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Opinion

May 13, 2018

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Murder in Mangowal

Some people would say that an honour killing in Pakistan is somewhat like a dog biting a man. It happens off and on. So there is little point in raising hell about it.

But, in a sense, it is society that kills a young woman or lovers when they exercise autonomy on their own lives. What we have to deal with is a society that has gone berserk, at least in the context of the freedom that is allowed to women in the traditional sector.

However, the case of Sana Cheema is very different and projects not just the conservative sense of honour nurtured in a rural setting in Pakistan but also the hazards of raising a family in an advanced liberal and permissive society. One important aspect of this tragedy is its possible impact on families settled, say, in Europe or North America.

Sana Cheema’s, to be sure, is not the first honour killing of a Pakistani woman brought up in a Western country, in this case in Italy. But details of how her murder was unearthed – and it took about three weeks – are instructive. The foul deed was committed in a village near Mangowal in Gujrat district, but the first report alleging the murder was published in an Italian newspaper, and it was a social media campaign run from Italy that led to Sana’s autopsy.

There is little doubt that her murder would have gone undetected if this campaign had not continued, prompting our leading English newspapers to pick the story and follow it up in an investigative vein. Wajahat Abbas Kazmi, an activist and filmmaker who migrated to Italy in 1999, also from Gujrat, played a prominent part in pursuing Sana’s story in social media.

In fact, Gujrat District Police Officer Jahanzeb Nazeer Khan has admitted that he learnt about the case through social media and the English translation of the news report published in an Italian newspaper. He said that the only useful details they found in the report were the name of the victim and a reference to Gujrat district. Finally, on April 23, the police was able to locate the family.

Sana’s family claimed that she had died of natural causes and was buried in the village graveyard on April 18. Since there was strong suspicion that she had been murdered, permission was sought from a magistrate to exhume the body for autopsy. On Wednesday, the forensic and autopsy reports revealed that Sana was strangled to death. Her father, brother and uncle have been arrested on the charge of murder.

Here, then, is another human story that baffles the mind about the dynamics of familial relationships in certain circumstances. That fathers and brothers can commit such a murder is a fact we have lived with, but in this case, Sana’s family had lived in Italy. According to Italian media, Sana had wanted to marry a man from Brescia who, like her, was a second-generation immigrant with Italian citizenship.

Before the release of the forensic report, media’s search for truth about Sana’s death had brought to light a number of concerns that relate to the life of Pakistan’s immigrants in Western countries, and the barriers that are often put in the path of young women. The focus here is on Italy, but it would obviously be the same situation across the spectrum.

Brescia, we learn, is a province in northern Italy with the largest accumulation of Pakistani immigrants. Considering that Italian politics is veering towards the right, mainly because of the anxiety that immigrants have fostered, it was not surprising that Sana’s honour killing figured in political statements.

In a ‘view from Brescia’ published in this newspaper on Sunday, a centre-right mayoral candidate was quoted as saying: “Those who want to integrate and share the fundamental values of our culture are welcome, others must know that Brescia is not and will not be their home”.

This is a valid point and the Pakistani diaspora needs to reflect on how it should deal with a potential clash of cultures and, crucially, moral values. In this respect, we have another story from Italy and, oddly, from a place near Brescia, dating 2006. Sana’s story has revived the memories of an incident that naturally shocked Italy.

Twelve years ago, a 20-year-old Pakistani woman, Hina Saleem, was brutally murdered, in fact butchered, by her father because he did not approve of her Western ways. The father had buried the girl in the house garden. He was awarded 30 years in prison, and in an interview from his cell described the burial as a way of bringing her back home.

Ah, but there is no road that leads back home for immigrants who have children born and bred in their adopted homes in another world where they do things differently. At one level, those who have never crossed the frontier are also exposed to the raging winds of change. In a digital world, our virtual lives float across continents.

I have often wondered if the incidents of honour killing, many of which may be unreported as Sana’s almost was, have a kind of symbiotic relationship with religious extremism and intolerance that also have political implications. Our ruling ideas seem averse to modernity, whether in the social or political domain. Conservative ideas and attitudes are able to overwhelm any struggle for progressive social change.

For that matter, it may be said that the same kind of vile passions are invested in, for instance, the lynching of Mashal Khan and the strangulation of Sana Cheema. In both cases, promising young lives that sought liberation and fulfilment were cruelly extinguished. The portrait of Sana that is more frequently used in the media bears a story that is too sad to tell.

Yes, the gap between the emancipated Western ways of life and what we believe to be the confines of our own culture is very wide. This means that the limits of freedom for young women have to be carefully negotiated. It would help if we have a sense of what fundamental human rights are all about and what are the implications of accepted democratic values.

We cannot also ignore the recent surge in the claim for power and authority that the women all around the world are stressing. The ‘MeToo’ movement against sexual harassment is becoming international and we have had its rumblings in Pakistan too. Values that condone women’s suppression or deny them their rights have to be resisted. To expect the young to be untouched by something they are totally immersed in is patently foolish.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

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