bieber look-alike. "When you consider this your problem, I assure you that you will also be part of the change," Minallah answered.
Born to a Pashtun clan in Peshawar, Minallah was lucky to have a liberal, pro-women father. He was a government official and father to three girls and three boys, whom he treated equally. As Minallah told her story to the audience, a boy in the crowd interrupted: "Sorry, but men and women ... we are different. Look at us; we are different."
Minallah didn't hesitate: "Yes, you are right," she responded. "We may be different, but we are not unequal in our rights."
Her statement encouraged the other girls. A 14-year-old girl, only her eyes uncovered by her veil, turned to the boys: "Don't you realize you are the ones who sit in the jirga? Go, stop talking, and do something!" Even the boys applauded. The girl went on to tell the audience about her daily struggle to come to school, defying her father's and brothers' will.
"These are very brave girls," Minallah murmured to me. "Just attending school and wearing uniform in the streets is very dangerous for them."
Minallah only learned about swara in 2003, when she traveled to the scenic village of Matta, at the top of the Swat Valley's mountain range. There, she met a mother about to give her 11-year-old away in a forced marriage. "That really hit me," Minallah said. "I just felt very angry and ashamed that such things were happening in Pakistan and we didn't know about them because they happen in the tribal areas."