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March 14, 2019

The noose of tradition


March 14, 2019

Like the characters in Marquez’s ‘Chronicle of a death foretold’, most of us had known that Afzal Kohistani would die. Certainly, those who had followed the case which unfolded in the remote Kohistan area, with the arrival of social media playing a part in the tragic events, knew that the man who broke the story of the murder of eight young people may not survive long.

He survived six years. In 2012, three young men and five women, including, it is said, a five-year-old girl, were caught on the poor quality footage shot by a mobile phone at a wedding. While the young men moved to the music, some of the girls were seen clapping along to the tune. The video made it out of Kohistan and this is what perhaps triggered the events which followed.

The same year, the Supreme Court ordered a judicial commission to enquire into reports that at least some of the girls had been murdered. Initially, the inquiry team that went up thought this was not the case, but doubts continue to be expressed as to whether the women produced before them were the same as those in the video. These suspicions proved correct and by the end of 2013, it had been ascertained that the girls and the boys had all been murdered in the name of tradition. Kohistani’s demands to look into the matter, which involved the death of two of his brothers, was the key factor behind his murder on a busy square in Abbottabad by a man from Palas, Kohistan.

The story depicts the extent to which what we know as ‘tradition’ continues to grip the lives of people. While this is especially true of rural areas, it is also true of our cities and towns. Crimes in the name of honour, culture and tradition have taken place there. It takes very little to threaten ‘tradition’. The young people in the footage from Kohistan would appear to have done nothing more than enjoy a festive occasion. But in the opinion of a jirga, they were seen as having dishonoured their family and their clan. This of course meant for them death.

It has also meant death for others who marry of their own free will, of those who defy customary practice in some way, who refuse to be forcibly married or who break away from the bonds that bind people across the country and most notably hold back women. In some cases, these bonds have been confused with religion, even though there is nothing in religious belief which upholds honour killings, or the rights of elders to order the taking away of lives or the gang rape of women, as happened for example in the case of Mukhtaran Mai in 2002. Even today, the perpetrators of the rape are to be punished. This of course encourages others to follow along the same lines.

The tight noose pulled across lives by tradition is a force that is difficult to break. Women and girls across the country get told not to engage in a certain kind of behaviour because it is not the ‘done thing’ or is not acceptable practice for their gender. The attempts to break this mould were visible at the Aurat March held in eight locations across the country on March 8 this year.

The fact that so many young women chose to speak up for their rights indicated their degree of frustration at the societal bounds that held them ensnared. Of course, these women were fortunate to be allowed to march. Many others across the country would never have been permitted such liberty. The comments on social media that poured in beneath pictures of the march or posters from it indicated how poorly people understood the happenings of that day or the feelings of the people they live beside.

There has been limited success in breaking away from tradition. Across the country, the majority of girls now attend school. This is a marked difference to the situation only a decade ago. But there are too many who are prevented from moving on to acquire higher learning or are coerced into choosing careers decided by others because this is what is seen as fitting for them and for the family which so fiercely defends its ‘honour’. In many cases, young men too face pressures over careers or education, though these chains may be slightly more loosely tied. The question is not which gender suffers more, but why tradition continues to exert a hold on lives.

To break away from it, we need more people to speak out. In some ways, social media has been encouraging this. The case of Qandeel Baloch, killed in 2018, is an example of this. Qandeel, from a village near Multan, dared to break away from convention and would post racy videos of herself over popular websites. She was an instant hit. But the fame that led to her success also became the cause of her murder at the hands of her brother, who apparently felt his family had been shamed. Her parents, in contrast, stood by her and appreciated the efforts their daughter had made to alter the pattern of a life she disliked, to give up a husband chosen for her along with a child she had given birth to and instead pursue her own dreams and make her own decisions. Like so many others, she paid the price.

The voices we should hear rebelling against this are still too muted. There are far too many in the country who believe that the right to choice belongs to entire groups and not to individuals. This leads to the extrajudicial gatherings which decide the fate of persons caught up in controversy and which continue to exist even though they are illegal, perhaps as a response to a faltering judicial system. Such jirgas are cropping up even in major cities and even in an age when education should be making a difference in lives.

Change of course always comes slowly. There are few revolutions which push back old ideas, even when they bring in new ones. The process of changing thought and mindsets is a slow one, often spread out over many years. But to help it along, we need to question all that is put across to us through textbooks, the media, conversations, and through television and social media networks. Only when this process of questioning begins is any change likely, and only then will people like Kohistani be safe. Till this happens, they will remain under constant threat, with every move made judged by others, even if it does not affect their lives or their style of living.

The freedom to choose is still very limited, especially for those not born into wealth, privilege and influence. This of course makes up the majority of people in the country.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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