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DAWN - Opinion; 25 April, 2004

April 25, 2004

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These 'codes of honour'

By Anwar Syed

Having explored notions of honour in general terms last Sunday, we now begin with the finding that there is no single, identifiable Pakistani code of honour, conceived as a set of values and attitudes distinct from the nation's professed moral code.

What about the provinces? No amount of recall enables me to say that, beyond conduct related to male and female sexuality, Punjabis have a code of honour. I would not be surprised if it transpired that the same held for the Sindhis and Balochs. Let me hasten to add that this is not a lack for which the people concerned have to be regretful or apologetic.

It so happens, however, that the Pakhtuns in the tribal belt of the NWFP do have such a code, known as Pakhtunwali. At the level of profession, Pakhtun morality is essentially the same as it is elsewhere in the country. In actual practice, several acts that the preacher may consider wicked and sinful are taken in stride. There is, for instance, nothing wrong with killing the violator of one's person, name, shame, or property.

T.L. Pennell, a Christian missionary physician, who once worked in Bannu, found that the Pakhtun regarded robbery as "more or less praiseworthy, according to the skill and daring shown in its perpetration, and to the success in the subsequent evasion of pursuit." He was also given to bluffing which made him appear more formidable than he might actually be. A bit of cheating in business transactions, false accusations of crime against an adversary, false testimony in court or before the jirga were, and probably still are, acceptable in Pakhtun culture (as they are in others).

Let us now consider Pakhtunwali. It seems to consist of four elements, the foremost of them being "badal" or revenge. The obligation to take revenge falls not only upon the man who has been wronged but also on his family or tribe. The resulting feud may go on for generations. The wrong to be avenged may be real or fancied. Perceived wrongs relate more often to transgressions against one's person, standing, money, land and women.

The idea of revenge is taken by Pakhtun women as seriously as by men. Consider the following account provided by Mr Pennell: A man was once murdered in Bannu. Witnesses to the crime, fearing the wealth and power of the killer's family, would not testify against him, and the judge had to acquit him. The victim's sister, present in the court, wailed: "Am I to have no justice from the Sarkar?" "Bring me witnesses and I will convict," said the judge. "Very well, I must find my own way," answered the sister and left. A few days later she confronted her brother's killer in the local bazaar and shot him dead.

Closely related to "badal" is "nanawati". When a man wishes to end a feud because he sees only his utter ruin in its continuance, he may go to his adversary's home, with his women unveiled and carrying the Quran on their heads, bearing gifts (usually two sheep or goat), throw himself at the latter's mercy and ask for peace. In this circumstance the stronger party is expected to call off the feud. Note that "nanawati" is ultimate humiliation and resort to it is not made often.

The next commandment in Pakhtunwali is "melmastia," meaning the obligation to extend hospitality (food and shelter) to those who have come to one's door and request it (including possibly even an enemy). The scale of hospitality will depend upon the host's circumstances and the guest's station. A poor Pakhtun may offer only bread and tea. A prosperous man will kill a chicken or, if the guest is a dignitary, a sheep and provide a lavish feast. In any case, the host, even if a malik or a khan, will sit with the guest and dish out the meat to him with his own hands.

As a corollary of "melmastia," the Pakhtun admit to the obligation of granting refuge and protection to those who seek it, often those on the run to evade law-enforcement agencies. Protecting the man, who has been given sanctuary, from his pursuers is a matter of high honour, which may be the reason why our government forces are having such difficulty in getting hold of the Al Qaeda and Taliban guys hiding in South Waziristan.

The obligation to protect and preserve the honour of one's women is an essential part of the Pakhtun code. Many of the murders committed in the NWFP, as in the other provinces, are instigated by allegations of unchaste conduct on the part of women.

Pakhtunwali may represent the Pakhtun's distinguishing commitments, but there is nothing here that outsiders will rush to embrace. Killing as a way of avenging an insult or an injury is a medieval custom. Modern men sue the aggressor in a court of law. Imposition of extreme humiliation upon a defeated and exhausted adversary before agreeing to let go of him is not a particularly praiseworthy practice. Hospitality within one's means is a fine idea, but it should be noted that both hospitality and grant of sanctuary are intended to maintain the host's prestige; they are not simply acts of kindness.

In cases of sexual waywardness, the Pakhtun code of honour entitles a man to kill both parties to the illicit affair. This is "honour killing." An agency at the United Nations has received reports of such killings from some 20 countries, but the larger number of them comes from Brazil, Jordan, Pakistan, and Yemen. In Pakistan, several hundred women are killed each year for honour-related reasons. The penalty is not limited to adulteresses; it may befall women who seek divorce, and those who have merely chatted with a stranger.

