Can lives really be extinguished at the altar of choice? The recent ‘honour killing’ of Pakistani web sensation, Qandeel Baloch, has not only sparked public furor and stirred an unprecedented debate on the practice, but also slapped labels such as ‘No Country for Bold Women’ on Pakistan.
Shocking statistics say that perhaps the Oscar should belong to the nation’s blot on modernity. According to the Federal Ministry of Law, 933 cases of honour killings came to light in the past two years with 83 non-Muslim incidents and 602 in Sindh alone.
The ministry’s human rights offices registered 456 in 2013 and 477 in 2014. Honour Based Violence Awareness Network cites 1,000 honour killings per year in both Pakistan and India.
Perhaps there’s more to these soaring figures than corpses. Aside from a patriarchal consensus on a woman’s body taking centre stage in a theatre of blood, it is possible that all does not boil down to heightened awareness or reportage.
Numbers can point towards an all-out war against primitive social sanctions — the modern woman, caught between tradition and modernity, repression and liberty, is willing to risk her neck to find her feet.
More women, it seems, are opting for individualistic ways, creating intergenerational unease. Decisions ranging from marrying for love, chasing a career, leaving an oppressive marriage, eloping, or even opting for nuclear family structures, are reasons enough to taint family and community honour.
As for the perpetrators, be it father, brother, husband, son or a male relative, let’s not underestimate a bruised ego. Jirgas and panchayats comprise men and stand by men who kill to preserve honour.
Many activists say that such murders are conducted under the proud patronage of village elders. But the cause is not just a ‘wayward woman’.
Men often kill wives, sisters and daughters who, as breadwinners begin to ration cash flow; they also kill for dowry, conjugal discontent, to cut costs if a second marriage is on the horizon, if a family woman falls prey to rape, or simply to maintain old social orders.
The psychology of the crime stays — an honour killing is the most visible and public method of restoring fear, more than anyone’s honour.
Researchers also believe that murders in the name of honour are often premeditated and then covered up as suicides, mishaps and accidents and also abductions.
But strangely, for some, the lines between honour crimes and crimes of passion have blurred.
The latter do not have community sympathy, are spontaneous and most certainly caused by spite, jealousy and anger.
All said and done honour crimes have admittedly remained hard to curtail. General Ziaul Haq’s Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, 1980, was one of the dictator’s tools to fortify Islamisation.
But its most brutal implementation has been in the incidents of honour killings as heirs of victims go scot-free and the rich and powerful can pay their way out. The aspect that the state can assume the status of heir has largely been treated as a footnote.
Nearly three and a half decades on, an escape from this requires the state to be heir, and an increased space to ta’azeer, to imprison executors of qatl-i-amd. The edict, it must be said, is all the more detrimental with badal-i-sulh — the mutually agreed upon, shariah-sanctioned payment by the felon or wali, “in cash or kind, or in the form of movable or immovable property.”
Although the newly tabled legislation on honour killings promises a formidable 25-year imprisonment even if heirs pardon the criminal, last week legal experts expressed concern. After slaying a relative in the name of honour, the perpetrator can then declare plain murder to substitute the prison term with a shorter one of 14 years.
Lawyers have therefore stressed on amendments to the law of evidence so the accused cannot use reasons, which lead to Section 302, Pakistan Penal Code and then to family pardon under Section 309.
Also, FIRs filed by families of victims do not merit blind applause — these are common practice as the kin are certain of ‘pardon’ or ‘blood money’.
Meanwhile, lethal panchayats find themselves safe in a scenario where politicians are hostage to the fact that solid vote banks imperative to power, too, lie in their hands.
Voices must also rise to rein in village councils or jirgas, which propagate values that, in turn, endorse killings in the name of ‘family honour’.
These have attained notoriety with diktats on dress codes and embargos on regular rights such as watching television, using mobiles, learning skills or attending school.
Even so, the path to a conclusion traverses roots of the malevolent custom in time. ‘Pride and Patriarchy’, a report in the Herald, begins with Babylon in 1780 BCE. It lived by the Code of Hammurabi — a “woman caught committing adultery be tied to her lover and cast into water to drown. Her husband could save her but must also save the lover.”
In 17 BCE, Augustus of Rome introduced the Julian Law which allowed the male head of the family to legally kill his wife and daughter on the allegation of adultery.
Closer to home, the ritual of Sati emerged in 510 CE, encouraging widows to die in the flames of their husbands’ pyre. And in the 17th century, the Talpur rule brought Karo Kari.
In the 1990s, Saddam Hussain’s Iraq “passed a law that exempted men who kill their female relations to defend family honour.” Whereas, in Pakistan, The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2004 was introduced to the Pakistan Penal Code. “It prevents a person from availing provisions of pardon and blood money.” Finally, the Anti-Honour Killing Laws in 2014 addressed lacunae in their antecedent.
Hence, history is witness that wherever traditions hold sway, the onus of family morality falls on the woman; for she is the carrier of generations. Yet, the definitions of honour, ‘honour killing’ and who will define both, continue to elude.
As the dust settles on thousands of lives lost, we know that without clarity on the concept, no edict will be foolproof. Until then, a woman’s consolation will be her henna-imbued burial.
The writer is a journalist, commentator and author.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, August 7th, 2016
Explore the series:
- Part 1: The phenomena of Qandeel Baloch: Misbehaving women
- Part 2: The phenomena of Qandeel Baloch: Dishonour in death
- Part 3: The phenomena of Qandeel Baloch: The brave new world of Pakistan’s social media
- Part 4: The phenomena of Qandeel Baloch: Changing women ─ Moving into public space
- Part 5: The phenomena of Qandeel Baloch: Did the media kill Qandeel Baloch?