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Cultural and body politics

September 20, 2008

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THE past few weeks have seen an outpouring of 'moral outrage' against the alleged burying alive of two women in Nasirabad, Balochistan, in what is considered another case of 'honour killing'.

We examine here the sub-text of such crimes which challenges the false premises on which most of the outrage is based.

The main reaction has been less about understanding the structural and material motivation behind such systemic acts, and more about the nature and location of the crime. In other words, despite the routine honour crimes committed in Pakistan, the Nasirabad killings in particular drew an outraged response because of the apparently torturous method used to murder the women. The reaction, as expressed in newspaper articles and by protesters, presumes these crimes take place in an apolitical vacuum or are the work of 'lunatics' or tribals and feudals.

From the first day, our concern was over how soon the public outrage would have died down if it wasn't a case that involved being buried alive. Would there have been as much rage? Sadly not, as seen in the lack of rage over other honour killing cases. Of course, the positive side of such a strong protest in the wake of quick media reporting is that there is pressure to investigate and bring such cases to justice.

The questionable involvement of politicians and tribal leaders in such cases always raises the probability of cover-ups and protection of the perpetrators. However, in particularly graphic cases, the focus on the nature of the crime allows the accused to say, as is now being reported, that the women were not buried alive but were shot first and then buried. The rationale is that as long as the mode of killing is not too barbaric, it is accepted as normative by those who benefit from this system and those who identify it as a given evil in the tribal/feudal tradition of misogyny.

Where should concern be located instead? Women activists have researched and raised awareness on how a woman's body is used as a tool of governance in all forms of male mediation and negotiations. In Pakistan, this holds true across classes and societies.

In conflict/competing situations, this form of body politics can be used to escalate the level of conflict and as a tool of vengeance, often in the form of rape — as in the case of Mukhtaran Mai. Public stripping and making women parade naked in public are also demonstrations of how women's bodies are used as 'community signposts' beyond which collective community punishments can be meted out. But the root of such actions has less to do with 'mindsets' that can be transformed simply through 'education'. It is much more to do with systems of governance that define social relationships.

Marriage is very much a tool of governance. Through it, groups are brought together, competing interests aligned or sidelined. It is used to ensure the welfare of family members; through dowry, bride price and exchange marriages. This understanding is not restricted to simply rural or tribal communities but is very much part of urban Pakistani marital arrangements too.

So if women's bodies are a governance tool, then women eloping, marrying of their own choice or entering into sexual relations sans marriage is not simply one that provokes male egos. It is more about women claiming political space. By claiming authority over their own bodies, women often challenge a wider spectrum of collective male decision-making. This, essentially, is the male prerogative and 'honour' that is violated. The killings prompted by 'loss of honour' are not only about the loss of women's chastity per se, but also the loss of control and authority, far wider than control over a female body.

The second wave of outrage was in response to the defensive reaction of Baloch political leaders and Senator Zehri, who suggested that the crime was part of a traditional system of maintaining social order. His was merely a crude version of the same basic principle that many of our urban elite men endorse — the need to regulate a woman's sexuality in all its manifestations. The indignation distracts us from the broader issue of how this expression of violence against women is linked to patriarchy, property and the state. It is also a mistake to read it as a culture-specific crime against women — as if only the Taliban and the Baloch are guilty of perpetuating such control over women.

The Pakistani state, through the Zina Ordinance which made adultery a crime against the state; the Qisas and Diyat laws which allow male survivors to pardon murders of women by other male relatives; the requirement of a wali for marriage and consent for marriage and so on, has institutionalised the idea of a male mediator and recognised his authority to regulate a women's physical and sexual agency. This is morally legitimised by invoking religion as the source. Why then is there not as much outrage directed against the state as against jirgas? These too are merely collective or hierarchical decision-making bodies and they invoke custom or tradition when passing discriminatory and misogynistic judgments.

The most important point raised by the women's movement has been the collaborative relationship between the state and its regulatory powers that are subcontracted to male figureheads. These do not simply in

clude tribal and feudal leaders. These are also extended to the male head of urban households. It is this power nexus that needs to be challenged and the state has to both restructure its own laws and role independently and break this cycle of vesting judicial power in communities thus allowing murders to take place in the name of honour. This also highlights the importance of the need for a gender-sensitive and politically independent judiciary.

However, and be cautious about identifying the root of power inequalities. To hold a placard that reads 'Taliban in the Senate' makes a good photo for newspapers but reveals a dangerous misreading of national and cultural politics as well as of the systemic nature of violence against women.

Fortunately, we have a new liberal government that includes erudite members who hold doctorates on honour crimes and who have moved legislation on the issue when in opposition. This combination of theoretical and practical expertise in parliament should be powerful in reversing state sanctions and protection that is extended to community leaders and jirgas that order such criminal acts. If not, then this is where our outrage should be focussed.