Dawn - September 6, 2016
A CONFESSION: I’m tired of hearing about women’s empowerment in Pakistan when the government is breaking all its promises made to Pakistani women on the topic of safety and security from gender-based violence. While debates rage about the Panama Papers, the situation in Karachi, CPEC, and the state of affairs in IHK, the issue of ‘honour’ killings has been swept under the rug. All the feel-good news about women entrepreneurs and girls’ education drives pales in comparison to the image of women’s bodies in funeral shrouds that appear on our newspaper pages with depressing regularity.
The latest news that British citizen Samia Shahid was raped before being allegedly honour-killed by her father and former husband reminds us that women are no safer than they were before this summer. After the media uproar over Qandeel Baloch’s murder in July everyone is curiously silent about the larger issue of violence against women and the particular issue of honour killings. Perhaps it’s a form of collective guilt, but there isn’t enough whitewash in the world to cover up the blood of Pakistani women spilled with such impunity by their brothers, fathers, husbands and uncles.
Today, business continues uninterrupted of men murdering women for honour and suffering no repercussions. A parliamentary committee approved two bills on honour killing back in July, which addressed both honour killings and convictions for rape; the nation was told the bills would be voted on “in a matter of weeks”. Yet months have passed and no vote has been held, nor does it seem to be on the horizon in the foreseeable future.
The hoopla around the anti-honour killing bill was enacted merely to show to the international community that the government was “doing something” about the problem. In July we were told that the bill would not even be opposed by the religious parties, who usually block laws written to protect women and girls from abuse and violence in our heavily male-dominated society. But instead of an anti-honour killing law, what Pakistan got was a cybercrime law in August, pushed through parliament and the Senate as if their lives depended on it.
The issue of ‘honour’ killings has been swept under the rug.
I can’t imagine the frustration of Senator Sughra Imam, who has spent much of her parliamentary career the past two years trying to get a bill tabled which eliminates the loopholes and lacunae in the parts of the Pakistan Penal Code which already address honour killings. It must be extremely disheartening to be a parliamentarian, to make Herculean efforts to bring about good laws, and then see all that effort go to waste simply because the government does not deem it a priority after saying exactly the opposite.
The proposed honour killing law must be made watertight, so that the crime of honour killing is non-compoundable, meaning that the parties cannot enter into a compromise and have the accused acquitted of the crime. On the other hand, it also has to make sure that anyone committing an honour killing doesn’t change their plea and claim it was a murder over something else, a domestic argument, for example, in order to escape punishment under this particular law.
MNA Nafisa Shah is in the process of publishing a book on honour killings in upper Sindh, based on field research she conducted for her PhD at Oxford. Her experiences as a journalist and as district nazim of Khairpur, make her one of the foremost experts on the practice of honour killing in Pakistan today.
In upper Sindh, she observed the practice had become something of a business: men who killed their wives for honour would forgive the man co-accused of the so-called "affair" — if the co-accused paid a fine or supplied the "widower" with a new bride from his own family. However, in most cases, Shah says in an interview with a magazine, “honour acts as a mask for instrumental coldblooded violence”. She knows that the key to stopping honour killings is not just legislation, but community engagement, mediation that doesn’t involve using women as barter, and the wholesale protection of women.
According to Shah, “The state, the law, and the power elite are jointly implicated in the immunity that the family and kin enjoy in taking lives of men and women accused of damaging family honour.” Implementation of the law, prosecutions, and convictions promise to be extremely challenging in a country whose legal system is already under tremendous pressure, and there’s already a sense of defeat before the law has even been passed, which might explain the lack of impetus behind it. But millions of Pakistani women haven’t yet lost hope that they may be the recipients of justice from a country that has promised them equality and protection.
As terrible a crime as honour killing is, it would be equally criminal to show, by refusing to pass an anti-honour killing law, that their hopes are misfounded, and that being killed for honour is just another one of the indignities you have to live with because you are a Pakistani woman.
Bina Shah is a writer and columnist in Karachi; she is the author of the novel Slum Child and A Season for Martyrs.