When a category of crime draws sustenance from age-old cultural attitudes, particularly those pertaining to the concept of honour and a woman’s place in society, legislation alone is an inadequate deterrent. Nevertheless, a beginning must be made, and so it was with the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2004 when, for the first time, ‘honour’ crimes were defined in the Pakistan Penal Code.
The same piece of legislation also effected an important amendment in Section 311 of the PPC. This section specifies the penalties that can be awarded by a judge regardless of whether or not a compromise has been reached in a case of murder, including honour killings.
The amendment set a minimum punishment of 10 years’ imprisonment in cases where the offence is found to have been committed on the pretext of honour but, crucially, it did not take away judicial discretion in awarding punishment in such cases, or other instances of murder.
This meant that many husbands, brothers, fathers and other male relatives (victims of honour killing are overwhelmingly female) still manage to evade punishment.
The Punjab government, reportedly spurred by the horrific murder of Farzana Iqbal by her family, in broad daylight, adjacent to the premises of the Lahore High Court in May this year, has now taken an important step towards strengthening the law pertaining to honour crimes.
It has proposed, among other amendments, that the word “may” be replaced with “shall” in Section 311, thereby removing judicial discretion and making the punishment mandatory in cases of honour killing whether or not a compromise has been struck.
That such an amendment should be necessary is largely a comment on the cultural attitudes to honour which impact how — indeed whether — such cases are investigated, prosecuted and adjudicated upon. These attitudes hobble the case from the outset.
Quasi legal mechanisms of justice, such as jirgas, often hand in glove with an unsympathetic law-enforcement apparatus, discourage victims’ families from going to court.
The police, a product of the same society that gives rise to such crimes, brings its own biases to the investigation. Delays at the trial stage render a victim’s family susceptible to social pressures because of the ‘shame’ associated with pursuing such cases.
Chauvinistic judges sometimes allow the plea of “grave and sudden provocation” to colour their judgments. The issue must be addressed holistically: plugging loopholes in the law must go together with the sensitisation of police, medico-legal staff and public prosecutors.