"She was extremely lucky," says Ali Akbar, a 35-year-old farmer from Mairpur village in Nankana Sahib district, referring to Farzana Parveen, a 25-year old pregnant woman who was killed by her own family in broad daylight outside the Lahore High Court on May 27 for marrying the man of her choice.
Sitting among scores of men who had come to condole with Muhammad Iqbal, Farzana’s husband, at his house in Moza Sial, a village in Jaranwala tehsil of Faisalabad district, Akbar explains that "Farzana’s case got attention and her killers were arrested because she was murdered in Lahore. Majority of incidents of honour killings in our area go unnoticed."
Other men sitting around him nod their heads in agreement.
"In most cases, members of the family kill the girl while others become complainants. At the end of the day, they forgive the murderer. So, everything remains within the family," he says, adding that the ‘phenomenon’ of killing women in the name of honour is more cultural though people use religion (Qisas and Diyaat law) to settle the murder cases.
Akbar could recall at least 50 incidents of honour killings in Syedwala town and the surrounding villages in Nankana Sahib district in the last one decade or so. "In most cases, the families did not even register a complaint. Even if the matter was reported to the police, I don’t recall a single person was punished."
The situation is said to be almost similar in most areas of the surrounding districts like Sheikhupura, Faisalabad, Jhang, Hafizabad, Pindi Bhattian, Gujranwala and Lahore.
Who else could testify to this fact but Farzana’s husband Muhammad Iqbal. Police record shows he murdered his first wife Ayesha Bibi in 2009 and remained in jail for six months. His children, being legal heirs of her first wife, pardoned him.
Iqbal terms it an accident. "I was going to see Farzana. She stood in my way and would not let me go. I got angry and held her by the neck and pushed her away. She was killed accidentally. My brother-in-law got a fake case registered against me but my children forgave me after four years," he says calmly.
Everybody sitting around him seconds Iqbal’s view except his eldest son, Aurangzaib, 22. "My father killed my mother. She was strangulated during a fight over Farzana," he says. "We forgave our father because there was no other option. He is our father at the end of the day."
Incidentally, only a few human rights activists are present in the area. They paint an even bleaker picture of the area when it comes to rights violations. "I agree with the people of the area that Farzana was lucky because the incident occurred in Lahore," says Sarfraz Qadri, director operations of Sanjh Pareet, a Nankana Sahib-based human rights organisation.
He says that Syedwala town and surrounding villages are among the worst affected areas in terms of human right violations. The literacy rate in Syedwala and surrounding areas is less than 23 per cent which is the lowest in Nankana Sahib district.
"People are rigid in their beliefs regarding women who are denied their basic rights and domestic and sexual violence, honour killings and forced/child marriages are common in the society," says Qadri.
A Lahore-based senior police official, who is involved in the investigation of Farzana’s murder case and has also served in Sheikhupura district, says that women are treated as dispensable property especially in the "Jangli" belt, which includes most areas of the above-mentioned districts situated near the bank of river.
"I have never seen people grieve over women murders. Farzana’s family believes it has killed its own woman and nobody should have a problem with it," he says. "I strongly believe Iqbal would patch up with her family in the coming months."
In his professional career spanning over seven years, the police official claims he has not seen a single man who was convicted in honour killing case. "Men would continue murdering women with impunity. It is not a problem of policing but our society and its criminal justice system. Police cannot do much if the heirs of the victims ‘forgive’ the killers."
Ghulam Abbas, a lawyer based in Nankana Sahib who provides free legal aid to the women victims of violence, says that honour killing is a routine matter in these areas and it needs to be seen as an indigenous issue of Jangli belt. "I have provided legal aid in more than 40 cases of honour killing in the last two and half years. It is a much accepted practice in these areas. The concept of ‘honour’ is part of cultural norms here. Families kill their girls or accept their murders only because of social pressures. In many cases, uncles or cousins kill girls on the issue of honour terming their brothers and parents ‘beghayrat’ (dishonourable). The families in such cases do not resist social pressure and forgive the murderer."
His wild guess is that more than 50 women are killed in Nankana Sahib district alone every year in the name of honour. "Less than 20 per cent of such cases are registered and none of them is punished. At least, I have not seen even a single person punished for honour killing in our area."
Aurat Foundation, a leading women’s rights organisation of the country, releases its annual report ‘Violence against Women in Pakistan’ since 2008. A close reading of these reports reveals that districts like Lahore, Faisalabad, Sheikhupura, Nankana Sahib and Gujranwala are always ranked among the top districts when it comes to reported cases of honour killing. According to the 2012 report, 23 cases of honour killing were reported from Lahore, 20 from Faisalabad, 18 from Sheikhupua and 6 each from Nankana Sahib and Gujranwala.
"Our reports only include cases which are reported in the media. In big cities, such cases are reported more frequently in the media because of its huge presence there," says Abid Ali, Aurat Foundation’s provincial monitoring officer in Punjab. "In the last few years Faisalabad and its surrounding areas have seen most incidents of violence against women."
Hafiz Abdul Ghaffar Qaisrani, District Police Officer Nankana Sahib, accepts the situation is not good in the district. "Murder is a compoundable offense according to our legal system. In a majority of honour killing cases, man kills his sister and the father become a complainant. After a month or two, the father forgives the murderer," he says, adding that majority of cases do get registered but killers are forgiven.
"Now we have started registering honour killing cases under section 311 of PPC as well which empowers the court to accept it either as a compoundable offence or not. In many instances, we had to snatch the body of the victim from families and compel them to get a case registered. Sometimes, the cases are also registered with the police as complainant. But it hardly works as the entire society is on the other side," he says.
Muhammad Badar Alam, senior journalist and editor of monthly Herald, who belongs to Hafizabad district, says the "Jangli is a hardcore criminal belt. You can easily term them tribal areas of Punjab. Honour is a very strong concept but the Jangli traditions were never about killing women."
He thinks it’s the pressure of modernisation that is responsible for the rise in violence against women in this belt.
"It was always the local traditional institutions which used to resolve such issues. People in this culture do not like to involve institutions such as the police and the courts in any issue, especially those related to women and honour. Old institutions have been rendered irrelevant by modernity and there is no alternative available. People still do not want to involve state institutions; instead they go for self-justice. Women being the most vulnerable part of the society become the major victim."