What will it take for dishonourable men to stop killing women for honour?

Existing legal provisions have proven insufficient in successfully criminalising, and ultimately combatting this deep-rooted practice-turned-tradition.
Published June 7, 2023

In the realm of societal consciousness, a deeply unsettling truth lurks beneath the surface, concealed in the shadows of tradition and misplaced notions of honour.

Honour killings, a chilling phenomenon that defies our collective understanding of justice and morality, continue to cast a dark cloud over Pakistan and its society, one that requires profound exploration. The archaic tradition finds sustenance in a combination of patriarchal values, rigid gender roles, and societal pressures that take precedence over the life of women — particularly, women who want to exercise their autonomous right to marry out of free will, or seek a divorce.

More often than not, this heinous crime goes unpunished, either proudly justified or shoved under the rug by the perpetrator and victim’s family. The consequences of such practices are dire, with countless lives lost and human rights violated in the name of preserving honour.

In a stark portrayal of reality, two recent incidents that transpired within the confines of the Karachi City Court serve as poignant reminders of the pervasive nature of honour killings and the urgent need for comprehensive legal reforms to protect the fundamental rights and lives of women. One such incident entailed a distressing occurrence where a 24-year-old woman sustained fatal gunshot wounds during a “family dispute” while attending a khula [separation] case. The suspect opened fired inside the judge’s chamber, further accentuating the pressing need for legal reform and enhanced security measures within the court premises.

Ironically, on the same day, a sessions court acquitted and released a man who had been accused of brutally shooting and killing his daughter in the same court, solely because she chose to marry of her own accord earlier this year. This acquittal stemmed from a compromise reached between the accused’s wife and children. In a further twist, the accused individual was also acquitted in a separate case pertaining to the possession of an unlicensed weapon within court premises.

How can the murderer be acquitted?

This legally perplexing and infuriating ruling was facilitated by an application filed under Section 265-K of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898, which grants the court with discretionary authority to acquit the accused at any stage of the proceedings.

The involvement of non-compoundable terrorism charges initially made the prospect of reaching a compromise seemingly improbable. However, the administrative judge of the anti-terrorism courts was of the view that “perusal of record shows that accused had no intention to create terror”.

The striking irony of this situation becomes evident when we consider the basic disparity between the initial serious charges and the ultimate outcome, which has now unfortunately become a disheartening norm, allowing perpetrators to evade accountability. This alarming discrepancy raises profound concerns regarding the lack of effectiveness and consistency of Pakistan’s legal system in handling complex cases and ensuring strict accountability for criminal acts, especially those committed on court premises.

The provision allowing for applications of acquittal under the 1898 Act highlights the misuse and abuse of law, and its detrimental impact on the pursuit of justice. These prevailing circumstances further emphasise the urgent need for reform and implementation of robust measures to rectify the systemic flaws present within the nation’s legal system. These reforms are indispensable for restoring faith in the system’s integrity and ensuring the realisation of fairness, a goal that presently appears distant.

These events also serve as blatant reminders of the ramifications that individuals, particularly women, endure for exercising personal choices that challenge entrenched traditional family values and societal expectations, even in the 21st century. Regrettably, the prevalence of honour killings has escalated to such an extent that it appears to create an unsettling impression of tacit acceptance within the fabric of Pakistan’s society.

It is crucial to acknowledge that Pakistan continues to face significant challenges, primarily those of implementation, and has a long way to go before the nation can set its sight on a comprehensive legal framework that effectively tackles the gravity of this issue. While progress has been made, one undeniable fact remains: existing legal provisions have proven insufficient in successfully criminalising, and ultimately combatting this deep-rooted practice-turned-tradition. This unequivocally emphasises the pressing demand for an overhauled legislative framework that aligns with the need of the hour — to create laws that uphold the principle of retributive justice (inflicting punishment proportionate to the offence committed), reflecting the paramount importance of safeguarding fundamental rights and upholding the rule of law.

The laws (and loopholes) in place

Significant legislative reforms, including The Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act of 2006, Criminal Law (Third Amendment) Act of 2011, The Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act of 2016, and the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offences in the name of pretext of Honour) Act of 2016, have been enacted with the aim of strengthening legal penalties, eliminating existing loopholes within the legal framework, and preventing perpetrators from evading punishment by leveraging the complicity of the victim’s family, who themselves seek to conceal the offence in an effort to safeguard their perceived ‘honour’. This issue is particularly significant as honour killings are frequently perpetrated by close relatives including a woman’s father, husband, or brother.

