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Afzal Kohistani — the man who spearheaded Kohistan's fight against 'choar' custom

Updated March 11, 2019

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Afzal Kohistani (right) is pictured on January 27, 2019, describing his fears to journalists that he might be killed on a jirga's orders for "defaming" the people of Kohistan. — Photo by Umar Bacha
Afzal Kohistani (right) is pictured on January 27, 2019, describing his fears to journalists that he might be killed on a jirga's orders for "defaming" the people of Kohistan. — Photo by Umar Bacha

For years, Afzal Kohistani was at the forefront of Kohistan's fight against the menace of 'honour' killings. He exposed the 2012 Kohistan video scandal, battled local jirgas, served time for crimes he hadn't committed and persevered.

He feared for his life, and his fears came true last week when he was shot dead by assailants.

Kohistani's death leaves a massive void in Kohistan's battle against the 'choar' custom — a form of 'honour' killings peculiar to the area.

Under the choar custom, any man or woman who interacts with the opposite sex becomes liable to death. Kohistani was among four brothers to be declared choar for the offence of sharing a video that spurred the scandal until it became viral. He was the ninth and final victim to meet the tragic end in connection with the Kohistan scandal.

Before his death, Kohistani had been facing a trumped up charge which resulted in him spending more than a year in prison before being released on bail. The case was brought by people, who had, according to Kohistani, set a house ablaze leaving a minor girl dead.

“I am being punished because I stood up against the evil of the choar custom in our society. People kill their women in the name of honour and such deaths are not even taken to court,” Kohistani had told this scribe earlier this year.

Kohistan, which is now divided into Upper Kohistan, Lower Kohistan and the Kolai-Palas districts, is infamous for killings of local men and women under the garb of 'honour'.

“The ratio of honour-related deaths not reported is much higher than those cases which are reported in these districts, but nobody is ready to raise their voice to end this centuries-old practice,” says a man settled in the area.

Media's role

The media's proactive role has been critical in exposing honour-related killings in Kohistan. It was the media, after all, that laid bare the murder of five women and three men in connection with the video scandal — and has now brought attention to the killing of Afzal Kohistani.

People are now scared of the law, and station house officers (SHO) have ended up lodging first information reports of choar cases in order to escape suo motu notices, such as the one taken by then Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

But Kohistani had his reservations when he sent an SMS to this scribe on November 27, 2018. The message had announced "Breaking News": four suspects who had been responsible for the killing of the five women and Kohistani's own brothers had been arrested by the police.

“Police arrested these four suspects under Sections 419 and 429 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPc). They should have instead been arrested under Section 302 of CrPc. The police is not working honestly,” the message had regretted.

Kohistan's next saviour

The tragic murder of Kohistani raises new questions in the minds of many: Who will be the next saviour? Who will pull Kohistan out of these arcane customs and traditions?

Mohammad Khabab, a local, says that though the ratio of honour-related killings has plunged drastically in Kohistan districts, women do still get targeted.

“I have witnessed drastic changes in our society. In the past, a married woman who mixed with strangers was liable to death along with those she mingled with. But now the situation has changed and one of the reasons is effective preaching by the Tableeghi Jamaat [a proselytising group based in Raiwind, Lahore],” he says.

DPO Lower Kohistan seeks the support of ulema to root out honour-related killings and other crimes at his office. — Photo by author
DPO Lower Kohistan seeks the support of ulema to root out honour-related killings and other crimes at his office. — Photo by author

“Such killing is forbidden in Islam and if influential ulema [religious scholars] and clerics in our society continue to spread this message in letter and spirit, I am sure this practice might come to an end soon,” Khabab adds.

The police in all three districts of Kohistan — which had seemed helpless and ineffective in the past when it came to honour-related killings — are adopting drastic measures to fight the menace.

“We have begun sensitising citizens, explaining to them that the killing of women in the name of honour is strictly forbidden in Islam,” says Sulman Khan, a district police officer posted in Lower Kohistan.

A sub-inspector speaks to a congregation at a mosque in Lower Kohistan, moving them to wage jihad against 'honour' killings and crime. — Photo by author
A sub-inspector speaks to a congregation at a mosque in Lower Kohistan, moving them to wage jihad against 'honour' killings and crime. — Photo by author

He said that, for the first time, the police have been holding sessions in mosques and open forums, where ulema and prayer leaders are being asked to preach to the people and to tell them to abide by the law and not indulge in killing of men and women in name of honour.

“We are constantly in contact with Islahi [correctional] committees constituted in every village. They are led by ulema to sensitise people about the stigma attached to honour killing,” says Sulman.