Nafisa Shah’s work on the subject of honour killing spans over twenty years. She first wrote about this subject when she was working as a journalist some twenty years ago.
She has continued her work while working as a politician and a social activist, and later, for her research work on the same subject for her doctoral studies from the University of Oxford. She is currently a member of parliament, and has also served as mayor of Khairpur district. Since she belonged to the area under study – Upper Sindh – and knows its cultural norms and practices more closely, the book provides the reader a rich perspective of various issues related to the issue of honour killing.
According to the author, karo kari or honour killing in upper Sindh is popularly perceived as a phenomenon according to which a male relative can kill a woman and her lover, if he thinks that his ‘honour’ has been violated due to sexual relations between the two, relations that are not sanctified by society via marriage.
Shah explains that modern day customary laws are products of modernity, shaped by power. Customs alternate with formal law and even form the basis for it. The ultimate vindication of honour lies in physical violence, as ‘to kill or die for honour’ is a regular phrase that resounds in discourse on honour in this area. However, it is also important to note that the static binaries of honour violence, as a relationship between men and women, inter tribe, or intra tribe and the state has shifted to a more dynamic and interrelated process in different societies. This is a result of social, political, legal and economic traditions.
The book discusses in detail the various processes involved in the phenomenon of honour killing. It explains how honour is both a strategy and a moral mask with which violence gains legitimacy, and serves the powerful sections of society in Upper Sindh, where karo kari is more prevalent than other parts of the country.
The book has three parts. The first part explains the problem of karo kari in Upper Sindh. This part explains the concepts of honour, karo kari or honour killing, and explores its roots in honour, violence, law, and moral power in colonial Sindh. This part also explains the problem of honour killing in its contemporary forms, and challenges the popular myth that it is a timeless customary practice by analysing its historical and political context.
The second part is about honour, moral power and law. It discusses how law is mirrored in forms of violence, particularly cultural violence. This part discusses the relationship between custom and law. By providing actual case studies from the field, it explores that honour killing is not a timeless phenomenon, but also a form of violence which is informed by recent changes in the law.
The third part deals with the practices of justice in traditional manners, and lives, narratives and strategies of runaway and missing women of Upper Sindh. This part deals with processes where violence is incorporated and normalised, the concept of peace used to check violence, and how women react against their objectification in violence related to so called honour.
This part also explores the various forms of human agency engaged in the issues of honour killing. It describes in detail the roles of litigants, mediators, tribal chiefs, police officers, judges, peace activists, the accused lovers, and the women in refuge. It talks about how these human actors are competing for power, status, resource and honour, and explains how these human actions are continuously being informed by modern legal institutions and political authorities.
The rich bibliography given at the end of the book along with the appendices and glossary also help understand this serious issue in depth.
‘Honour Unmasked’ explains how an ineffective justice system and informal practices to seek justice provide an environment for honour killing as an accepted norm of society, particularly in certain parts of Upper Sindh. It also shows that the problem is not related to so-called honour only, but that there are many other factors which use honour killing as a garb to legitimise issues of power, control over resources, and marital strategies in the area. The book traces the root of the phenomenon of honour killing from the perspective of law, social framework of relations between men and women, power structures and politics. With rich data, and well-articulated arguments, the author suggests that honour killing is actually practised to hide so many other shades of power struggle.
It has remained a popular perception that such a response to so-called honour violation is a timeless, natural, unquestionable and socially accepted phenomenon. However, in reality, such practices were mostly carried out by men to protect their economic, political, social or other interests. The author also argues that this is a constructed social aspect of Upper Sindh that must be reviewed in relation to a formal judicial system, laws and power structure in general, particularly in Upper Sindh.
The book is not only an articulation of various ideas and historical data available on the issue of karo kari in Upper Sindh, it also enriches its arguments by citing actual case studies of women who suffered the horrors of the practice of karo kari. ‘Honour Unmasked’ provides the reader with a human perspective and how it has affected the lives of women accused of sexual transgression, as well as their families that suffered because of such allegations.
While the book tells the stories of the women who were killed via karo kari, it also tells the stories of those lucky women who managed to escape the punishment of karo kari and survived.
‘Honour Unmasked has been written by Nafisa Shah and published by Oxford University Press. Price: Rs1150.
The writer is a gender and social development specialist.