Over the centuries, a highly patriarchal society has controlled female desire, especially related to carnal pleasures, behind the mantle of honour. A woman in any capacity – wife, daughter, mother or sister – has been subjugated to the whims of a man as guided by his honour, with actions to the contrary reprimanded severly.
This crime and punishment paradigm with relation to a man’s honour gave birth to the heinous act of ‘honour killing’, whereby a male member of the family retains the right to kill a female relation accused of dishonouring him. Even the definition of what constitutes a shameful act is malleable in the hands of the patriarch; it can be anything from ‘objectionable’ clothes to a sexually liberated woman.
Although the concept of honour killings is not singular to a particular culture or religion – being predominantly a patriarchal concept and thus prevalent in all such communities from the Roman to the medieval Jewish ones in Europe – recently it has become associated mostly with those of the Islamic faith and with countries where it is dominant.
Pakistan, a country perpetually embroiled in an identity crisis, has seen a rise in such religiously instigated murders, despite award-winning documentaries highlighting the practice (Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s ‘A Girl in the River’) and a governmental ban on honour-killings.
Out of 190 million people in Pakistan, women make up almost 52 percent of this population. The majority of Pakistani women suffer from mental and physical abuse in the form of domestic violence, rapes, femicide and honour killings. According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation report, more than 1000 girls and women lose their lives in the name of honour according to a poll in 2011, making Pakistan the world’s third most dangerous country for women to live in. The official report on violence against women, submitted by the Ministry of Law, Justice and Human Rights in Pakistan, contained statistics of 860 honour killings of mostly women and 344 rapes occurring within Pakistan between January 2012 and September 15, 2015.
As the majority of honour-killings are justified under the pretext of protecting honour as dictated by Islam, it is easy for reporters to follow the same line of thought without investigating further. This gives an almost biased view into the issue as it negates many other socio-economic and cultural factors at play that disguise themselves as religious doctrine.
To understand this phenomenon in Pakistan, supposedly spurred by Islamic sentiment, one must look at the history of Islam in the region. Practices such as rape followed by honour killings and female infanticides were commonly found in Arabia in the pre-Islamic era. Thus, when Arab inhabitants occupied the region now known as Balochistan, these practices entered into what is modern-day Pakistan. Combined with the local Hindu and Sikh traditions, the idea of honour-killings took root and embedded itself within local culture.
Lack of education and male-dominated communities led to the further subjugation of women. Unfortunately, clerics used Islam to justify the value systems in place through lopsided interpretation of the Scripture. Although secular ideology has always been at loggerheads with religious factions in Pakistan, the lack of federal control in extending its laws to the tribal and feudal areas, as well as the generally low literacy rates (especially for women) have led to the promulgation of barbaric laws that perpetuate honour killings.
Tribal courts (jirgas) often rule on matters of honour; needless to say, their decisions do not uphold any constitutional or moral rights of women. Honour killings and honour revenge (where women of opposing tribes are raped and/or killed as punishment) remain common. The jirga system has extended revenge-rape to men as well. The infamous case of Mukhtaran Mai, who was gang-raped and dragged around naked in her village as punishment after she protested the sodmosation of her brother by a rival tribe, brought this issue to the global stage.
Media observers are quick to place the blame on Islamic law. However, to say that Shariah law condones honour killings and rapes is unjust. While there are a lot of contentious archaic Islamic laws, just like in any other religion, the Shariah has made it clear that killing in the name of honour is murder, a belief echoed by the highest ranked clerics in the Muslim world. Ignorance allows patriarchal structures to benefit from their own perverted interpretation of religion.
Ignorance in this case does not restrict itself to the illiterate; many affluent and literate families engage in this behaviour as they are ignorant about the true religious doctrine. In February 2017, Hina Shahnawaz (27) from Kohat in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was honour-killed by her cousin after refusing his marriage proposal. She was the sole breadwinner of her family and her living and working alone at an NGO in Islamabad was further cause of anger on the part of her murderer.
Muslim nations have taken strict legal action against the crime of honour killings; in Turkey it results in life imprisonment and the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada openly denounced honour killings in 2012.
In 2016, Pakistan safeguarded women’s rights by presenting the Punjab Protection of Women Against Violence Act (2016). Pakistan’s parliament ratified this bill and honour killings are now considered murder, punishable by life imprisonment; an age-old rule of forgiveness from the victim’s family revoking need for trial has been considered inadmissible for honour killings, following the murder of social media star Qandeel Baloch.
Despite these efforts, honour killings continue to take place. The law doesn’t matter unless it is genuinely implemented and the Anti-Honor Killing Bill can scarcely work in a system where religious groups use the name of Islam to practice control, and feudals act as legislators.
Only through education, where women are aware of their rights in an Islamic society, can this monstor be fought. Awareness of rights is important before clerics can be called out on their perversion of Scripture for their own gains. Moreover, an unbiased media is instrumental in achieving this.
The writer is a freelance contributor. Email: mohsin_2050live.com