SOCIETY: A DEADLY TRADITION

Published August 7, 2022
Civil society comes together to protest cases of honour killings | Reuters
Civil society comes together to protest cases of honour killings | Reuters

It was too much for the villagers of Shangal Dar to watch as police exhumed the body of a minor girl in front of them in broad daylight. None of them could stay and witness the entire process. The judicial magistrate and a team of doctors had to look on though, as the girl’s body was to be autopsied under medico-legal procedures (MLP) to unearth ambiguities over her death.

Shangal Dar is a far-off village in Torghar District of Hazara Division, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It is mainly home to slum dwellers, and its women are largely uneducated. Age-old customs are still prevalent there, such as the heinous act of murdering girls and women in the name of honour. Those labelled perverted, or “chor” in the local dialect, including couples who have engaged in extramarital affairs, are condemned to death. No one had dared to question this cruel law of the land, until now.

The local rumour mill threw up different opinions over the police action. Some looked at the exhumation as an insult to corpses, while others were hopeful that perhaps fear of police investigation could curb killings in the garb of honour in the future.

Such police action had never occurred previously, allowing murderers to go scot-free. In the deeply conservative society of Torghar, eliminating a woman is a non-cognisable offence, and perpetrators routinely escape justice.

Honour killings are most rife in the remote districts of Torghar and Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Many lives are lost in the dark as this old custom is perpetuated to this day by influential jirgas and conservative men under the garb of religion

The 13-year-old girl, whose body was being exhumed, was buried in the Asharay Pattah locality of Shangal Dar. Her murderer is believed to be her father, who dug her grave clandestinely at night, after killing her. He and his family maintain that the girl had been in a relationship with a man who she kept in touch with through a secret mobile phone, hidden particularly from her father and brothers.

The police confirmed the victim possessed a cell phone.

The father changed his story frequently. Sometimes he said his daughter had died a natural death; other times he said she had committed suicide. But the autopsy, according to police, revealed that the victim had been gunned down, contrary to her father’s testimonies.

According to locals, this is one of the rare cases where police intervened, based on a tip-off, to investigate a girl’s murder under the pretext of honour. Hassan Khan, the station-house officer (SHO) at the Judbah police station, says the accused could have escaped justice if police had not been quick to act and arrest him under Section 202 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

The families of victims of chor often do not move any court or notify the police about the murders. “Such crimes where women are killed or handed over to rivals to settle bloody feuds under the wani custom are mostly perpetrated by families and clans covertly, and nobody comes forward to register an FIR,” points out the SHO. But Section 202 empowers police to act on their own when a crime is perpetrated.

Zahid Khan, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s district coordinator in Torghar, has reported various heinous crimes and murders committed under the garb of honour. He says that the cold-blooded elimination of a young girl by her father, allegedly over her telephonic relations with a man, is nothing exceptional; such violence is common in the area.

Afzal Kohistani (right) was shot and killed for campaigning against honour killings | Dawn file photo /Umar Bacha
Afzal Kohistani (right) was shot and killed for campaigning against honour killings | Dawn file photo /Umar Bacha

He says that, in the recent past, men and women who married out of their free will or choice or even indulged in verbal contact with the opposite sex were murdered either upon a jirga’s decree or by their own family members’ actions. “Married couples can also be declared chor. This centuries-old custom still very much exists and the victims and their families suffer unimaginably,” Zahid Khan tells Eos.

The HRCP coordinator recalls another horrific case where a man mutilated the genitals/reproductive organs of his wife upon suspicion of her having an affair with someone else. “The incident happened in 2016 in Oghi, after the family migrated from Torghar. The accused was arrested. The victim was shifted, profusely bleeding, to the Ayub Medical Complex Hospital in Abbottabad,” he remembers.

“The mortality ratio of couples or individuals targeted in the name of honour is much higher than that of incidents reported to the police,” Khan explains, “as families still practise this ancient custom without question.”

Ulema and religious clerics are influential in the highly conservative Torghar. Maulana Safiullah is considered a liberal cleric, who condemns human and women’s rights violations. He maintains that Islam strictly forbids the killing of human beings under the pretext of honour. “Murdering someone in the name of honour is as punishable as any other assassination, in the eyes of Islam,” Maulana Safiullah clarifies.

But clerics settled in the remote parts of Torghar district never condemn the killings of men and women in the name of honour, says Maulana Safiullah, and that is one of the major reasons why the custom of labelling and killing people as chor has not ended. “The ulema in our district even decreed a family to give away their three-year-old girl in marriage to one of their rivals in order to settle a bloody feud,” he says.

The majority of local residents get their minor girls engaged soon after birth. When the girls grow up and refuse to get married to their fiancé, they face the same fate as the 13-year-old killed in Shangal Dar. “There have been many incidents in the recent months and years where such girls, after attaining puberty, married out of their free will and were killed by their families along with their partners,” Maulana Safiullah says.

However, there is now a clear division of opinion over honour killings and some clerics are considered to be hardliners while others are seen as liberal and progressive. A group of ulema now openly oppose the traditional customs being practised by the jirgas and raise their voice against such violence during Friday prayer sermons and public appearances.

