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Changing mindsets

By: Shahzada Irfan Ahmed

There have been several attempts to sensitise the masses on the menace of honour crimes and to discourage the practice of punishing women in the name of honour in the country. For example, there were training sessions and material distributions by the National Commission on the Status for Women, an establishment of the Human Rights cells in Sindh, UNDP facilitated training of police officials in the country, the launching of research reports and on-ground work by NGOs, induction of policewomen in the force and the setting up of all-women police stations to minimise chances of gender bias in registration of such cases and so on.

The results, however, have not been too encouraging and the reasons many. The major and the foremost, according to those directly involved in these exercises, has been the society’s support for such acts. The concept of ghairat (or honour) is so strongly embedded among people that they do not bother to even verify the allegations.

Farida Shaheed, Director of Research at Shirkat Gah, tells TNS in such cases the people of a particular locality get united and adversely affect the police investigations. She says they have observed during field visits to the areas of crime that hardly anybody dares to provide evidence due to society’s pressure. Therefore, the foremost need is to prepare the society for a change in mindset.

This is something that hampers the provision of justice as many judges have confirmed during talks with their teams. How can a case proceed in the absence of witnesses? she asks.

Shaheed stresses the need for the courts to try these cases with due diligence, as acquittals lead to perpetuation for impunity with which honour crimes are committed.

About the scope of her organisation’s work, she says they operate at village level and target small communities. The state must launch awareness campaigns at mass level and involve mass media to get the message through.

She says that a project was started in Ustad Muhammad in Balochistan where five women were buried alive. The lawmakers from the province termed the act in accordance with their traditions and tried to ward off criticism. Today, she says, an organisation with the name of Nisa is active there and people’s attitude has changed considerably. “Instead of running away, the couples willing to marry of their own will are happily contracting marriages. And, above all, the locals have no problem with this.”

According to Farida, the realisation among them is that they do not need to fear or feel ashamed as marriage of choice is supported both under the state law and in Islam as well as other religions.

She believes there is no justification for calling brutal acts of violence as ‘honour crimes’. The word honour should be removed forthwith.

In fact, the right to own women and being the custodian of their chastity is also assumed by men themselves and with no religious sanctions. The same question is asked by a young Sindhi girl in a piece of poetry by Attiya Dawood, a Sindhi activist and poet, which follows below:

“What is there to my body?… Is it studded with diamonds or pearls? My brother’s eyes forever follow me. My father’s gaze guards me all the time, stern, angry… Then why do they make me labour in the fields? Why don’t they do all the work by themselves? We, the women, work in the fields all day long, bear the heat and the sun, sweat and toil and we tremble all day long, not knowing who may cast a look upon us. We stand accused and condemned as kari and murdered.”

Zia Ahmed Awan, Advocate and President of Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA), says he hasn’t seen any positive results of the various awareness building exercises on honour crimes carried out over the year. The reason, he cites, is that the community-sanctioned form of violence cannot end till their perpetrators – many of who are sitting in assemblies and cabinets – are taken to task.

Zia says many parliamentarians are directly involved in honour crimes and the police and other law enforcement paraphernalia come to their help.

He says it’s good to have laws but equally bad not to have the will to implement them. For example, the apex court has declared jirgas illegal but the practice is still going on and there are more than 100 FIRs registered in Sindh against them. Most of these jirgas were held to decide punishments for honour crimes.

Not long ago, a DIG posted in Sindh raided a jirga being headed by a parliamentarian who is a minister in the sitting federal cabinet. The parliamentarian moved a privilege motion in the parliament and the said official is still without a posting.

According to Zia, the jirga elders strictly warn the participants not to give evidence and in case of non-compliance with the order get ready for a horrible punishment.

Zia suggests the government should develop a witness protection system, set examples by punishing culprits, however influential, and incorporate chapters in curricula against honour crimes to get desired results. “It’s very hard to achieve them without creating deterrents.”

Prof. Siddique Akbar, a religious scholar based in Lahore, believes there’s a need to make people realise they commit sins in the name of religion. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) condemned the act of infidels who used to bury their infant daughters alive, he says. They did this to avert the remote possibility of their daughters bringing shame to them. The mindset behind honour crimes is the same that existed in those times, he adds.

Source: The News