Honour killings continue in Pakistan: Feudal-patriarchal mindset still rules

Honour killing has been part of social traditions in Pakistan’s deeply conservative tribal society, but not confined to it. Killings have been reported in Lahore, Karachi and other places as well, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved May 20, 2020

The socio-cultural belief that has perpetuated the concept of “Khandan Ki Izzat” (family honour) across much of Southwest and Central Asian countries continue unabated in the form of “Karo-Kari”, a type of premeditated honour killing in Pakistan, which accounts for one-fifth of all honour killings worldwide.

Women's advocacy groups suspect the global figure is likely to be closer to 20,000 victims per year.  But available data records 5,000 such killings annually of which Pakistan accounts for over a thousand. Experts dealing with this phenomenon concede that these figures reflect only a part of the ground reality.   

Ceaseless campaigns at home and abroad, the former working under considerable risks, despite legislation and executive actions, have failed to deter families – mainly men and at times in connivance with women -- from punishing or killing their family members, mostly women, for their belief that the victim has transgressed the set rules of social norms, or have brought shame and dishonour to the family name.

Social media that is supposed to inform and educate has most often played the part of a villain. This also came to light in the latest incident that has rocked Pakistan. Two teenage girls were murdered in Pakistan’s North Waziristan province in the name of honor killing after a video showing them kissing a man circulated online. The cousins, aged 22 and 24, were shot and buried on May 14. 

What triggered the incident was when a leaked mobile phone video, in which three women appeared, surfaced on social media this month. The video is said to be a year old. The footage shows a young man kissing the two women on the lips, while a third woman laughs alongside them. While the two women were killed, the third’s life is in danger, media reported quoting the police. Police have arrested the father of one of the victims and the other victim's brother.

Human Rights Watch, the US-based rights group, has said that a woman can be targeted by her family for a variety of reasons including refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce -- even from an abusive husband -- or committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has acted in a manner to bring 'dishonor' to the family is sufficient to trigger an attack.

But killings have been carried out sometimes on trivial issues, like dressing in a way deemed inappropriate or displaying behaviour seen as disobedient. These killings are sometimes carried out in front of other family members to set a strong example.

Although a 1990 law exists, the men, who see themselves as ‘protectors’ of womenfolk and of family traditions, often get away from the long arm of the law. Even if convicted, pressures are brought upon the victim’s family to forgive the convict and on occasions, compensations are offered.

However, the most-talked-about case in Pakistan that also brought the issue to the international spotlight was of Qandeel Baloch, a poor girl, who became an Internet star.  Considered to be the country's first celebrity by social-media, the 26-year-old was killed by her brother in July 2016, in a so-called honour killing, as the brother felt that the videos and photographs his sister had been posting online brought disrespect to their family. The brother, who strangled her sister as she slept in their parents' Multan home, was arrested and was later awarded a life term by the court. Under pressure, the victim’s parents said they have forgiven their son, but the court has so far refused to accept it.

The same year, celebrated Pakistani documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Academy Award for her documentary A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness, which recounted the story of an 18-year-old girl, who was pressurised to forgive her family, including her father, who attempted to kill her in the so-called honour killing.  The two-time Oscar awardee’s documentary is said to have prompted then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to change the law on honour killings in the country.

As civil society and human rights champion raised the matter of rampant killings, Pakistan parliament unanimously passed legislation against killings linked to the concept of 'honour', or 'izzat'. This was following the murder of Qandeel Baloch by her brother.  Under the long-promised legislation,  the accused was guaranteed to undergo mandatory prison sentences of 25 years. It also stripped families of the right to legally pardon the perpetrators of so-called honour killings, a practice that has allowed thousands of murderers to walk free.

Well-known lawyers and human rights activists, the late Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, have worked hard to secure fair treatment for women in Pakistan. The two sisters founded Pakistan's first legal aid center in 1986 and a women's shelter called Dastak in 1991 for women fleeing from violence.

Honour killing has been part of social traditions in Pakistan’s deeply conservative tribal society, but not confined to it. Killings have been reported in Lahore, Karachi and other places as well. Ironically, the law has its roots in the colonial law of 1860 enacted in Britain that condones killing carried out “under provocation”. It was probably part of the British rulers’ approach to leaving the tribals to their traditional norms.

The 1990 law rejects the provocation plea and has brought this offence close to Shariah, the prevailing jurisprudence. The Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body, has termed honour killing as "un-Islamic". Yet many courts acquit the killers citing the earlier British-enacted law.

In Pakistan's tribal areas, 'rivaj', or tribal custom, is codified without being defined. This could be interpreted to provide a legal basis for a killing. Perpetrators have sometimes tried to justify their actions on religious grounds - but none of the world's main religions condone honour-related crimes.

In some countries, these tribal customs have been codified into law, which may constitute legal grounds for killing a family member. The notions are deeply rooted in society and reasons for the crime can be bizarre when viewed in the present-day context. In 2014, three women were killed in Pakistan after being captured on video "smiling and laughing in the rain outside their family home", according to a BBC report.

It is a collective failure of the authorities to prosecute and punish such gender-based crimes that stem from the belief that a woman's value lies in her sexual modesty and 'purity', and often done with the tacit endorsement of local clerics. But above all else, they are a feature of deeply feudal-patriarchal societies where there is a perception that a woman's actions reflect on the men and her family.

(The writer is President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA).  The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at mahendraved07@gmail.com)

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