The erstwhile tribal belt of Torghar became a settled district in 2011, but it remains an area without a single middle school for girls or even a college for boys, Maulana Safiullah elaborates.

Along with Torghar, Kohistan district is a hotbed for honour killings. Men and women act as judge, jury and executioner of women they deem perverted or immoral. According to official data, both areas have the highest number of cases of Gender Based Violence (GBV) and honour killings in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.


Afzal Kohistani was one of the first Pakistanis to publicly challenge the custom of chor in Kohistan in 2012. He was gunned down in a busy commercial area in Abbottabad in 2019.

A video that most would find innocent is what led to the death of Kohistani. The video was made by one of his brothers, showing five women singing a wedding song and two men dancing to its rhythm. One of the men dancing was also Kohistani’s brother, Gul Nazar. The video went viral on social media and the group of men and women involved were all decreed as chor by a local jirga.

“So far nine people — the five girls seen cheering in the video and four of my brothers, including Afzal — have fallen prey to this custom, says Bin Yaseer, who filmed the happy scene of song and dance. “The perpetrators are still after me and my brother, Gul Nazar, and we have frequently been changing our residence to avoid execution,” he tells Eos.

shutterstock
shutterstock

Today, the two brothers are called “zinda laash” [the walking dead] and Bin Yaseer affirms that is exactly what his life has been like. He believes that the decree issued by the jirga, led by a cleric, will certainly be carried out and the matter would meet its end only after he and his brother have been killed. He claims that a squad of more than a 100 men has been appointed by the jirga in Kolai-Palas to execute its decree. He and Gul Nazar are followed 24/7, so they move from place to place and are under police protection.

“The life of a chor is hell in this life,” says Bin Yaseer. “Since being declared chor by the jirga, we have lost almost all our male family members. We have lost the livelihood that supported over 45 people, 22 of them orphans, including Afzal Kohistani’s four children and his two widows,” Bin Yaseer says.

“Our agricultural land, houses and whatever we possessed is occupied by our enemies and the families of the five girls killed. We are living underground to protect our lives. We are at the gallows, living and dying every day,” he adds despondently.


The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa police recently released data regarding Gender Based Violence (GBV) for last year, based on reported incidents across the province. It reveals as many as 125 women were killed in the name of honour, while 299 others lost their lives to domestic violence. As many as 343 women were raped, 154 harassed sexually and physically, and as many as 1,522 were abducted across the province.

“We have actively been policing to bring an end to assassinations in the name of honour in Kohistan district,” the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) Hazara range Mirvais Niaz says.

He says that a total of 24 people were killed in the name of honour in the Hazara division in 2021 and almost half of them were from Upper Kohistan. Five people were killed in Mansehra, three in Abbottabad, two each in Lower Kohistan and Kolai-Palas. Yet, not a single honour killing was reported in Torghar and Haripur districts.

“We have arrested almost 90 percent of the accused in honour-related murders but cases are still there,” admits the DIG.

A resident of Kolai-Palas, Sher Mohammad Kohee says, “Though there is a slight decline in killings and other brutalities committed in the name of honour since those five girls cheering a dancer in a party were killed under chor, the custom still exists everywhere, particularly in the remote parts of Kohistan district.”

The DIG says that the Hazara police also constituted committees of ulema and influential people, headed by the district police officers, in Upper Kohistan, Lower Kohistan and Kolai-Palas, to urge an end to killings in the name of honour. “Seminars and jirgas are being held to sensitise people to stand against the killings in the name of honour or under the chor custom,” he says.

“Because of the effective role executed by the police, now prayer leaders in Kohistan have openly been opposing killings in the name of honour during Friday sermons, declaring such practices repugnant to Islamic injunctions and the writ of the law,” says Niaz.

Maulana Asmatullah who belongs to Kolai-Palas is a thrice-elected MPA and leads a jirga. According to him, killing women in the name of honour is a social custom and has nothing to do with Islam.

“The jirga that is held to decide the fate of chor is not held under the Islamic Shariah,” Maulana Asmatullah says. “Witnesses lie to get the accused couples punished. The government should take serious remedial measures to do away with such traditions.”

The National Commission on the Status of Women (NCSW) has also initiated a campaign to amend laws dealing with killing in the name of honour and other crimes inflicted on women.

Nilofar Bakhtiar, who pushed for legislation calling for perpetrators of so-called honour killings to be punished when she served as minister of women’s affairs, currently chairs the NCSW. She says, “I was the only federal minister and lawmaker of my party [PMLQ] who persuaded the ruling and opposition benches in 2004 to pass the ‘Anti Honour Killing’ bill and, now, as chairperson of the NCSW, I have initiated a campaign to get it and such other laws amended, to make them flaw free.”

It’s definitely a start and all such efforts are required. But changing mindsets in remote areas like Torghar and Kohistan will require much more than well-intentioned parliamentary interventions.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Mansehra. He tweets @nisarkhan1269

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 7th, 2022

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