Recent days have seen a virtual rash of so-called ‘honour’ killings of women, usually revolving around choice of life partner. In Lahore, the other day, the most recent example of this social affliction was witnessed in the shooting dead by her father of a young woman, her husband, and a neighbour considered instrumental in her decision to marry a man of her choice about a year ago.
In a village near Murree earlier, a 19-year-old teacher was tortured and burnt alive for refusing to marry the son of the owner of the school where she taught. Teenaged Zeenat Rafiq was set on fire in a lower income neighbourhood of Lahore by her mother and brother for marrying a man of her choice. These three incidents occurred within the space of three weeks.
Similar cases have been reported from all over the country over the past few months. Why has this phenomenon, not unknown in the past, suddenly acquired such intensity? It is of course not something that is unknown in our society, based on mistaken notions of ‘honour’, faith, tribal code, tradition and culture. Its essence of course lies in structures of patriarchy.
The onward march of time and social development, combined with a growing consciousness regarding women’s rights, has encouraged women to assert their place under the sun. This provokes perhaps redoubled fury at the ‘disobedient’. Neither our faith nor modern values in harmony with the twenty first century justify such attitudes, let alone taking the law into one’s own hands and resorting to cruel, bloody murder. Islam sees marriage as a contract between two consenting adults.
While the wishes of parents and family deserve consideration, they cannot override the preferences and choices of young adult women. Retrograde ideas and attitudes inform seeing such choices as besmirching family ‘honour’ and therefore justifying putting the ‘errant’ women to death. Two aspects feed into such practices. One, retrogressive religious parties and forces that reinforce medieval notions of family honour and women’s place (or lack of it) in society. Recently, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) delivered its latest enlightenment in the shape of instructions on the correct method of beating one’s wife (“lightly”).
The CII, in the opinion of some Senators and wide swathes of enlightened opinion, has long passed its Use-by date. Calls for its abolition are mounting in direct proportion to the antediluvian nature of its pronouncements. Two, the law as it stands encourages such killings because the loophole regarding the victim’s family forgiving the perpetrator or accepting blood money provides impunity to those guilty of such crimes.
Both aspects can be illustrated and understood by reference to the fate of the Anti-Honour Killings Bill, 2014 (formally the Criminal Laws Amendment Bill), tabled by former PPP Senator Sughra Imam in March 2015. The Bill sought to criminalise so-called honour killings and amend the provisions that all too often allow the perpetrators of such crimes to walk free after being ‘forgiven’ or paying blood money. Either or both of these outcomes come relatively easy to the rich and powerful.
The irony is that the Bill was unanimously passed by the Senate, including support from such religious parties as the JUI-F. Unfortunately, it lapsed before the National Assembly could get around to passing it. In March 2016, the same JUI-F rejected the Bill, arguing for clauses allowing aggrieved parties to forgive the perpetrators to be retained. It now remains for the government to take the Bill out of the cold storage to which it was consigned thanks to the religious parties, and push it through a joint session of parliament.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of late had donned the mantle of women’s rights champion. The murders referred to above are a stark reminder that delay is fatal. Our political leadership must pluck up courage, gird up their loins, shed their fear of the retrogressive lobby, and strike a blow for our besieged sisters and daughters to allow Pakistani society to move forward out of the dark night we are witnessing and into a bright new day where no daughter of the nation will ever again be burnt for her life choices and the murderers get away lightly or even scot-free.