By Nadia Agha
04 January 2017
A RECENT report by the HRCP reveals harrowing statistics on honour-related murders in Pakistan. It estimated that in the last three years alone, some 2,300 women have been killed in the name of ‘honour’. However, it is only recently that the state has adopted a somewhat serious attitude towards this issue. And, despite all the legislation, honour killings are still on the rise. Why is it that regardless of the state’s commitment to enhance the status of women, their effort seems to bear little fruit?
Pakistani women carry a heavy burden of cultural norms, social practices and restricted opportunities. Violence is often used as a tool to control and make them conform to patriarchal ideology. This makes Pakistan one of the worst countries in the world for women. According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2016, Pakistan ranks 143 out of 144 countries on the gender inequality index — even below war-torn countries like Syria.
When we talk about liberating and empowering women, we often focus on legislation while ignoring the attitudes, beliefs and practices that contribute to their disempowerment. Female sexuality and chastity, for example, is rooted in the belief that a woman is the repository of a man’s honour, and therefore liable to be punished for indulging in a relationship or in behaviour he deems ‘illicit’. Such beliefs trigger incidents of honour crimes. Culturally, although adultery is considered unforgivable, it is women who must pay its price (often with their lives) rather than men.
The issue of honour killings needs to be analysed historically, taking into account socio-cultural factors that trigger such incidents. This problem is not a recent phenomenon: it was very much a part of life in the subcontinent during the Raj, under which honour killings were well accommodated. The leniency of the British towards honour crimes resulted in strengthening this custom and transforming it into a legal defence.
This legal defence, in turn, became a useful tool in the pursuit of self-interest; the majority of cases seem to emerge from fake claims with no witnesses or evidence. In a number of cases, women are killed for exercising their right to marry a person of their choice. Such an act could lead to more women doing the same, which is perceived as a threat to male authority, as the disintegration of existing power structures within families and communities could overrule their power.
Freedom of choice is thus policed — often lethally. In several cases, such couples are called back by the woman’s family and killed. This is not just a punishment, but rather a warning to other women, should they choose to follow the same path and make their own decisions.
Latest figures on honour killings reveal an interesting fact that challenges the decades-old theory that this crime is generally prevalent in traditional rural areas. The new centre of such killings appears to be Faisalabad, the industrial hub of Punjab.
This finding stands in stark contrast to the old theory that the prevalence of honour killings in rural areas is linked to feudalism. Under feudalism, women undoubtedly have restricted opportunities for education, healthcare and employment, given that such access might weaken this system and transform the social order.
In contrast, industrialisation paves the way for increased employment opportunities for both men and women. Once demand for labour increases, women from lower classes make their way to the outskirts of cities where industries are often situated. This increases their bargaining power substantially, allowing for a somewhat improved position in decision-making. But this transition also threatens patriarchy, for its base starts to crumble with modernisation, industrialisation, and women’s access to mobility and engagement in economic activity. Under such circumstances, violence becomes an even more inevitable tool for maintaining patriarchal control.
For women who manage to survive an honour killing attempt, this issue continues to haunt them. Such a woman is often married off outside the community and disowned by her kin as punishment. She then enters a new world of agony — to be taunted as kari (‘black’, or corrupt, woman) and reminded of her status whenever she attempts to resist the oppression against her.
Unfortunately, most of the legislative reforms to criminalise violence against women in Pakistan meet with huge criticism and backlash, adding further to the plight of women. Given the current landscape, criminalising these acts and improving legislation for women’s protection cannot address the issue adequately unless such laws are strictly implemented. While the state finally appears to be shouldering its responsibility to punish perpetrators of honour killings, there remains a strong need to follow through on these initial steps lest more innocent women lose their lives in the name of ‘honour’.
Nadia Agha has a PhD in women’s studies.