By Bina Shah
October 27, 2016
In Pakistan today, it’s a sad reality that regressive societal attitudes toward women label us as commodities, second-class citizens and financial liabilities to our families. This leaves us open to abusive and violent traditions, dictated by tribal codes and enforced by social and religious conservatism: child marriages, forced marriages, bartering of women to appease feuds and the most egregious gender crime, honor killings.
So when Parliament revised its laws this month to stiffen the punishment for honor killings, as well as for rape, it was a bold move away from a patriarchal system that has traditionally left the protection of women up to the arbitrary wishes of men who act as their guardians.
But unless the regressive mind-set of those men undergoes a revolutionary transformation as well, the new laws will be ineffectual eyewash in the face of the misogyny that Pakistani women encounter every day.
The anti-honour-killing law, a product of a long fight by Pakistani activists, feminists and progressive lawmakers, mandates a minimum lifetime jail sentence for perpetrators and closes a legal loophole that allowed an honour killer to walk free if the family of the victim forgave him.
Still, women’s rights activists point to flaws. The judge can commute a death penalty into a life sentence. Perpetrators can deny that their crimes were in the name of “honour,” and thus avoid the mandatory term. And it will be hard to achieve convictions that cannot by overturned on appeal, whether because of lack of evidence or reluctance to exact justice for a woman already dead.
Last year, when Senator Sughra Imam introduced an anti-honor-killing bill in Parliament, religious leaders protested that removing the possibility of forgiveness made the bill un-Islamic. So voting on it was postponed until outside events intervened and the government felt pressure to act.
First came countrywide pride in an Academy Award for the world’s best short documentary film, won by the Pakistani filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for her portrayal of honour killings in “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” Ms. Obaid-Chinoy parlayed her recognition into a promise from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to enact an anti-honour-killing law. Then, the murder of Qandeel Baloch, a young social media star who was strangled by her own brother, raised an international outcry, as did the murder of a British citizen, Samia Shahid, who was killed by her father and ex-husband after she divorced of her own will.
When the new bill was introduced in Parliament, religious leaders again wanted it reviewed by the country’s Council of Islamic Ideology. But this time, Parliament unanimously rejected the demand.
Still, the mere existence of the law does not obviate the tangled roots of this crime.
Honour killings have abounded in South Asia for centuries, driven by a code that deems women the vessels of family honour. The killings are not restricted to Islamic societies: They have been reported in some Hindu and Sikh populations as well. Yet before the mid-1990s, in Pakistan they were committed secretly, shrouded in shame. Only two decades ago did Pakistan’s mainstream media begin to report on them in rural areas.
Typically, a Pakistani woman (or, less often, a man) who was accused of besmirching family or tribal honour would be sentenced to death by an informal village court or a gathering of tribal elders, with the conviction almost always based on hearsay. Male “adulterers” could find reprieve through an apology and paying material compensation to the aggrieved party — usually the wronged husband.
By contrast, a woman would have no chance of defending herself to the all-male court, or of being pardoned, and she would go to a merciless death by stoning, shooting or being buried alive. Or there would be no trial; the woman’s own blood relatives would simply decide that she must die for committing what her family and society dictated as indecent or dishonourable behaviour. In most cases, the killers were never confronted, or they were jailed briefly, then walked free after being “forgiven” by the woman’s heirs — her own surviving relatives.
Women could be killed for wanting to marry of their own choice, or divorcing abusive husbands. Harmless acts like speaking to a man or boy outside the family became criminalized, for example. In one case, four young girls who were filmed dancing in a rain shower were executed by their cousin for immorality.
The methods of death became more and more grotesque: Last year a schoolteacher accused of helping a friend marry a man of her choice was tied to a van and burned alive. Saba, the young subject of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s documentary, was shot in the head by her father, who then left her to drown. A mother in Lahore killed her 18-year-old daughter for eloping, then ran in the street, shouting she had done it for honor.
One of the evils of the practice has been that when a woman was killed for honour, inquiries often revealed a trumped-up adultery case that hid a property dispute, a tribal enmity or even a man’s wish simply to rid himself of a first wife in order to marry a second.
Now the challenge is convincing the entire society that women are equal citizens under the law whose lives cannot be stolen on the whims of the masculine ego. Pakistan must build a new tradition that combines legal compulsion with quick and immediate punishment, and most important, a strong and robust activism that drives home the value of women’s lives.
Otherwise, honour killings will simply return to the murky underground existence they had before the 1990s: committed in secret, with the bodies of countless murdered women left in unmarked graves.
Bina Shah is the author of several books of fiction, including, most recently, “A Season for Martyrs.”