The South Asia Channel

The dishonorable defense of honor

A plastic grocery bag is probably one of the most generously hoarded items in any Pakistani home. Ours all the way in Boston is no different. Two people and 200 plastic bags; look anywhere – under the mattress, over the closet, folded and tucked between prayer mats. A couple fall off every time I open ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

A plastic grocery bag is probably one of the most generously hoarded items in any Pakistani home. Ours all the way in Boston is no different. Two people and 200 plastic bags; look anywhere – under the mattress, over the closet, folded and tucked between prayer mats. A couple fall off every time I open my jewelry drawer to find my favorite pearl earrings my mother passed on to me with my dowry last year.  

Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed’s home in Warrington, Cheshire in the United Kingdom must be no different, only they used their grocery bags to stuff their 17-year-old daughter Shafilea‘s mouth, blocking her airways and pinning her down till her "legs stopped kicking". But that wasn’t punishment enough. Ahmed punched his teenager’s lifeless body in the chest after the killing, enraged by her "desire to lead a westernized lifestyle" – wearing jeans, socializing with white girls and refusing to marry a much older man.

Shafilea is gone. So is my stockpile of plastic bags – to the very last one. But to recently convicted Iftikhar and Farzana Ahmed and thousands, if not millions, likeminded others, something else has been saved, guarded, maintained.

That something also led Javed Iqbal Shaikh, a respected lawyer, to pull out a gun and shoot point-blank his 22 year-old sister, Raheela Sehto, in front of dozens of witnesses in a "packed courtroom" in Hyderabad, Pakistan earlier this month. As the bullet penetrated the "left side of her head" she fell to the ground looking her husband, Zulfiqar Sehto, in the eye. Raheela’s marriage to Sehto was the reason for which her brother felt compelled to brutally murder her, and Sehto the man Shaikh regrets he couldn’t kill along with his sister.   

Two women and innumerable others, time and time again, are erased from history in the hands of those who think themselves guardians of this centuries-old tradition. Regrettably, to the majority of ‘honorable’ men, honor in all its entirety resides in the bodies of women and women alone, in the context of which their rights to live, let alone control, their own lives and to liberty and freedom of movement, expression, association, and physical integrity mean very, very little.

Whether out of fear or by choice, the complicity and support by other women in the family and the community – mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, cousins – also strengthens the concept of women as property. Their participation in these deadly attacks also reaffirms the perception that violence against family members is a family and not a judicial issue.

This ‘community mentality‘ paired with misleading interpretations of religion and suit-yourself articulations of ‘family law’ encourage patriarchy within families and negative attitudes towards female autonomy. Thus an environment is created in which violence against women is accepted and justified – a huge motivation for the family and community to cover up these heinous brutalities – a crime in itself. It is not surprising, then, that various women’s groups in South-west Asia and the Middle East suspect the number of both reported and unreported victims to be at least four times the United Nations’ decade-old figure of around 5,000 honor killings a year worldwide.

So for those daring to trespass the boundary of ‘appropriate’ chalked-out by their male counterparts and guardians, ‘honor’ is but a death sentence and has been so for hundreds and thousands of years. The concept of honor and its protection is widely displayed within many different male-dominated societies in human history, dating back to ancient Rome, the Arab tribes of Babylonian King Hammurabi as early as in 1200 BC, prerevolutionary China and many other societies and historical eras long before any major religion came into existence.  

Today, however, the practice is becoming increasingly common across cultures and across religions, especially in South Asia and in Pakistan. The concept of honor in the region is largely dichotomous, and absurdly so. While honor in its masculine form is active and positive – dynamism, generosity, vigor, confidence, dominance and strength, a woman’s honor, by contrast, revolves around negative, more passive concepts – chastity, obedience, servitude, domesticity and the endurance of pain and hardship without any display of feelings or complaint.

Unlike her male counterpart, a woman’s honor can neither be increased nor regained – once lost, it is lost forever. What is worse is that when a woman loses her honor, the honor of her brothers, father and uncles is also lost and can only be regained through a violent display of dominance. Conveniently nonsensical but practiced explicitly in South Asia among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims alike, with the same deadly effects.

In its latest annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan presented disappointing statistics for honor crimes in the country. More than 1,000 women and girls fall victim to honor killings every year in Pakistan, the report maintains, mostly at the hands of their brothers and husbands, with less than two per cent provided medical assistance before their death.

The Aurat Foundation, a reputable women’s rights group in Pakistan, however, has uncovered numbers two times that figure. According to their report released in January this year, as many as 2,341 honor killings were reported in the country in 2011 – "a 27  per cent jump from the year before". But the figures are just "the tip of the iceberg", the report warns, since its researchers relied on cases reported in the media only.

But despite being ranked the third-most dangerous country for women in the world after Afghanistan and Congo – due to a barrage of threats including honor killings – over the past decade, Pakistan has also made adequate real world efforts to fortify women’s rights in the country. In 2006, the country passed a bill to strengthen the law against honor killings under the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, making the crime punishable by a prison term of seven years or even by the death penalty.  Last year in 2011, the Senate passed two landmark pieces of legislations into bills – the Prevention of Anti-Women Practices Bill  and the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill – an uncommon piece of news coming from the region since both bills were introduced and carried through by female members of its National Assembly.

But tackling something as engrained and as ancient as honor killing requires every thread of the country’s social fabric to work together to bring about a wholesale change in common attitudes. This development may sound almost fairytale-ish in a Pakistani context, but if social change over centuries has led to a major decline of honor-based violence in certain parts of Europe, America and even the Middle East, then the global eradication of honor crimes remains a possibility. The question is, can Pakistan be a part of this change?

The current political climate in Pakistan is marked by a tug-of-war between civilian and military rulers on the one hand, and between liberal and religious elements on the other. The main casualties in this hostile environment are the women killed in the name of honor. The sitting Pakistan People’s Party government has absolutely no support from the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz , nor — it seems — from the judiciary, which is more interested in sacking the next available prime minister and policing the country’s television channels for vulgarity than in taking legal action against the Hyderabad honor-killing incident.  

In the lead-up to the upcoming general elections later this year, Imran Khan and his political party Tehreek-e-Insaf have in a matter of months risen to unrivaled popularity among Pakistan’s youth. The so-called ‘pied piper‘ of Pakistani politics, attracting over 400,000 to his rally in Karachi earlier this year, however, has few words on the subject of honor killings. Offering his countrymen a ‘New Pakistan‘ free from American slavery as he comes into power, the man eats, breathes and sleeps drones. Honor killing, not so much, even though the women killed in the name of honor each year outnumber annual drone-related casualties in Pakistan.

Honor killing is a broader, more universal problem. It is not just a women’s issue, or a religious or cultural one. It is a full-scale human rights concern where daily violence happens throughout the world in the name of honor.

Wherever there is a structural acceptance for violence against women, there is an acknowledgment that men have all the rights to legislate their own morality. Inaction of the state and silence on the part of national or community leaders and intellectuals the likes of Khan only fuel the ancient trend.

In Pakistan, there is a culture of impunity where men commit vicious acts to safeguard their so-called honor and roam freely. Tremendous amounts of pressure – political, judicial and social – need to be asserted to make sure these acts are punished. The problem needs to be openly and extensively discussed so that it can be uprooted. And what better place to do it than a gathering of 400,000 in the heart of the country? Who wouldn’t like a ‘New Pakistan’ where perpetrators are stripped of the very honor in the name of which they take innocent human lives and are duly punished?

The question remains: can Pakistan make the change?

Rabail Baig is a Pakistani journalist based in Boston.

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