By Mohammad Jamil
Last Thursday, the police in Abbottabad arrested 15 members of a Jirga (tribal council), accused of having ordered the burning of a 16-year-old girl, allegedly for helping a couple to elope. She was made unconscious by injecting drugs, tied to the back seat of the van and set on fire on the orders of the council. ‘Honour’ killing is a heinous crime, which has been sanctioned by our male-chauvinistic society under the cover of custom. The need is to understand that honour killing is not merely about killing a woman, but it is also reflective of the collective insanity and intensity of barbarism that are attached with this so-called custom. In many cases, these killings are carried out not by an individual or a few relatives but are collectively endorsed by so-called Jirga comprising ‘respectful’ bigwigs, many of whom have a political background.
Among the cases of recent honour killings in Pakistan was that of a pregnant woman who was stoned to death in 2014 outside the High Court in Lahore. She was believed to have married against her family’s wishes. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, approximately 1,100 women were killed last year on the pretext of defending family honour. The killings are carried out by husbands or relatives as a punishment for alleged adultery or for women defying the family in the name of love. Women also suffer from inhuman and un-Islamic traditions such as Vani, Swara, burying alive, and wedlock with the Holy Quran (to save family property) etc. How many religious scholars have raised their voice against such evils? There is need to change laws so that females are not exploited in the name of traditions.
In Pakistan, laws have been made against harassment to women in work places, but there is need to toughen the laws regarding honour killings and Karo Kari etc. When a man takes the life of a woman and claims he did so because she was guilty of immoral conduct, it is called an ‘honour killing’ not murder. But who could judge whether she was guilty, the court or the family? In the past, honour killing had often been accepted by a community as a legitimate defence for murder. The practice of honour killings has a long genealogy, and is linked to the emergence of patriarchal social structures across Europe and Asia within which the honour of the family and the community came to be inextricably bound with the character of its woman. As a matter of fact, in a male-dominated world, men manipulate the laws.
According to historical and anthropological studies, killing of women to restore male honour has been taking place for centuries in the agrarian societies such as China and Indian subcontinent, including present-day Pakistan, Middle East, Turkey, Greece Morocco, Italy and Spain. There was a time when English common Law perceived women as chattel and, therefore, defined adultery as a crime against property. In the backward areas of Pakistan, in remote villages of Sindh, Punjab and tribal society of Balochistan, the reality of woman as a piece of property or a commodity is reflected in the ways in which society continues to dispose off her body. A female can be offered as compensation for damage to life and property; she can be given as blood money to compensate for murder; and in some cases to settle debts.
Under the cover of Karo Kari men kill women to settle old vendettas, to acquire land, to secure money, to pay off debts, to be freed from the obligation of paying back debts, to get rid of an unwanted woman and to have a second wife. Of course, amendments have been made in the Hudood Ordinance, and through the Women Protection Bill there is hope that women will be protected against discrimination in implementation of laws. Some learned scholars have taken exception to honour killings, and they call it what it is: a criminal act and a murder.
The Sunni Ittehad Council, in a declaration, has condemned the killing of the 16-year-old girl as un-Islamic, illegal and immoral act, adding that there is no place for private courts or Jirgas under the law. The Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) had declared in unambiguous terms that murder of women or girls in the name of honour is un-Islamic. On 5th of June 2014, the Pakistan Ulema Council had issued a fatwa, among other things, on honour killings stating that such killings were devoid of any legal or Islamic justification. “These murders are akin to spreading mischief on earth,” stated the decree that was issued by the PUC’s Dar-ul-Iftaa. Hafiz Mohammad Tahir Ashrafi, the chairman of the PUC, had presented a draft of the decree at a national conference. He said murders were usually committed due to suspicion, and the killers usually did not have any witness to support their allegations.
The event was attended by diplomats, religious scholars and representatives of minority communities. A fatwa was issued on the basis that those killed were mostly unmarried girls. “Unmarried girls cannot be murdered even if allegations against them are proven to be correct and there are witnesses against them,” the PUC chairman had said. Of course, it goes without saying that murder of any human being, irrespective of gender, under any pretext, is not allowed by any social or religious code.
Also in Canada the Ulema issued a fatwa against honour killing. The controversy surrounding the Muhammad Shafia murder trial had prompted imams from across Canada and the United States to issue a moral ruling officially in 2012 condemning honour killings, domestic violence and misogyny as un-Islamic. 34 imams belonging to the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada, including American members, signed the fatwa in an effort to counter misinterpretations of the Holy Quran. While it has no legal teeth, the fatwa is ‘morally binding’ on all Muslims, according to Syed Soharwardy, a Calgary-based imam who founded the council. The ruling had come after a verdict was delivered in the Shafia murder trial, in which a Montreal couple and their son were convicted of killing four female relatives. In Pakistan, on investigations it transpires that the reason behind most incidents that take place in the name of honour is a land dispute.
Mohammad Jamil is a freelance columnist