According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 470 women were killed for honour in 2015. 90 percent – that is 9 out of every 10 women – were murdered either after marrying by choice or on suspicion of having engaged in illicit relations. Yet, out of the 724 implicated in this crime during this period, reportedly 125 are in police custody, of which only a small fraction have been prosecuted.
Murder in the name of honour is not a recent development. During his rule of the Roman Empire, Augustus Caesar implemented a law that permitted a man to kill his wife if she was deemed to have been unfaithful, in order to maintain his reputation. This same penalty was prescribed in the 1810 Napoleonic Code, which was repealed only in 1975, and inspired Article 340 of the 1960 Jordan Penal Code and Article 409 of the 1966 Iraq Penal Code, both of which still apply. None of these law-enactments stipulated this penalty for married men found to have committed the same act. In Pakistan, an amendment was ratified in 2004 that barred a person convicted of a so-called honour killing from being pardoned as an ‘heir’ of the victim. This did not, however, prevent the 468 victims of this crime the following year, mostly in villages in Punjab and Sindh, and killing for the sake of a family’s status continues to be seen as an acceptable act in the more conservative, rural areas of our country.
The progress made in reducing the number of honour killings committed every year has been limited because the root of the problem is not even being considered: in the rural community, family honour holds a central value; furthermore, a woman is not viewed as an independent individual, but as an adherent to her family before and after marriage.
In such a society, a woman is not expected to act of her own will, but in line with that of her family, in any situation. Her marriage, for instance, is always arranged by her relatives, and the decision is regarded as binding – her personal consent is not considered necessary. The marriage is contrived on basis of how it would be financially beneficial for the family as a whole, as well as to strengthen ties with other families of the community. No woman can be involved in relationships or dress as thought inappropriate, practice a different religion, or otherwise violate the principles of the community.
If a woman rebels against this conduct, she will have, in the opinion of said community, brought shame to her family – it must be noted here that a man cannot ‘disgrace’ his family in this manner, and that it is not even needed for it to be proven that a woman has committed an ‘undesirable’ action, an allegation suffices. The family will consequently be shunned by the rest of the community: its reputation will have been tarnished. It will then, as believed to be the only possible solution, murder the ‘dishonourable’ woman, because it would be essential to protect the status of her siblings, make certain that they would continue to be seen as suitable future husbands or wives.
One reason behind the innateness of this standard in the rural community would be the influence of the village ‘council’, made up entirely of men, which the locals have used for centuries to settle their disputes. For them, it is the council, and not the government, that is their judge on all issues. This was demonstrated in the following incident: in a village near Abbotabad, a council of 15 men, the ‘elders’, quoting the villagers, was consulted on the punishment suitable for a girl, 16 years of age, who had helped her friend elope with a man she sought to marry of her will. It was decided, with the consent of the girl’s mother, to have her killed, which occurred the next day. This ‘council’ is primarily responsible for promoting killing for honour as well as emboldening the individuals who do. Additionally, because it often deters any local from testifying, obtaining justice for the victims becomes increasingly difficult.
Another cause of honour killing remaining prevalent is the ineffectiveness of the administration’s current – and proposed – policy. Following the murder of celebrity Qandeel Baloch by her own brother, the government announced its intention to pass long-delayed amendment that would prevent a person convicted of this crime from being forgiven by the victim’s – and often their own – family. However, the Pakistan Council on Islamic Ideology (PIIC) has refused to endorse the proposed amendment, stating that amnesty is always an alternative in Islam, regardless of the nature of the crime. Because the PIIC influences government policy, at present there is disagreement, which will result in negotiations, which in turn will result in possible further delay. More importantly, PIIC also has a significant hold on public opinion, particularly affects the beliefs of the more religious members of our community, many of whom may accordingly reject this legislation. Moreover, according to a survey conducted by the Aurat Foundation, the majority of people belonging to villages in Punjab and Sindh were not aware of the 2004 amendment – this was not limited to even members of the police force. Unless extensive promotion takes place, amendment by the government may, once again, not have a major impact on the rural community.
There has never been a society in which women have been treated as indisputably equal to men. The unfair and conservative norm that women be discriminated against, reputedly based on values set by our forefathers, can only instill in some men a sense of being superior to women. Awareness and cooperation of the community is vital to achieving further progress, for which no level of legislation or enforcement can fully compensate. Indeed, the resentment of villagers at the ‘negative highlighting of their norms’ has been repeatedly covered. Consequently, it is necessary that the government builds stronger relations with the rural community, and puts an end to the mistrust that has been present since the inception of Pakistan – but this will not be feasible anytime soon.
Nonetheless, the government should, as in the Qandeel Baloch enquiry, register as a complainant in future cases of honour killing. As a result, it would not be possible for a convict of this crime to be pardoned by the victim’s family, preventing misanthropes from walking free. In connection with this, given the esteem of the unlawfully acting village council, the government should prfioritize to dismantle it, because it is a major reason for the existent misogyny in