The law disapproves of honour killings in most of the countries where they are common. But in some of them the same law makes allowances for "grave provocation" as an extenuating circumstance that allows acquittal or a reduced sentence. The police and judges are inclined to take a lenient view of the offence. In a recent case the Supreme Court of Brazil dismissed the plea of extenuating circumstance as being irrelevant. But the lower courts in that country have continued to acquit men accused of killing women for alleged loss of honour.

In 1998, a sessions court in Punjab sentenced two men to life imprisonment because they had killed their sister for having married a man of her choice. On appeal the Lahore High Court reduced their sentence to 18 months (already served), saying that "in our society nobody forgives a sister or daughter who marries without the consent of her parents or near relatives."

In April 2000, General Musharraf unequivocally denounced honour killings, saying that they had "no place in our religion or law." Yet, he has done nothing to stop them. Parliament, on its part, has passed no bill that would treat honour killing as plain murder. Even a resolution that did no more than condemn the practice failed in the Senate.

A few months ago, a minister in the Sindh government defended it as part of a venerable tribal tradition. In a weird, possibly sarcastic, statement Mumtaz Bhutto has argued that if, in a country where truth, honesty, faithfulness, and hard work are lacking, a man must die because he acts to preserve his honour and self-respect, nothing is "left for him to live for."

Before going further, we should pause to note that honour killing is not practiced uniformly in all sections of society. It happens more often in rural than in urban areas. Second, it is less common in educated and modernized, affluent urban classes than in the lower middle class. Young men and women in cities go to college and university together, meet outside the classroom, have tea, and talk. Their parents don't breathe down their necks. Some of these young people become romantically involved with one another, and "love marriages" are on the increase.

Note also that relatives of the man involved in an illicit relationship, if he has escaped the wrath of the woman's family, will not normally cast him away. "Boys will be boys," they are likely to say, and they will do what they can to defend and protect him.

That honour killings are an abomination goes without saying. We must ask why the practice exists. To begin with, the idea of honour was rooted in a man's ability to maintain his possessions against an outsider's trespasses or violations. Somewhere during the evolution of cultures, woman began to be seen and treated as man's possession. His property right resided in her body.

She could hire herself out as a nurse to another man's children without prejudice to her "owner's" property right. But she would damage herself as an object, lose her value, and thus inflict a loss upon her keeper (father or husband) if she developed illicit relations with this other man. If she had lost her value, she was not worth keeping any more, and she might as well lose her life.

The way to stop honour killing does not go through courts of law. Shaheen Sardar Ali, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women, stated in January 2001 that the practice would not go away until men stopped thinking of women as their property. As Pakistani women become more educated and economically self-sufficient, they will repudiate the notion of any man's property right in their persons. Their drive has some considerable distance to go. The persistence of honour killing is a part of the ongoing contest between mediaevalism and modernity in Pakistan.

The authors of our concepts of honour could have included commitment to patriotism, duty, probity, sanctity of covenants, and defence of the downtrodden in their concerns. What a pity that they got so consumed by the subject of woman's chastity that they could go no further.

The writer is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, US.

E-mail: anwarsyed@cox.net

Vital lessons to learn

By Kunwar Idris

Both India and Pakistan - their governments and people alike - are now persuaded as never before that it is better for them to live in peace with each other than in a state of war.

In Pakistan just one parochial, though organized, political party (Jamaat-e-Islami) and a small but articulate section of the intelligentsia with its nucleus in Lahore feel convinced that by being friendly with India, Pakistan will first lose its ideology and ultimately its sovereignty.

No such fear haunts India. The hostility for Pakistan and for the Indian Muslims (both have historically gone together) that had their origin in the partition of India and the disputes that followed is fast diminishing. Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) communal ancestry, Pakistan and the Indian Muslims both have learnt to deal with Mr Vajpayee as leader of the National Democratic Alliance ignoring his yet unsevered links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Shiv Sena and, equalling all three in venom, Narendra Modi of Gujarat.

While doubts and scepticism persist, and while Kashmir continues to loom painfully large in the background, the atmosphere in both countries is now conducive enough for them to learn from each other and in many fields more rewarding than cricket.

Even if, worryingly, it all ends where Kashmir begins, it would leave the two societies richer by the experiences shared in politics and administration and wiser in tackling similar social and economic problems and the moral dilemmas they face.

