Intimacy That Kills

A Pakistani woman brutally murdered by her own family is just one of countless women around the world abused -- or worse -- by so-called “loved ones.”


According to Pakistani police, this is what happened on May 27, the day a dark-eyed, pregnant woman named Farzana Parveen died: About two dozen men used sticks and bricks to beat Parveen, 25, to death just outside the High Court of the eastern city of Lahore. The attackers, who also shot her in the shin, included Parveen’s brother and father, by their own admission. They were angry that she had married a man of her own choice instead of one picked by her male relatives. Her father admitted killing his daughter without regret: She "insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent," he told police.

When the story hit the news, several strange twists quickly emerged. As Parveen was being beaten to death, her husband, Mohammad Iqbal, says he "begged [police] to help us but they said, this is not our duty. I took off my shirt (to be humble) and begged them to save her." Yet according to Parveen’s older sister, Khalida Bibi, Iqbal was actually one of the many men who bludgeoned her to death. Then, two days later, Iqbal admitted he strangled his first wife to death six years ago. "I was in love with Farzana and killed my first wife because of this love," Iqbal told Agence France-Presse. Moreover, Parveen’s stepson, Aurangzaib, told the Telegraph that Parveen’s sister Rehana was poisoned by her family four years ago. It seems the family decided they didn’t like the in-laws they had gotten in Rehana’s arranged marriage, and therefore wanted Rehana to leave her husband. A "no" from their daughter allegedly brought on murder.

So many accusations may make this case sound too bizarre to be anything other than a terrible murder perpetrated by a dark and complex family. But, really, it’s not the soap opera it appears to be. At its core, the case and even its twists are symbolic of something common, insidious, and tolerated around the world: This is a case of death by patriarchy.

"Honor killing," as it is known, is far from unheard of in Pakistan: There were 869 recorded cases in 2013 alone, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. And while the police’s version of Parveen’s honor killing might be mostly accurate, it’s missing at least one key part: The murder took place in broad daylight in a public place. Witnesses say police were present, but Lahore’s police chief vehemently denies this. No one, it seems, wants to take responsibility for not stopping the tragedy.

"There are myriad actors with an incentive to spin this story," says journalist Stephanie Nolen, a former South Asia bureau chief for Canada’s Globe and Mail who has extensively covered gender-based violence in Pakistan. "They include the police, who often don’t investigate crimes of intimate violence, or don’t treat them seriously, and who may blatantly lie when on the rare occasions there is public outcry."

Consider, too, Iqbal’s admission that he killed his first wife. Media are reporting that he avoided prison because his son forgave him. Under Pakistani law, an accused criminal can pay so-called "blood money" to the relatives of murder victims and secure forgiveness without facing formal punishment. So justice was never really served; an agreement between men just swept the murder of a woman under the rug.


There’s a good definition of gender-based violence by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a forum of U.N. and non-U.N. humanitarian partners: It is "an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females." Tia Palermo, a professor at Stony Brook University who studies gender-based violence, told me she likes this definition because it emphasizes the idea that women and girls are primary victims because of their subordinate status in society around the world.

Subordinate status: That is why Farzana Parveen was killed. She was and always would be inferior — the men in her family could not tolerate any assertion of her will. And this same, lowly status is what led to the two other alleged killings in the very same family.

This sort of violence against women by their families and partners isn’t just "a Pakistani problem." Take a quick global look at the numbers. Nearly 40 percent of murders of women around the world are committed by someone a woman knows intimately, according to the World Health Organization. That number is the same in the United States. A study published in 2013 by Science estimated that one in three women worldwide experiences violence at the hands of her partner at some point in her lifetime. "It is the most prevalent form of gender-based violence," says Palermo.

But much of this violence goes unreported and unpunished globally. "With my colleagues, we estimated that among women who suffer various forms of violence, only 7 percent either report or seek services related to that violence," Palermo says. "Most suffer in silence."

The confusion over whether police stood idly by as Parveen was killed is also not an isolated issue: Many women may not report violence because they rarely receive a positive outcome from authorities from doing so. "Approximately one-fifth of all rapes, one-quarter of all physical assaults, and one-half of all stalkings perpetrated against female respondents by intimates were reported to the police," according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice. "The majority of victims who did not report their victimization to the police thought the police would not or could not do anything on their behalf."

Often, however, there’s an even bigger problem in play than authorities who are not doing their jobs. The U.N. estimates that more than 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not even considered to be a specific crime, from Russia to Algeria to, yes, Pakistan.

What happened in Pakistan, in short, is a perfect and horrible example of the most prevalent kind of violence against women the world over. It is happening in homes, in streets, sometimes in clear view. If Parveen’s death is to have any greater meaning, it will require putting aside the salacious frame much of the media hav
e placed on her story and looking hard at the real reason her own family killed her.

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321

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