The crime of ‘shame-washing’

May 22, 2019


The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

THE woman had tried to get help. On May 9, 2019, Arooj Shahzad, the wife of Shahzad Ahmed of Lahore, had filed a police report in Dina, Jhelum district, alleging that her close male relatives were after her and wanted to murder her. To escape them, she had run away and had taken refuge in the home of a friend named Nida. The police registered the complaint, but did nothing.

Last week, Arooj Shahzad was found dead in Chutala. A case was registered against the suspects in Chutala, and then five people were arrested. Arooj Shahzad was the 12th woman killed in just a fortnight.

No one who lives in Pakistan would be surprised at Arooj Shahzad’s case. ‘Honour’ crimes have long been a thorn in Pakistan’s side — taking the lives of women who were accused of clapping and enjoying themselves at weddings, women who were related to men who had erred in some way, women who wanted to pursue higher education, and women who were simply unfortunate.

Killing a woman is easy and convenient in Pakistan — no one asks questions, no one provides justice. Every now and then, as in the case of Arooj Shahzad, some superficial measures are undertaken, FIRs registered and suspects arrested — all this stops when the increasingly short-lived outcry (there will be new killings to mourn the next week and even the next day) dies down and everything proceeds as usual.

‘Honour’ crimes have long been a thorn in Pakistan’s side, taking the lives of countless women.

The honour crime laws and amendments that have been passed in recent years after the high-profile case of Qandeel Baloch have not had the desired effect. Indeed, while the state has the option of taking action against suspected killers, thus making it difficult for families to ‘forgive’ the murderers (who are commonly family members), the law has not prevented the murder of women for so-called honour. This Damocles sword hangs over the head of every female Pakistani.

Honour killings are not, of course, an exclusively Pakistani problem. Cases emerge routinely from countries such as Turkey, Jordan, Syria and even Muslim diasporas in Western countries. Last October, Syrians were shocked by video footage of a woman being killed in an honour crime. In the video, a woman cowers against a wall as a man with a gun towers over her. The man begins to fire, and the woman is soon dead in a hail of bullets. In the moment in which he opens fire, someone in the background who cannot be seen yells, “Wash away your shame”.

Nor are honour killings an exclusively Muslim problem. A recent workshop held in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu revealed horrific stories of caste-based honour killings around the issue of marriages outside one’s caste. Honour crimes occur in southern India, where caste issues are intertwined with crime, and also in northern India, where issues around property rights (inheritance) are enmeshed in the killings of men and women who have flouted community codes.

Despite the fact that religion and nationality can be set aside as causes, solutions have proven to be elusive. Some activists have focused on refusing to call the killings ‘honour’ killings, coming up with alternatives such as ‘shame-washing’. This tactic seeks to take away the ‘honour’ in the crimes by emphasising that there is shame and not honour in killing women. Activists in Syria took on this campaign of calling honour killings ‘shame-washing’ after the horrific death seen in the video referenced in this article.

Changing the terms of reference for honour killings, and using the word ‘shame’, can help since it immediately identifies the act as something shameful rather than implying that it is honourable.

A different perspective on how honour crimes can be curbed can be found in the work of scholar Sadiq Bhanbhro. Bhanbhro, who conducted a research study on the issue, argues that the scale of the problem and the very high number of people regularly killed because of it suggests that the issue should be treated as a public health problem.

According to Bhanbhro, who is based at Sheffield Hellam University in the United Kingdom, “the portrayal of these killings in religious and cultural terms stigmatises the communities”. Media coverage that focuses on the cultural and religious contexts (he gives the example of the use of the term karo-kari, for instance) takes away from the problem of violence and the larger political processes that allow the killings to continue.

In Bhanbhro’s view, recasting the problem in a way that takes away the implications that it is unique to a culture or community increases the chances of mobilising local communities against these crimes. It is only then, when the communities themselves see the crimes as unrelated to their culture and as a larger health issue shared by many other communities, that the transformational change that is sought can occur.

Bhanbhro’s views are shared to some extent by lawmaker Nafisa Shah, who noted in her new book that “Violence is not cause, function or effect of ‘honour’ but merely draws its legitimacy from it”.

The revisions suggested by Bhanbhro and his colleagues, and the term ‘shame-washing’ used by Syrian activists, all provide avenues that need to be considered. It is quite likely true that presenting these killings as somewhat unique, and not simply murders, has not yielded positive results so far.

A future approach, then, could centre on de-emphasising the cultural and religious aspects of the crime, and focusing, instead, on the sort of violence and the political linkages that have allowed it to occur. A new categorisation for honour crimes may just be the treatment that finally rids women of the constant spectre of violence that surrounds them.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2019