By Beena Sarwar
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
Given the multiple issues facing Pakistanis, the last thing we surely need is for a legislator to defend a heinous crime in the name of tradition or custom. We don't need the heinous crime either, in this case the murder of women who were apparently defying their families by trying to marry of their own choice.
The resistance of conservative families to expressions of autonomy by their daughters is an ongoing problem in patriarchal, conservative societies like ours. Some parents accept their children's wishes. Others submit to the inevitable, cutting off inheritance or refusing to meet them. In
The Human Rights Commission of
Greater exposure to media and more education leads to a heightened awareness of human rights issues. Those who defy the old order have greater support – legal, moral, and financial -- from various non-government and even some government organisations.
Pitted against these developments are conservative elements fearful of their culture and traditions changing before their eyes, who then seek to codify 'culture' and 'tradition', until now fairly amorphous. This may be the context of the inexcusable justification that Senator Israrullah Zehri of the BNP presented in defence of the brutal murders reported in his home province Balochistan: five women reportedly beaten, shot and then buried alive for defying their families.
This is hardly the first time that culture and tradition, or even religion, were used to justify violence and suppression of women. The prosecuting lawyer in the Samia Waheed 'love marriage case' argued that in the sect of Islam to which Samia belonged, a woman must seek the wali or guardian's approval to marry "even if she is sixty years old". Although she won the case, fearful for her life, she fled abroad along with the man she had eloped with.
Samia Sarwar wasn't so lucky. The young woman from
What many found astounding was that Saima's parents were not some illiterate people from a remote tribal area, but educated, influential, city dwellers. The father was a businessman who had headed the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce and Industry while the mother was a gynaecologist.
Then too, the issue had been raised in the Senate, when former law minister Iqbal Haider initiated a resolution against the murder. Like Israrullah Zehri of the BNP, a secular, nationalist party, Ajmal Khattak, the supposedly progressive leader of the ANP, a party with similar credentials, had shouted Mr Haider down. He held that Samia Sarwar had disgraced her family who had acted according to Pakhtun tradition. Some senators from FATA physically attacked Mr Haider. Only four senators stood in support of the resolution: the PPP's Iqbal Haider, Aitzaz Ahsan, then leader of opposition in the Senate, the late Hussain Shah Rashdi, and the MQM's Jamiluddin Aali. Twenty-four Senators including now-presidential-candidate Mushahid Hussain Syed, and luminaries like Javed Iqbal and Akram Zaki stood to oppose it.
Flash forward to another democratic era barely a decade later. Another horrific murder, another voice raised in the Senate (this time by a woman), and another Senator's justification in the name of tradition.
Whether the women were buried alive or whether they were already dead when buried is beside the point. First of all, no one has the right to take another life. Second, the women's 'crime' (to want to marry of their own choice) was no crime under any law or religion. Third, even if murdering women who disgrace their families is accepted in some areas, not every aggrieved family resorts to such action. And fourth but not least, slavery too was once a widely accepted custom. So was the burying alive of baby girls. Neither practice is condoned now, in any way, anywhere in the world.
Interestingly, both these Senate debates for and against the murder of women for 'honour' took place after particularly gruesome crimes committed under a democratic dispensation. This is certainly not because there was less gender violence when the military was at the helm of affairs. Violence against women has risen over the last decade. It was at its peak under Gen Ziaul Haq and his discriminatory 'religious' laws that strengthened reactionary forces and reinforced negative stereotypes about women. But democracy, with elected representatives answerable to their constituencies, opens up spaces to discuss and debate such issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet, going beyond knee-jerk responses like incident-specific legislation such as that enacted after the public denuding and humiliation of women in the infamous Nawabpur case of 1984.
Some would prefer not to discuss such issues because this 'brings a bad name to the country' (or province). They need to ask themselves who is responsible: those who perpetuate the violence, or those who are its victims? What would make us a better, stronger nation: dealing with the issue, or burying it in the sand?
Beena Sarwar is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The News, Pakistan