Wednesday July 17, 2024

The law of the father

By Madiha Tahir & Mahvish Ahmad
March 02, 2016

This Monday, one Pakistani garnered accolades for her documentary on honour killing in Pakistan. On the same day, the Pakistani state hanged a killer. In the early morning hours, Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Punjab’s governor Salmaan Taseer, was hanged in Adiala Jail. Qadri had viciously gunned down the former governor for speaking on behalf of a poor Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, who still languishes in jail over trumped up blasphemy charges.

Although Aasia has not been released, some prominent Pakistanis heralded Qadri’s hanging as a ‘victory for Pakistan’, as if what was needed was to kill a man rather than free this woman. As Aasia disappeared from view, a congratulatory consensus developed over the actions of the government and what it meant for the state. For these Pakistanis, the hanging was a sign that the state was finally exercising its writ and placing itself on ‘the right side of history’. Rasul Baksh Rais claimed that “[...] the government had sent the message that no one was bigger than the state.”

The same Pakistanis who lauded Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s documentary on honour killing also celebrated Qadri’s hanging. Yet, honour killing and the death penalty depend upon the same logic: the law of the father. The feminist scholar Silvia Federici has sharply observed that in Roman law, the father as the pater familias, had potestas or ‘power’ over his immediate family – including the right kill them. This same patriarchal principle underpins the right of the state to execute its citizens.

The state now stands in as the father over its children, the citizenry. As feminists – indeed as women – legitimising the law of the father by backing the death penalty should be resisted, not celebrated. We are all too familiar with the aggrandising behaviour of male family members and patriarchal relationships in which others attempt to direct, coerce and own our very lives – sometimes by telling us what we can/not wear, and at other times, by killing us in the name of family honour.

There is little difference in this regard between comments that killing Qadri has somehow redeemed the Pakistani state and claims that killing a woman saves the honour of the family. Certainly, Qadri is a heinous killer and there is no equivalence between a woman killed for honour and him. However, what we mean to highlight here is that the same principle undergirds honour killing and capital punishment.

Seen from this vantage point, Rais’ comment that there is no one “bigger than the state” reads as a legitimation of the masculinist, patriarchal nature of the state. It is a critique well-recognised by our feminist allies over in India, many of whom came out in opposition to the death penalty for the perpetrators of the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi.

Following Qadri’s hanging, protests have ensued and the potential threat of violence has shut down the capital. During Qadri’s imprisonment, he found ample support – including managing to get a prison guard to shoot another alleged blasphemer. What this tells us in no uncertain terms is that the problem is far bigger than Qadri. Unless we intend to immediately lock-up and execute thousands of Pakistanis we had better start thinking about the underlying social structures that produce and maintain people like Qadri.

The death penalty – which has already claimed more than 300 lives, many of whom we have little knowledge about – has done nothing to change that. If anything, it provided Qadri’s supporters with a martyr. So much for the argument that the death penalty will prove a deterrent to others. In fact, evidence from other countries where effects of the death penalty are tracked, such as the United States, show that places like the South which have the highest number of executions also have the highest murder rate.

Finally, several people have also argued that, while they oppose the death penalty, the execution of Taseer’s killer is an exception worth making. But, here’s the thing: principles matter most precisely at the moment of the exception. It is exactly when one is dealing with the horrific other – the real or imagined criminal, killer, militant – that principle matters. It is when we have no other bearings or sense of familiarity with the person with whom we are dealing with that principle matters. If we do not uphold it in these moments, we should not be surprised the next time a Pakistani turns away in disgust when we speak of human rights.

The writers are co-founders of Tanqeed (

Twitter: @TanqeedOrg; @Madi_Hatter; @mahvishahmad