Jirga: Pashtun Participatory Governance


The Jirga, or assembly, by which community business, both public and private, is settled in North-West Frontier Province, as well as the province of Baluchistan, is probably the closest approach to Athenian democracy that has existed since the original.

      Afghanistan, like other nations with tribal societies, is split into two generally different social settings that are frequently in opposition to one another.  Those members of the population living in urban areas are essentially “detribalized” and generally accept the role played by the central government while the rural component of the population remains tribal in orientation and are not inclined to accept any portion of centralized control that is not forced upon them.  Since they generally avoid central, modern forms of justice, the rural population tends to rely upon the informal forms of justice that have been relied upon for centuries.  Far more than half of Afghanistan’s population lives in the rural areas in which modern justice has a limited, if any presence, but these regions have been relatively stable under these traditional forms of societal control, if the impact of repeated warfare and insurgency is not considered.

      As Khan Idris explains in great, intricate detail in this series of case studies, the key player in the rural justice system within the Pashtun population begins at the extended family level, essentially a clan, where disputes are settled long before expanding beyond the scope of the family’s ability to manage it.  The cohesion of the family unit is the foundation of Pashtun society and this dovetails precisely into the village and tribal institutions that manage any complex problems that emerge into the public sphere.  As the problems become apparent to the entire community, they are quickly resolved before outgrowing the capability of local institutions to manage them and become a problem for an entire segment of the tribe, if not for the tribe, itself.

      The main institution operating just above the family level is the Jirga , a term that is frequently confused, and used interchangeably, with Shura, and Arabic loan-word that arrived with the Arab conquest of the region. “Jirga” is a term found in Pashtu, Persian (and Dari), Turkish, and Mongolian that appears to be related to the word “circle,” the formation used when a jirga meets.  But regardless of the origin of the word, jirga refers to “a local/tribal institution of decision-making and dispute settlement that incorporates the prevalent local customary law, institutionalized rituals, and a body of village elders whose collective decision about the resolution of a dispute (or a local problem) is binding on the parties involved.  Those on the jirga

Shura is an Arabic word that translates to “consultation” and since it is mentioned twice in the Koran as a praiseworthy activity, it was readily adopted by Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, although it this term normally has a religious connection.  In practical terms, a jirga is generally more secular and is connected to the Pashtu language.  It is also found in Persian (and Dari) while being related to a Mongolian lend-word meaning “circle.”  

Quddus, Syed Abdul, The Northwest Frontier of Pakistan, “The Jirga System,” Karachi: Royal Book Company, 1990, pp. 174-180.