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Where honour equals shame

Updated June 11, 2016


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Any nation where some warped, twisted definition of honour sanctions the killing of a woman, even your own young daughter or sister, has demonstrably strayed away from every possible path of sanity.

Yes, our honour whether in the name of faith, tribal code, traditions, culture and/or whatever other reason you can think of somehow mainly targets women. We burn alive, hack to death, subject to acid attacks predominantly women. A woman can’t exercise her free will. One rarely hears of a man being targeted thus.

Where a constitutional forum, the Council of Islamic Ideology, routinely issues advisories about the status/role of women including instructing men in how to beat their wives ‘correctly’, it would be naïve to expect anything better from many ordinary citizens blinded or bound by archaic codes, traditions and the sermons of the semi-literate preacher.

The straitjacket in which society holds women is evident from cases where a mother has participated in the torture and brutal murder of her own daughter by dousing her with inflammable liquid and setting her alight, or at least has confessed to having done so before the police to possibly save from the law the male perpetrator whether a husband, son, brother or another close relation.

It would be safe to assume that cases of brutality that become public, such as the burning to death of a young woman in Lahore this week by her mother and brother because of her sin of marrying a man of her own choosing, are only the tip of the iceberg.

Taking an innocent life, particularly that of a woman, in the name of honour, has been so easy for so many years.

The cold-blooded planning of that murder where the woman’s family (mother and brother reportedly among them) lured her home by saying they themselves wanted to give her away formally as they had reconciled to her marriage must have left many parents of daughters like me utterly shocked, devastated and feeling bereft.

I first promised myself never to be shocked again when, in the previous parliament, the brother of the incumbent chief minister of Balochistan, himself a senator, had rather proudly taken the floor of the upper house to decry the ‘negative’ portrayal of ‘honour killing’ which is part of “our culture and tribal traditions”.

The senator had been responding to media reports that spoke of five women being buried alive in the name of honour in a part of Balochistan deemed to be under the influence of the chief of the powerful Jhalawan tribe who happened to be his brother and is now the chief minister.

Frankly, taking an innocent life, particularly that of a woman, in the name of honour, has been so easy for so many years. All one needed do was to kill, surrender to the police and then the next of kin of the victim who had, in all probability, acquiesced in the crime or were under huge societal pressure, forgave you or accepted blood money.

That law may have been amended but attitudes have certainly not. The pressure of our misogynistic groups/parties many of whom claim to enjoy divine sanction seems to make the tallest of leaders, enjoying mass support, shake in their boots and appear powerless.

When the Punjab government passed the women protection bill it was roundly lauded. There were few voices of dissent in the representative Punjab Assembly. By and large it received positive feedback in the media too. The governor soon signed it into law.

Then, of course, some religious political parties started to express unhappiness and, when the government came under pressure on account of the Panama Papers, a compromise review of the law was offered.

As usual the ‘compromise’ would mean women’s rights being offered in barter for political support. I have honestly lost track of where that legislation is right now. For all you know, the Punjab government has done what the current PML-N tenure is being marked by: kicked the issue into long grass.

If the Punjab government has actually done that and the objectors forget about the issue if it remains on the backburner long enough and/or trade their objections on ‘moral and religious grounds’ for something more substantial such as plot, permit or quotas, as many men of God are wont to do, then, on this occasion, I’d welcome it.

In such an event, the Punjab Assembly and the provincial government will have stolen a march on the ‘party of change’ in the country. In KP, the PTI-led coalition sent its proposed women’s protection legislation to the increasingly regressive CII for review.

PTI chairman Imran Khan defended his decision by advancing the argument that he thought this was a better route as before its presentation and passage in the provincial assembly, CII objections could be incorporated in the proposed legislation.

When leaders, and those with a popular mandate in particular, fail to lead and make elected institutions subservient to the will of a body which, at best, the Constitution visualises as advisory in nature it presents a rather sad spectacle. Change here would mean more of the same, wouldn’t it?

Even sadder is the fact that each of these compromises represents a fresh setback to the cause of more than half the population of the country. We have long conceded ground to the forces of darkness as they have somehow been seen as an extraordinarily potent force. This must stop.

It is long past the time elected representatives, who have been returned to public office to serve the interests of the people, showed some spine and legislated to provide full protection to women against crimes whether in the name of honour or any similarly shameful pretext.

Women have a right to equality and, more fundamentally, the right to life. If we can’t ensure this in the 21st century, we will remain locked in mediaeval times and can only dream of a society we can take pride in.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2016