No Honour in These Killings

The Shirkat Gah report on ‘honour killings’ is about Pakistan. But there are many parallels in India too.

In the name of religion, men with beards are getting elected in India and Pakistan. We have our Modis, they have their Fazlur Rehmans. Indeed, if one was to look for a pattern in the subcontinent, the results of the recent elections in Pakistan suggest that the trend is veering towards this particular combination of religion and politics.

Should we be worried? As women, we certainly do. Pakistanis have lived through many political upheavals but in succesive elections, the Islamic fundamentalists have never won more than five per cent of the votes. This time things have changed, particularly in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan where a coalition of six religious parties has shown a dramatically improved showing at the polls. While the ascendance of these parties in provinces bordering Afghanistan is a cause of worry politically, these results come as a particular blow to the women's movement in that country.

Despite years of military dictatorship and many draconian laws, women in Pakistan have fought bravely against unjust laws and customs that perpetuate and institutionalise gender violence. They have demonstrated, they have documented atrocities against women and they have lobbied for a change. But the early signals of the impending assault on women's rights in the provinces where the Muttahida Majlis-e-Awal (MMA) is dominant can already be seen.

According to Khawar Mumtaz of Shirkat Gah, a leading women's organisation in Pakistan, the pro-Taliban fundamentalists groups in the NWFP began targetting organisations working with women soon after the United States began bombing Afghanistan last October. And although some of that stopped once it was evident that a change of government was inevitable in Afghanistan, their determination to hustle out all such activists remained undiminished. At one point, eight offices of NGOs, many of them working in the areas of health and education of women, were attacked and razed to the ground. The homes of the directors of these organisations were also attacked. And later, targetted killings and bomb blasts continued.

But it is not just the NWFP or Baluchistan where women face violence of an unprecedented nature. In the name of religion and tradition, almost one woman a day is being killed in the province of Sindh. According to a report prepared by Shirkat Gah, The Dark Side of "Honour" < Women Victims in Pakistan, out of 5,000 "honour" killings worldwide in the year 2000, around 1,000 took place in Pakistan. "Honour" killings are another term for murdering women for the flimsiest of reasons < from suspected infidelity to wanting a divorce.

We cannot forget that the term "honour" killings became better known when a middle-class woman was shot dead in Lahore on April 6, 1999. The case of 29-year-old Samia Sarwar drew considerable media attention. Daughter of a medical doctor and a prominent businessman, Samia, who was studying law, wanted to divorce her abusive husband. She agreed to meet her mother in her lawyer's office on that fateful day. Instead of getting a chance to speak to her mother, she was shot dead by a stranger who accompanied her mother. Although the link between the killer and Samia's father was established, no action has been taken against her parents. On the contrary, the Chamber of Commerce of the NWFP and several religious organisations have come out supporting him.

Samia was killed because apparently she sullied the family's "honour" by asking for a divorce. Women in the villages of Pakistan are killed for no reason at all. The Shirkat Gah report brings out the nature of "honour" killings and the distortions that have occurred to this custom. It shows how modern-day politics uses and even reinforces ancient customs that commodify women and distort religion. Variously called Karo kari in Sindh, siyahkari in Baluchistan, kala kali in southern Punjab and tor tora in the NWFP, "honour" killings are only one end of a spectrum of specific and gendered violence of which the only and exclusive victims are women.

The stories in the report are narrated with stark simplicity. They are the stories of 25-year-old Nargis, of Iffat Bibi, of 12-year-old Rahmatay, of 40-year-old Zainab and of 35-year-old Saba. United not in life, but in death, all of them are victims of "honour" killings. They were all accused, without any proof, of having had illicit relations. The most heart wrenching of these stories is that of the 12-year-old who was bartered away by her father in exchange for a woman to marry his son. This woman's brother insisted on marrying the child. She was dressed in bridal pink. When the village mullah hesitated at performing the nikah for such a young girl, the bridegrooom put a gun to his head and the marriage was performed. But that very night, the bridgegroom also pumped five bullets into his young bride because, he claimed, she had confessed to having had sex with her cousin.

There are many different aspects to this story but two things stand out in the report. One, that the Hadood laws brought in during Zia ul-Haq's time gave legal sanction to the belief that a woman deserved to die if she was unfaithful. The burden of proof was entirely on her. The Shirkat Gah report writes: "These laws, based as they are on the most retrogressive interpretation of Islam, have served to confirm the inferior status of women in a deeply misogynist society and, in effect provided official sanction to their oppression". As a result, "honour" killings, which were confined to tribal areas, have now moved into cities.

The Shirkat Gah report is about Pakistan but there are many parallels in India. Both Pakistan and India have signed the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This requires that they do not "invoke custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations" under the convention. Even one "honour" killing, or a sati, is a violation of this convention. Unless we as a society recognise the immensity of these types of crimes, and set out to eliminate them, we can never move ahead. We need to eliminate the killings, not the women.

Courtesy: The Hindu