IT may be hot — swelteringly and terrifyingly hot — in most of the country, but the brisk business of killing women (and some men) in the name of honour continues apace. Some weeks ago, an angry man, mad at his sisters over some domestic dispute, began beating them with a stick. When his 100-year-old grandmother tried to intervene, he began to beat her too. Age is not a factor when it comes to male privilege; when he was done, the century-old grandmother as well as one of his sisters was dead. The other sister lay in critical condition in the hospital.
Take this month. On the very first day of May, a man shot his sister and her alleged paramour to death in Charsadda. In another incident, a young couple in Karachi set out to have dinner with the wife’s family. The two had married of their own will almost two years ago and her family had been upset about the relationship. When the two were returning from the dinner, unknown assailants stopped the rickshaw they were in (the husband was a rickshaw driver) and pumped their bodies with bullets. Both of them died.
In news reports, the police were waiting to contact someone in the husband’s family for filing the FIR because the wife’s family was believed to have been involved in the killing.
These are just the latest stories in Pakistan’s ongoing saga of women and some men being killed in the name of honour. Over the 70-something years for which Pakistan has existed, the country has been busy murdering its own, mostly women and some men, for the ‘crime’ of refusing marriage, imagined relationships in which accusations serve as an excuse for male rage, made-up relationships that assist in covering up crimes to get inheritances or do away with inconvenient neighbours.
A demand can be made for a special investigation unit to probe the motivations behind ‘honour’ killings.
Just about every conflict lends itself to an honour killing, a cover via which the whole neighbourhood and society claps for the killer and looks the other way as investigations languish and justice is shelved.
All this was supposed to have changed, at least a little bit, when parliament passed an anti-honour killing law in 2016. By subjecting those who perpetrate ‘honour’ crimes to at least mandatory life sentences and not permitting the crime to be ‘forgiven’ by the family, it was believed that honour crimes would decrease or even end. The mechanism of collusion, in which family members commit such crimes and then are summarily ‘forgiven’ by other family members, would be done away with.
One hoped that a blow had also been dealt to the idea that a death can be permissible or ‘honourable’. Murder is always murder, and mandatory punishments were a way of underscoring this fact that seemed to be contested in Pakistan.
This hopeful experiment has failed. According to statistics maintained by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 1,280 people have been murdered in honour crimes since the enactment of the law. Of these, for more than half no FIRs had been registered or there was no information. Obviously, cases in which no FIR is registered do not result in criminal prosecutions. In addition, according to the experts, these numbers, which are based on estimates from the news media and similar sources, are likely underreported. If the actually reported number of ‘honour’ killings is continuing at a furious rate, then the real number may have increased even more.
These cases do not even come within the purview of the new legislation, the purpose of which was to impose mandatory sentences in instances of ‘honour’ crimes. For this to happen, the case has to be classified as an ‘honour’ crime when it is being filed. If it is not classified as such, how can the sentence be applicable? The easy way out, then, is to simply insist that there was some other motivation for the crime.
The result is before us; ‘honour’ crimes (even those actually being classified as such) are continuing to take place. They are, in fact, likely increasing even if many FIRs make no mention of ‘honour’ as a motivation for the crime.
If the fight against honour crimes is real, and Pakistanis have not become so callous as to be completely immune to these reports — to the electrocuting of teenage couples, to the bullet-riddled bodies of dinner guests coming home, to the burned and charred and strangled bodies of women — then a demand must be made for a special investigation unit that looks into the motivations of these killings.
The onus of ensuring that honour killings are actually classified as such and do not evade the mandatory punishment must be on law enforcement. If this is deemed unfeasible for reasons of cost, the time may have come when ‘forgiveness’ for murders is finally done away with. This would mean that all murders would be subject to mandatory sentences, a fact that would reduce not only ‘honour’ crimes but also the overall murder rate in the country as a whole.
Statutory legal systems such as the one in operation in Pakistan do not function well when there is a hodgepodge of rationales, the possibility of punishments that do not involve imprisonment, such as the payment of money or forgiveness, that render the current system handicapped. The only way to end this kind of crime, which kills scores in brutal ways within the country and allots Pakistan a reputation for misogyny and barbarity the world over, is to make sure that these steps are carried out, that laws that do not work are replaced with ones that do.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law.
Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2018