NON-FICTION: Murders Most Foul

Updated Apr 01 2017


The murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch at the hands of her brother drew the world’s attention to the culture of ‘honour’ killing in Pakistan | Dawn file photo
The murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch at the hands of her brother drew the world’s attention to the culture of ‘honour’ killing in Pakistan | Dawn file photo

Last year, when the anti-‘honour’ killing law was proposed, it was expected that under the legislation, murderers of women would not be pardoned. Campaigners called for tougher legislation that would put an end to acquittals based on (family) forgiveness in ‘honour’ violence. The state’s message should have been that violence cannot be masked in honour, but this has not happened. ‘Honour’ violence cases are often negotiated and settled before they are adjudicated. The verdict is dependent on judges deciding whether the crime qualifies as an ‘honour’ killing or not. The punishment for ‘honour’ killing is now life imprisonment — the perpetrator must confess, and witnesses collaborate. This is precisely why the new law is problematic, as anthropologist-turned-politician Nafisa Shah explains in her study of honour crimes in upper Sindh. Based on research she began in 1995, Honour Unmasked unravels the nexus between the criminal justice system and state officials, and tribal power structures that perpetuate ‘honour’ violence. While examining ‘honour’ violence or karo-kari (a term that literally translates to ‘black man’ and ‘black woman’), she explains why it is not only an acceptable social norm and a violent cultural product, but also a practice appropriated in the politics of social relations and competition over resources, land and power.

What is troubling throughout this well-researched narrative by a former journalist is that acquittals for ‘honour’ crimes will likely continue undeterred. Perpetrators — mostly brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles and sometimes mothers — will kill women knowing that they will be forgiven. The very act of killing is described as “amputating a rotten finger.” It perpetuates a discourse of killers as victims protecting family and tribal honour. The death of a woman establishes her guilt. This discourse delinks violence from honour because the violence is collective and cultural. Shah’s discussion revolves around the responsibility of judges, tribal leaders, politicians and mediators, but we barely hear from women survivors. She alludes to “invisible” runaway women — those who are not killed for their supposed transgressions, but instead banished or often forcibly married. Here one wonders if their strategies for survival, and the life stories of couples who marry for love, could have merited more discussion.

While the author unpicks the complexities and the ceremonies of mediation — including the ideology of kheerkhandr (when sugar dissolves in milk to sweeten it) — as they exist within a framework supported by the colluding powers of the state (law and custom) and the elite (landowners and local politicians), she steers clear of critiquing a rooted practice. Perhaps this objective approach works for her, especially as she served as Khairpur’s administrator between 2001 and 2005 when she mediated between feuding families. This lends enormous credibility to her work and talks of her interventions, but as a vocal parliamentarian known to stand up for women’s rights, she doesn’t always work out ways to stop ‘honour’ violence.

Bringing a despicable facet of Pakistan’s patriarchal culture to the fore

Women are killed by male relatives for exercising their right to marry, for running away from the family home, for decisions to work or over family feuds and land disputes. Explaining that customs are never “neatly bounded cultural archetypes,” Shah asserts that karo-kari murders are prevalent among Baloch tribes, near the border with Sindh. In 2008, five women were buried alive in district Nasirabad in Balochistan, allegedly by Abdul Sattar Umrani, brother of Mir Sadiq Umrani, a PPP provincial minister. The three girls aged between 16 and 18 wanted to marry men of their choice but tribal elders refused permission. They were shot, but survived. When their mother and an aunt intervened to save them, all five women were allegedly pushed into a ditch and buried alive. What is even more horrific is that Senator Israrullah Zehri, while in the Senate, defended the murders as part of Baloch tradition, claiming that women’s defiance would not be tolerated, and reiterated the same on a television program when I interviewed him.

Meanwhile, religion is rarely discussed as part of the discourse on karo-kari killings. “No perpetrator or member of the community involved in such killings justifies them by using Islamic rhetoric as the basis for the murder,” writes Shah. Another observation is the representation of ‘honour’ crime in Sindhi newspapers since the 1990s — the latter having coined the term karo-kari. Adept at showing “the close-ups of death, while shocking and vulgar to the sensibilities of viewers,” the media have engendered a new debate on the agency of the dead body. On the surface, this is akin to creating a sensational spectacle. But when newspapers such as the daily Kawish display photographs of the dead, they are documenting the women’s stories — gory as this may be. Apparently, they even publish photographs of hand-holding, smiling couples who have married of their free will. Karo-kari and love-marriage couples share the same space to tell different stories. While cutting out pictures from newspapers and storing them in plastic bags to ensure the “truthfulness of their claims,” families reveal an almost bizarre resilience.

Men labelled karo are banished from their villages and rarely killed. Compensation by the accused man to the victim’s family is usual practice. However, the victim’s murderer can be acquitted, if her family forgives and settles with the perpetrator. The anti-‘honour’ killing law has not removed the concept of clemency which is sanctioned by the courts because families are facilitated to forgive. It becomes easier for the family to forgive him when the perpetrator is a close relative of the victim — evident after the murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch when her parents eventually decided to forgive their son whom they had accused of her murder. In fact, there are negligible convictions in karo-kari cases — as low as three per cent in trial courts.

Documenting over 60 cases, including those in her home town of Khairpur, Shah refers to two murdered women from Shikarpur — Abida and Tehmina. Through this case, she shows how acquittals happen after negotiated settlements using the legal system that lends space to mask ‘honour’-related violence. Because murder falls under the law of qisas and diyat, making it a private matter between both parties and not a crime against the state, the victims’ heirs have the option to forgive the accused, demand retribution [qisas] or compensation [diyat]. Regarding another woman’s murder, she writes that “the judges were also sympathetic to the survivors and allowed the compounding of the offence.” In other words, there is no difference in most cases of ‘honour’ crimes between the family member who murders and the wali [guardian of the victim] who forgives.

Noor Khatoon’s story is one of willpower. As a young councillor pursuing her Masters degree at Shah Abdul Latif University she desperately wanted to escape her forced — or sang — marriage. Noor was one of the fortunate few able to cleverly orchestrate her escape, eventually making a new life for herself in Norway. But in the interim not only did she burn the side of her face with phosphorus, but tasked a sympathetic male storywriter to publish a (concocted) story in the press about the brutality of her in-laws and later, sought refuge at Panah Shelter Home in Karachi. If more women were to agitate and act like Noor had, they would question and likely reshape the brutal framework of history, law and power that accommodates murder with perfection.

The reviewer is a member of staff

Honour Unmasked: Gender Violence, Law and Power in Pakistan
By Nafisa Shah
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199403431

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 26th, 2017