Beyond Literacy: Response to Tom Ginsburg's An Economic Interpretation of the Pashtunwali

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After mapping out an insightful political economy of the Pashtunwalli, Tom Ginsburg asks if the West can meaningfully engage the Pashtun through this non-state-based legal code. He encourages such engagement as a tool to both reduce violence within and across Pashtun tribes and to improve the treatment of women within the Pashtun society. In so doing, Ginsburg poses a very important question about the West’s strategy for approaching Pashtun governance. I want to focus on the difficulties and unintended consequences of Ginsburg’s complementary suggestion that the West promote literacy and education in this area. He contends that literacy and, in particular, its role in creating written jirga opinions, may serve as a mechanism to facilitate clearer substantive legal norms within the Pashtunwalli and thus reduce the potential for future disputes. He also tentatively suggests that literacy programs might improve Pashtun women’s quality of life in a variety of ways. First, it might reduce the occurrence of disagreements in which women may be bartered as a conflict-resolution mechanism. Second, literacy may hasten general economic prosperity, which often brings accompanying benefits for women and can provide them the means to improve their position within the community. Finally, literacy may allow the introduction of new, more female-friendly ideas into the general culture and, more specifically, into the Pashtunwalli itself.

This response, however, introduces some significant limitations that Ginsburg’s literacy proposal faces in achieving its dual aims of reducing violence and improving the treatment of women. In brief, as to be discussed in more detail in Part I, without a simultaneous source of and motivation for norm change, literacy may not ameliorate the root causes of disputes. More worrisomely, attempts to promote literacy may ratchet up violence. One possibility is that the Pashtun will use written precedents to harmonize the punishments within the legal system and in so doing embrace the harshest penalties for norm violations. In addition, such efforts may draw the ire of the Pashtun, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Pakistani government if they perceive such Western-led literacy programs as threats to their control. Relatedly, literacy programs can also stoke violence when they engender rising expectations for their beneficiaries without any concomitant economic improvements to satisfy them. Lastly, literacy alone seems unlikely to enhance the status or treatment of women because nothing about literacy inherently undermines the structure of the honor culture that promotes women’s subjugation and places them at great risk of violence. That being said, as I will explain in Part II, history suggests that the coupling of literacy with a bottom-up push for norm change may transcend these limitations and make progress toward the goals of reducing violence and changing conditions for
Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number7
Pages (from-to)115-128
Number of pages14
JournalUniversity of Chicago Legal Forum
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2011


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