The phenomenon of honour killing is widespread in our country. Why woman is ‘honour’ of the family? Why she needs to be ‘protected’ at all cost when her arrival as a child not only remains uncelebrated but is rather unwelcome? One may ask further why an honourable woman brings ‘dishonour’ to the family by doing what is perfectly honourable? Why an honourable man flaunts his dishonourable actions as a mark of honour? The concept of ‘honour’ is a part of the family culture and the family as we find it in the modern times is inexorably linked with property, hierarchy, class and ideology.

Way back in the 19th century Lewis Henry Morgan and Frederick Engels in their epoch-making materialist analyses of the origin of the modern family explored the links that existed between the rise of class society, private property and the oppression of women. Class society is based on the inviolable rights of private property. The family is in fact a social instrument that is used to maintain control over property in the interest of existing hierarchal socio-economic structure.

Agriculture enabled human beings to produce more than the bare minimum, resulting in a surplus called wealth. Accumulation of wealth caused inequality between different sections of society and also between men and women. In the pre-class society one could detect inequality between men and women but it was not systematic as it became with the rise in the private property that empowered men to take control of sphere of production. How the property/wealth was to be transferred from one generation to the other? Through the family of course! So the family had to be strengthened and protected. When that happened, woman’s main role was confined to the domestic affairs of the family headed by man. Being mother of heir(s) to property with no say in the sphere of production she imperceptibly came to be counted as a part of property. Her removal from the productive space of public life turned her into a thing. But it is not just the economic forces that defined the diminished status of woman; ideology too played an important role in pushing her to a peripheral existence. We all are too familiar with the religious myths that denigrate and demonise woman. Image of woman as temptress or signifier of erotic underworld is deeply embedded in the male psyche. Few bother to detect how image of male emits erotic signals to women. If woman is a source of sexual chaos for male, so is man a means of erotic mess for woman. Declaring woman as a prompter of sexual deviation man was compelled by the logic of his reasoning to segregate her and put her in a gilded cage called home so that she could be kept at a safe distance from the public eye. So the West had it sexist adage: ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ and here we still repeat at ad nauseam the slogan of ‘Chadar and Chardewari’.

Once consigned to the household, woman was gradually reduced to a piece of property. And property if left unguarded is taken by someone else. Property has to be owned if it is to remain what it is; a possession. It cannot be shared with the aliens. Herein lies the secret of endogamous marriage. If an alien eyes her, it implies, he covets your precious possession. So he is your enemy and must be eliminated through all means, lawful or unlawful. Woman also needs to be monitored and controlled because of her reproductive power. She is considered a machine that makes men. If she goes off with a man not accepted by her family, she in fact creates the male competitors who would challenge the family muscle.

In order to grasp the reality of honour killing we ought not to lose sight of the historical perspective on the evolution of family and male female relationships made sacrosanct by tradition; religious and secular. Our half-baked intellectuals and politicians paint honour killing, a frequent occurrence in Pakistan, an evil but unavoidable phenomenon of feudal culture. What we call feudalism in Pakistan is a product of colonial largesse while honour killing has a much longer history. It has been prevalent in the pastoral, semi-agrarian and tribal societies that pre-dated the so-called feudalism. The proof of such a practice if needed at all is amply provided by our socio-cultural history. Take the case of two women -- Heer and Sahiban -- the stuff of legends and icons of literary tradition. Heer after her forced marriage elopes with her beloved Ranjha. When captured both are put on public trial. After many tribulations the moment they are allowed to go their way, Heer’s family persuades her to return to her parental home with the promise that she would be married off to Ranjha if he comes to them with a formal proposal accompanied by his family members. Ranja leaves for his town and Heer is discretely poisoned to death. Is this not an honour killing? Of course it is. But it is lost on the readers simply because the story is quite complex and full of so many other harrowing happenings. Sahiban’s death is egregious example of honour killing. Here the cycle comes full circle. Both the lovers are cold bloodedly murdered. Mirza is ruthlessly showered with arrows. Sahiban’s brothers hang her till she drops dead. The seemingly strong men who commit honour killings are in reality weaklings whose honour is in the hands of their women; the women not considered fully human and rational.

We cannot stop honour killing unless we critically examine our patriarchal family structure, property relations and especially the ideology that keeps alive the primordial image of woman as a little less than a normal human being. The key to the reforms would be modern education and visible presence of women at the workplace which are interlinked. And the laws, whether old or new, against honour killing will never be effective without social sanction which is lacking at the moment. The law will not be worth the piece of paper it is written on in a society where tradition takes precedence over legislation. Tradition is an outcome of conditions. Hence there will be no change in the tradition unless we change the conditions through conscious intervention. —



Updated 28 May, 2022

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