After all, the heritage is shared and the mystical and modern converge here on common ground. Yet, despite India being the largest democracy and Pakistan an Islamic welfare state, the subcontinent has only 2.5 per cent of the world's wealth - though it contains 22.5 per cent of the global population.

In the midst of elections in India in which peace with Pakistan occupies centre-stage that it hasn't ever in the past, it is a moment for us here to reflect on how, despite a common though short acquaintance with parliamentary institutions before independence, India succeeded in keeping them going but Pakistan did not.

Pondering over the past may be of academic interest only but it might throw up some practical lessons both for the people and leaders of Pakistan in recovering lost democratic ground.

Looking back, it appears that the course of democracy in both countries in their fateful moments was determined by their army chiefs. General Maneckshaw, with the aura of the conqueror of East Pakistan surrounding him, resisted the temptation of taking over the government when Indira Gandhi, pathetically stuck in the quagmire of her own emergency, was apprehending it. General Ayub Khan had succumbed to it years earlier in far less inviting circumstances.

Since then, Pakistan has found an answer to its fickle politics in military coups and India in elections. The obvious lesson to be drawn from the Indian example is that whenever a government feels unsure of itself, as the Jamali government presently does, it should turn to the people and not to the army.

Democracy would have dug its roots in Pakistan's soil the day a prime minister advised the president of the country to dissolve parliament, rather than the president or army chief dismissing him. The politicians here should find it useful to share views with their Indian counterparts on the prospects of democracy.

Elections held and won cannot sustain a government if they are rigged. The best guarantee against rigging is an independent election commission.

The election commission in India is acknowledged to be not just independent but fiercely so. The chief election commissioner is sometimes known to err in impartiality but against the party in power rather than in its favour.

The two Indian CECs of the recent past (M.S. Gill and J.M. Lyngdoh) had prohibited comments on the Kargil conflict or showing footage from it for it would have impinged on the neutrality of the armed forces. They also rejected a proposal by the ruling BJP to hold elections ahead of schedule in Gujarat as the wounds from the massacre of Muslims had not healed and the campaign could rekindle passions when the killers were still at large.

In the current election, the Uttar Pradesh election commissioner stopped offerings of sweets at a temple by the supporters of Mr Vajpayee in his constituency for the electoral code bars the use of places of worship for campaigning. During the election period, the staff and police deputed to election duty are put under the control of the commission which can punish them for insubordination or dereliction of duty.

Pakistan's election commission comprises judges, and not executive officers as in India, yet, sadly, it has been suspected at all times past and present of passively observing irregularities and ignoring them. Maybe in the exchange of views our leaders too can come to appreciate the need for an independent election commission comprising administrators.

The judges can be called upon to arbitrate in disputes arising out of the electoral process.

The leaders of public opinion and government here should also try to discover how India has been able to deal with the administrative and law-enforcement structures of the colonial times with adjustments made in the public service cadres as the need arose, and yet have local government institutions develop alongside.

The Indians, whether in practising democracy or running an administration, have refused to be innovative. They let be whatever was working. It has been to their advantage.

Our reformist zeal rooted in ignorance and prejudices has wreaked havoc both in the elective and bureaucratic systems.

The decline of the Congress as a dominant national party has enabled a host of regional parties to influence national politics and safeguard local interests by joining as coalition partners a few major parties. That pattern is unlikely to change in the current elections no matter whether the coalition is led by the BJP or the Congress.

The politics of Pakistan denies such an opportunity to regional parties, who left without representation both at the national and provincial planes, either sulk in isolation or live by rhetoric.

Since the smaller provinces and ethnic and religious minorities are ill-represented even in the armed forces and in the civil services they are cast out of the power structure altogether.

Free elections combined with the recognition of provincial rights and civil liberties in general should provide a wider and more durable base for demo-cracy in Pakistan as it has in India.

It is not all one-way traffic. When it comes to social and moral stresses caused by alcoholism, lewdness, prostitution and similar evils which inevitably accompany a pluralistic society, India could benefit by following Pakistan's orthodox restraints imposed by its religious and legal codes. In India, 10 million people are suspected to have AIDS. The number in Pakistan can be counted on one's fingers.

Even the BBC seemed to be putting its credibility at stake when it reported the other day that in a village not far from hi-tech, affluent Bangalore only widows and orphans are left to despair for the unremitting poverty and incurable disease that has driven every adult male of the village to suicide. The problems the two countries face call for cooperation after a half century of confrontation.