The Criminal Law (Amendment) (Offences in the name of pretext of Honour) Act of 2016 stands as a significant reform, following the brutal murder of Qandeel Baloch, who fell victim to an honour killing orchestrated by her own brother. This legislation, passed by the National Assembly, amended the Pakistan Penal Code, (PPC) 1860, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898, with the primary objective to effectively deter and prevent offences committed under the guise of honour. As stated by Senator Farhatullah Babar, “the need to address ‘the loopholes and lacunae in the existing laws’ is essential in order to prevent these crimes from being repeatedly committed. The Bill (now Act) is designed to achieve the said objective.”

Under the amended law, such acts and offences are now subject to a minimum penalty of life imprisonment, irrespective of the willingness shown by the victim’s family to waive qisas (the principle of equal punishment for the crime committed). This amendment aimed to eliminate the discretion that was previously exercised by the courts, as well as the requirement of the family’s consent in providing a sentence to the accused. There was a glimmer of hope as it was believed that these changes would finally redress prevailing inadequacies, bringing about a paradigm shift in Pakistan’s legal framework.

However, despite the implementation of these legislative reforms, concerns have escalated over judicial leniency towards honour killing perpetrators. In a notable case in 2018, the Supreme Court, relying on the principle of grave and sudden provocation, mitigated the life sentence of an individual who had openly confessed to the murder of his sister-in-law, to a mere 20 years.

Additionally, the definition of honour killing provided under Section 299 of the PPC [offence committed in the name or on the pretext of karo kari, siyah kari or similar other customs or practices] is crucial to understanding the challenges that are faced in securing successful convictions of perpetrators. The fundamental issue lies in this very definition, as it creates an avenue for the accused to evade liability for killing in the name of ‘honour’ by invoking Section 302 of the PPC, claiming that the killing was a murder rather than an honour killing. This strategic manoeuvre allows the perpetrator to circumvent the specific legal provisions and penalties associated with honour killings, thereby diminishing the likelihood of conviction and rendering the amended law as ineffective and meaningless.

Such instances serve as a striking indication that while legislative reforms have been theoretically instituted, the imperative need for consistent and unwavering application of the law still remains, in order to ensure justice for the victims ensnared in this dreadful tradition. The ongoing struggle to address and rectify the gaps and flaws in the existing legislation presents a tireless challenge that necessitates urgent and resolute action.

Another aspect of concern within the legal landscape of Pakistan is the payment of blood money, known as ‘diyat’, which also allows perpetrators to evade punishment by compensating the victim’s family through financial means. However, it is crucial to note that such practices, while claimed to be rooted in Islamic jurisprudence, lack substantial support within legal Islamic traditions. What is ironic here is that proponents of honour killings often misinterpret or selectively interpret certain passages from religious texts to justify their actions. They rely on cultural practices, patriarchal traditions, and misguided interpretations of Islamic teachings to legitimatise these heinous acts. In reality, however, such interpretations are not accepted within the broader Islamic legal tradition, and are deemed as being contrary to the principles set as precedent by Islamic jurisprudence, which emphasise justice and protection of fundamental human rights.

The inclusion of these provisions in the legal framework, therefore, not only undermines the pursuit of retributive justice, but also perpetuates a system where monetary compensation can overshadow the imperative of holding perpetrators accountable.

A multifaceted approach

Prominent human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have drawn attention to the deplorable fact that approximately 1,000 women are murdered in the name of honour each year in Pakistan. However, countless incidents go unreported. This brutal reality underscores the pressing need for reformed legislation in Pakistan, that explicitly criminalises these barbaric acts of violence. The gravity of this situation cannot be overstated, as the criminalisation of honour killings is not only a compelling legal obligation, but also a profound moral duty, in order to safeguard the inherent dignity and lives of individuals, and to foster a just, safe and inclusive society.

Achieving effective implementation of new legislation to address honour killings requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses legal, social, and educational measures. This approach entails sensitising law enforcement personnel, providing support to victims, and launching public awareness campaigns in order to holistically address this issue that continues to persist decades later.

There is a strong need to reform Pakistan’s honour killing legislation. However, the approach adopted by lawmakers and law enforcement officials must reflect the understanding that the issue extends beyond the shortcomings of a weak legal framework. Honour killings are a complex problem deeply rooted in societal narratives and acceptance of these heinous acts. In order to bring about lasting change, it is imperative for legal authorities, enforcement agents, judicial institutions and society at large, to collectively advocate against such traditions and establish a consistent narrative.

Strong precedents must be set in courts that unequivocally criminalise those who take the law into their own hands in the name of ‘honour’. It requires the judicial system to implement the laws in place, rather than leveraging loopholes to acquit perpetrators. There needs to be a paradigm shift in mindset, a deeper understanding of the law, its spirit, and its intent in order to transform years of ‘tradition’.