THE brutal murder of Farzana Parveen in broad daylight in Lahore and in front of a crowd of apathetic or complicit spectators has justifiably outraged decent folk in Pakistan and around the world.

That the murder was carried out because Farzana had dared to marry against her family’s wishes, has also brought to the fore yet again the long-lingering issue of so-called honour killings.

Human rights activists have highlighted once again the apparent scale of the problem and intelligent people wonder where we are headed as a society. Implied in this question and even sometimes stated outright is that society is becoming more regressive, anarchic and violent.

That Pakistani society is becoming more violent there is little doubt. That the writ of the state has eroded and there are troubling issues about the interpretations of Islamic law put forward by the country’s Qisas and Diyat laws, which allow murderers to walk free easily, there is also no question. But do incidents of ‘honour killings’ indicate society is also becoming more regressive as a whole with respect to women?

The argument put forth most often is that the increase in the number of reported ‘honour’ killings shows clearly that violence against women is rising which indicates that society is becoming more and more intolerant of those breaking tradition.

According to HRCP’s figures, compiled from media and police reports and not meant to be exhaustive by any means, 647 women were murdered on the pretext of honour in 2009, 791 in 2010, 943 in 2011, 913 in 2012 and 869 in 2013 (which actually indicates a minor decrease since 2011).

In any case, thousands of women (and men) have been murdered for defying family or social norms over the past decade or two. Some commentators have gone as far as to claim that the space for women is gradually being eroded and linked it to a supposed intrinsic hatred of women in Pakistani society.

The other argument put forth is that this increase in numbers is perhaps simply a result of greater media focus on the issue. That is, whereas such killings happened earlier on the same scale as well, they were simply not reported as much. While it is true that media awareness and reach have increased, at the heart of this theory is the assumption that nothing much else has changed in Pakistan’s social fabric.

There are good reasons why both these positions are fundamentally flawed.

Could it be that the increase in the reported number of killings in the name of ‘honour’ indicates the exact opposite of what both these theories postulate? That, rather than showing society remaining static or regressing, what they show is the weakening of old social structures that previously effectively managed to control women’s personal choice, and the greater willingness of women to challenge these structures? The rise in violence against women, and I do believe there has been a rise, is more a result of a crumbling social order lashing out as a last-ditch attempt to assert control, when all other avenues of control have failed.

There are a couple of very good reasons why I am partial to this alternative hypothesis. First and foremost, all the sociological evidence available to us points in the direction that women are increasingly becoming more assertive and empowered rather than becoming more submissive — the rise of nuclear families, the increase in the number of women in the workforce, the number of women in decision-making positions in businesses and politics, the visibility of women in the media, the enhancement of the median age at which they marry, the demand for women’s education and yes, even the number of women seeking divorces. There are huge disparities within regions in the country no doubt, but the trends show that public space for women as a whole is expanding rather than decreasing.

The second reason has to do with what I learnt about the nature of conventional wisdom as a journalist. In June 1996, the Herald (where I worked as an editor) carried an investigative cover story about bonded labour in Sindh after a series of cases where human rights activists had freed indentured serfs chained up by feudal landlords in private jails.

The reporters, Hasan Iqbal Jafri and Ali Hassan, had gone in assuming what everyone took as an article of faith at the time: that this form of bonded labour was a carryover from what had existed for centuries. What they discovered was something completely different.

In fact, what the Herald story revealed was that the practice of private jails was a fairly recent phenomenon. Earlier, serfs could not hope to escape the reach of their feudal lords so there was no need to chain them and keep them locked up.

But with the development of road infrastructure and communications as well as the weakening of the power of the old feudal traditions, more and more serfs had the means to escape, and were willing to take the chance to run away and lose their pursuers in cities teeming with migrants.

Their feudal masters thus had taken to physically preventing their escape. Rather than indicating an age-old brutal tradition, the chained-and-jailed bonded labour in fact pointed towards a collapse of the old systems of social control.

There’s no doubt that action needs to be taken to prevent incidents of violence against women. But as with bonded labour, the doom and gloom in the media over what such incidents indicate about society may be misplaced.

The writer is a film-maker, journalist and cultural commentator.

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2014

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