By Huma Yusuf
18 January 2016
Another Oscar nod for Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy; another moment of introspection for Pakistan. Four years ago, Chinoy’s award-winning documentary on acid attacks inspired parliamentary and media debate on the issue and revived activism against the heinous practice. It also sparked new conversations about the growing role of Pakistani women as national icons, and the fragility of our national identity, which takes criticism of even the most heinous practices to be a form of treachery if it is for a Western audience.
Now A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness has stirred a fresh debate. Chinoy’s film about a rare survivor of an ‘honour’ killing was nominated last week. While congratulating the filmmaker, the prime minister vowed to do no less than eradicate the ‘evil’ practice. If Chinoy goes on to win the award, he may have to, at a minimum, raise the issue in a parliamentary session.
I have not yet seen the film, but there can be no doubt about the urgency of its subject matter. The Aurat Foundation estimates that around 1,000 women in Pakistan are killed annually in the name of ‘honour’. These numbers are likely underestimates. And they are rising. According to the Human Rights Commission, the number of ‘honour’ killings jumped 15pc between 2013 and 2014, when 1,005 cases were reported. Men are also victims of ‘honour’ killing, but the incidence of this is far less frequent.
Attitudes towards ‘honour’ killings stubbornly persist.
The increase in the number of ‘honour’ killings reflects an improvement in reporting as national and regional media outlets infiltrate even the most remote rural areas of Pakistan, and stringers are increasingly aware of women’s rights. But it also reflects the changing times.
Pakistani women are more educated, have greater exposure to global political and cultural norms, and increased access to technology, including mobile phones. Formerly rural areas are becoming urbanised, leading to greater flows of people and goods through once isolated areas. Women in cities are increasingly working outside the home. These societal changes mean that women have wider networks of acquaintances, independent resources, opportunities to make choices — and so more ways to offend their families’ ‘honour’.
Despite the rapid social transition, attitudes towards ‘honour’ killings — including the widespread notion that the practice is part of our culture — stubbornly persist. We are simply not as alarmed as we should be by the level of support for the practice. According to a 2013 Pew Research Centre poll, 84pc of Pakistanis wanted Sharia law as the country’s official law, and 89pc among that percentage said that adulterers should be stoned to death.
My family recently helped a man locate his daughter after she eloped. He explained that he was under great pressure to take action against his daughter to defend his ‘honour’. Other men in his village warned him that he would be cut off from the community, his family members ostracised and denied access to communal resources if he didn’t take serious action. No one wanted their daughters getting the wrong ideas about what was permissible if his was able to get away with an elopement.
If the prime minister wants to eradicate ‘honour’ killings, these are the attitudes he must confront. A good start would be to stop referring to the practice as ‘honour’ killing and start calling it murder. Under our penal code, the crime is treated as a murder, but in everyday practice, moral distinctions are drawn, against which quotation marks are a poor defence. Changing the language around an issue can help to change attitudes as those who are now esteemed for upholding their family or community’s honour would be reframed as base murderers.
By talking about murder, we can also shift the conversation about ‘honour’ killings away from an outdated and inappropriate one about indigenous values to a more pragmatic one about the failings of civilian law-enforcement and our criminal justice system. The murder of women on supposedly moral grounds continues because punitive action against their killers has been weak. Police fail to apprehend killers — and sometimes even collude with them — and enable parallel forms of justice, like jirgas. They also fail to check the flow of guns and acid used to attack women. Courts, meanwhile, fail to prosecute killers for lack of evidence, or as laws that allow for easy pardons see many going free.
One hopes Chinoy’s nomination will get the Anti-Honour Killing Laws (Criminal Laws Amendment) Bill 2015 back in parliament. The bill, which lapsed in October, seeks amendments to the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure to remove loopholes that allow killers to get off scot-free. But new laws can only do so much in the face of old ideas. To really eradicate the practice, we have to redefine our notions of what is honourable.
Huma Yusuf is a freelance journalist.