By Rafia Zakaria
OVER the weekend, The Washington Post published a story titled ‘In Pakistan, five girls were killed for having fun. Then the story took an even darker twist’. Written by Pamela Constable, the story was a follow-up of a gruesome case of five women from Kohistan whose lives, it is very strongly suspected, came to an untoward and cruel end four years ago. All of them are said to have been killed on the orders of a jirga, after a grainy video was shared, showing them clapping and singing at a wedding ceremony.
This position was based at least in part on the fact that experts in the UK looked at digital photographs of the women presented and deemed they were not the same as the women in the video.
Although the matter is in court awaiting a final decision, it is relevant to recall the incident that came to light some four years ago. At that time, I, along with many other commentators and human rights activists, noted that there was very little likelihood that the women would have been spared. With video proof of their so-called transgression and an edict reportedly demanding their killing, death was more or less inevitable.
The fact that elders in the village apparently thought they could simply produce another set of girls, which seems to have been the case, and insist that no such thing had taken place is further evidence of what all Pakistanis know, ie women’s lives are worth little in Pakistan and women who dare to have fun, to be happy, are worth even less.
Devoid of identity and individuality, the girls of Kohistan, like their sisters all around the country, were considered interchangeable by the elders of their community, one exchanged for another, the dead for the living.
A little over two and a half months ago, the ‘anti-honour crimes bill’ was passed by the Pakistani parliament amid controversy and opposition by the religious parties. The bill enhanced the maximum imprisonment for so-called honour killers, who are most often close male relatives of the victims, from 14 to 24 years, regardless of whether or not they have been pardoned by their own family members.
One hoped that the passage of the bill and the media attention around it would serve as a deterrent to would-be honour murderers eager to slay their wives or sisters or daughters to avenge their cruel conceptions of a violation of their ‘honour’.
Sadly, this has not been the case. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, almost 40 honour killings have taken place in Pakistan in the period since the bill was passed in October. While it is early yet as two months are admittedly not a very long period on which to judge the success of legislative initiatives, the numbers do not point in a hopeful or positive direction.
First, they suggest that the deterrent aspect of the law, which one would expect would be most significant in the months after its passage when it received the most attention, does not seem to have prevented perpetrators from committing such killings. Second, the numbers point to what seems to be the core problem in relation to honour killings in Pakistan: even legislation is unable to bring about the moral change that would make the communities themselves condemn such crimes and hence their perpetrators.
Without that grass-roots reform that should aim at making the very people that egg on these crimes to see the latter as the gruesome murders that they are, no change is possible.
If this premise, the absolute necessity of grass-roots moral transformation on the issue of honour crimes in Pakistan, is accepted, then many of the measures currently being used to combat honour killings would appear largely superfluous.
Grass-roots moral change is unlikely to occur via transnational activism and the naming and shaming mechanisms on which it relies. These mechanisms, which include stories like the one in The Washington Post, can at best produce legislative initiatives like the anti-honour crimes law passed earlier this year. Their sensationalist flavours, lobbed as they are atop cruel and ugly truths, do little to initiate moral change in communities like Kohistan.
Add to this the reality that impoverished communities in Pakistan and Afghanistan see the West as a corrosive influence and you have a situation where the commission of honour murders is seen as a mark of cultural autonomy and authenticity. The Post, Pamela Constable and numerous others may have the best of intentions in asserting that women in Pakistan are killed for having fun, but they end up making their situation possibly worse.
These acrid realities do not mean that no progress is possible. To end honour killings, the government of Pakistan must invest in reforms at the grass roots and empower women of communities as agents who report to law enforcement the potential and possibility of such crimes.
International media and activists should resist the temptation of condemning entire cultures and communities, as per the ‘West against the rest’ paradigm, and tell stories in a way that promotes the urgency of grass-roots initiatives and investment.
The girls of Kohistan are gone; to save the millions of others, ordinary Pakistanis must make the eradication of honour killings an urgent and immediate moral priority.