PAKISTAN ranks amongst the highest for cases of ‘honour’-based murders. The recent case of two women murdered in Garyom, Waziristan, for breaching honour has prompted the usual outrage but also sweeping analyses about how the commodification of women and mobile phones enable such crimes. Such limited responses reveal the reluctance to deal with the issue of sexual desire as a key motive in most ‘honour’ murders.
While Muslim cultures are not exclusive sites of honour killings, it has been observed that these crimes are widespread in Middle Eastern and South Asian contexts, and the Qisas and Diyat laws and community male gatekeeping are seen to extend legal and moral impunity to perpetrators. Two baseline factors that define honour killing practices are the legal histories of these societies and a preoccupation with female sexual modesty.
Three disputing arguments have been offered around honour killings. Some activists argue for expunging the term ‘honour’ from such crimes. Certain diasporic scholars agree that the category stigmatises cultures and should be considered a form of domestic violence instead. Another opinion is that sexual autonomy is primarily a Western concern and honour crimes are driven only by patriarchal greed. All three approaches ignore or downplay the sexual agency of the victims/survivors of honour crimes.
‘Honour’ crimes are not crimes of passion.
Firstly, in order to raise awareness of the practice of honour crime and the legal impunity it enjoyed, activists struggled for years at national and international levels to call attention to and expose this pride-restoring form of violence. They lobbied lawmakers to criminalise the specific nature of this violence and ensure that the state end the collusion between all actors involved. This would not be possible if these specialised crimes were not exposed as ‘honour-based’ and just treated as normative or domestic violence.
If we insist that all violence is the same, then should we also rename domestic violence or marital rape, and not have special laws and measures to address these? Should they be included under the rubric of generic assault or bodily harm, because the site of where/how violence is committed should be rendered irrelevant?
On the plea to not stigmatise cultures; honour killings are carefully curated events that depend on cultural codes. The killings are almost exclusively committed by male family members usually by the legally sanctioned guardian of the victim which lends legal impunity or forgiveness under Qisas and Diyat. The consensus and support of the wider family and community affords moral impunity. The commission of the murder itself tends to be highly ritualistic and is based on a sentencing by informal male-headed community tribunals. Victims are predominantly the women, killed not just by their husbands, but also by their brothers, fathers and even extended family members. These are not crimes of passion but deliberated methods of restoring wider community honour and socio-sexual stability. The restorer of family/community honour in Pakistan is valourised for being ghairatmand and not considered a sociopath or an evil criminal. Justice for the victim is not the primary consideration in the juridical schema of such crimes.
Thirdly, material factors like property disputes can be excuses but predominantly honour codes are designed to regulate sexual behaviour. To insist that all women are simply victims of rumours, male anger, or greed is to deny how women exercise their sexual agency.
In her book on honour killings in Sindh, MNA Nafisa Shah has detailed the intersects of law, culture and power of landowning mediators in Pakistan. For a published article, I interviewed one influential landlord-mediator, Nadir Magsi, who has dealt with hundreds of honour-based cases which confirm how women’s agency threatens the patriarchal sexual order of communities. Education and mobile phones enable women to exercise their agency.
Mediators function as moral launderettes and potentially save lives of women who breach honour codes. Some landowners traffic these women who are not even ‘free’ even after being rescued, cleansed or fined for the shame caused. Mostly, the ‘blackened’ woman is married off to another man not of her choice and her children taken away from her. Even if money and power are taken out of the equation, the sexual autonomy of women will still be regulated violently.
The point is that macro solutions based on academic defensiveness, or legal and behavioural correctives are not going to disrupt the localised nature of honour crimes. The backlash against activists who protest such crimes reveals a forceful consensus that women’s agency should be suppressed. Are activists prepared to confront this opposition and to stop deflecting and pretending that victims are never guilty of sexual transgressions, in order to strategise for women’s legal and social right to independence?
The writer is author of Faith and Feminism in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, June 4th, 2020