By Zaair Hussain
July 19, 2013
Recently, two girls who had not seen 35 years between them were fatally shot, along with their mother, for having dishonoured themselves. They signed their own death warrant by dancing, fully clothed, in the rain – in their own house. I won't mention their names because, frankly, we all know that they have almost certainly already been replaced by others, new victims sacrificed to the same eternal, medieval stories.
I confess I no longer understand exactly what honour is, save that no word that is primarily used as a prefix to ‘killing’ can possibly bode well.
Despite most honour killings going unreported – the victim’s family is usually involved, after all – the lowest estimates still put them at a thousand a year in Pakistan alone. A thousand a year, when one should be considered the crime of the decade. A thousand a year, not counting acid attacks, gang rapes, trading women like chattel and vicious domestic beatings. A thousand a year, and far more likely five times that number.
What is honour? The word has been brutally stripped of any meaning I ever assigned to it. Honour seems to be a machine into which we feed the broken remains of women, stripped of humanity and dignity, and which produces international infamy, broken homes, orphaned children and a growing cult of psychopathy.
We acknowledge that we are a nation beset by terrorists, but we would be fools to believe that terrorism begins and ends with suicide bombings and AK-toting extremists. There are terrorists who beat their chests and scream their defiance, their contempt for basic humanity and dignity for all the world to hear. They hide among us and between us, and strike at us like vipers in the grass. And they are frightening.
But what truly settles cold numb chill in the soul are not those who hide among us and between us but those who are us, fathers and mothers and brothers going about the daily struggle and occasional triumph of life who, upon the invocation of ‘honour’, will shed their humanity like an ill-fitting skin and transform into creatures that murder their own kin, their flesh and blood.
As perverse as this act is, the damage, incredibly, does not end there. Each death is an underscore, an exclamation mark on a particularly hideous message: if you, woman, step out of line, you will find no shelter. Your own family will put you down like a lame horse, come to the end of its usefulness, to satisfy some crazed notion of righteousness and your neighbours will mutter "she should have known better."
The institution of honour killings is a decentralised concentration camp in which each woman lives in her own little cell of fear and oppression, at the mercy of the gaolers and the gas chambers. Not a great proportion must actually be killed for the rest of the population to stay in line and this is the heart, the very soul, of terrorism.
The most common symptom of this terrorism is forced marriage – which need not be at literal gunpoint to be forced – and which is nothing less than a socially-accepted lifetime sentence to imprisonment (in a gilded cage or otherwise) and rape. There is no value in consent if it is coerced through massive institutional pressure and a very real threat of violence for failure to comply.
What can women do to dishonour themselves? The list seems endless. Choosing to get married to the man of their choice. Choosing not to get married to the man of their parent’s choice. Being leered at. Being raped. Smiling in the wrong way at the wrong time.
Is there anything men can do to dishonour themselves? Yes: ‘failing to kill their dishonoured women.’
The game is rigged, and is in any case a wretchedly awful game. Honour is a cross forced upon every woman in the country and to falter under its unbearable weight is to be marked for death. A girl child, apparently, carries within her the seeds of her family’s social destruction. Without choice, without voluntary action, she becomes reduced to the symbol for the family's place in the community.
It is a terrible thing to hammer a living human being into a symbol, a flag that must not get stained lest it be burned.
These unsightly touches of rot appear on the skin of the nation but the roots of the sickness are profoundly embedded within the muscles, the blood, the bones. There is a reason we despise Taliban sympathisers, and the depth of their wretched treason: they provide ideological and often real, practical support to an enemy that has targeted our innocents with lethal force.
What, then, can we say about the support enjoyed by honour killers? Murderers announce their unspeakable deeds proudly, policemen look the other way, possibly lost in admiration of this ‘real man’ who did his ‘honourable duty’. Cases are thrown out on a lack of evidence and sentences are commuted by invoking ‘grave and sudden provocation’ which means that legally, as a nation, we have decided that a woman acting her mind against the wishes of her family is so dire and shocking a circumstance it can reasonably be expected to make people literally lose their minds and go into a homicidal frenzy.
Out of court settlements are swiftly reached, since the concept of murder as a crime against the state (and the citizenry it purportedly protects) is still alien to us, a legal system far more suited to feuding tribes than a modern nation.
There are other, subtler ways of supporting this terrorism. If you hear about an honour killing and ask “what did the girl do?” you are part of the problem. If you know of a neighbour who beats his wife but you take no action because it is ‘a matter of their own home’, you are part the problem. And if you find pleasure in swimming in the gutters of gossip, in talking in hushed and breathless tones about whose daughter/sister/etc was seen wherever with whomever, you are a) part of the problem and b) a waste of perfectly good carbon that could have otherwise formed something far more valuable – like a few pounds of coal.
The very first step is to acknowledge, as Pakistanis, that thousands of these killings a year is not an aberration, or a statistical trick of the light. It is a very real malaise in the soul of the nation. The social and cultural structures that support this monstrous monolith are not beyond critique. Not all traditional values, not all cultural lodestones, not all ‘ways it has always been’ are worthy of respect. Some are far, far overdue to be culled, to be cut and cast aside, that our children may know of them only from history books and shiver, and ask ‘how could a thing so evil have persisted so long?’
I have to believe that most of us can see the lives and freedoms of women as irreducible rights not because they are fragile and precious, or because women must be protected, but because they are people and that must be – that has to be – enough.
Zaair Hussain is a freelance contributor.