The mysterious death of Pakistani-born Italian girl Sana Cheema has once again turned the world’s attention towards Pakistan. A series of negative reporting has emerged in the international media in which Pakistan has been portrayed as a country where blood relatives kill female family members in the name of honour.
Unfortunately, this is not a first-of-its-kind incident. Many women, like social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch, have in the past lost their precious lives to such horrific, insane crimes. What is more disgusting is when some people try to justify such social evils under the guise of religion. On the other hand, those who blame religion for encouraging honour killings are also on the wrong side.
All religions ask their followers to respect the sanctity of human life. This is why I believe that the motives behind these ‘honour’ killings are probably refusals against arranged marriages and insistence on love marriages, rape, divorce, illicit relations, dowry – anything else, but not religion.
Further, honour killings cannot be attributed to any specific religion, country or society. Actually, honour killings emerged as a means to control women, and its origins can be traced back to thousands of years in various cultures and traditions. Today, the international community, while linking honour killings to Muslim dominated societies, forgets the bitter truth that this trend was actually introduced and promoted by the West.
According to historians, ancient Rome was the first ever human society where adultery was punishable by death. In this regard, the Roman law ‘Lex Julia de adulteriis coercendis’ implemented by Augustus Caesar can be studied thoroughly which permitted the murder of daughters and their lovers at the hands of their fathers. The law also permitted the murder of an adulterous wife’s lover at the hands of her husband.
Honour killing also has a long history in Europe. Prior to 1981, Italian laws carried a three to seven-year imprisonment as punishment for someone who committed the murder of a female relative to safeguard his honour. European reformer John Calvin, during his rule of Geneva, had ordered to punish adulterous women by drowning them in the Rhone River.
Similarly, Napoleon Bonaparte was also a strong advocate of honour killings. Article 324 of the Napoleonic Code, passed in 1810, allowed the murder of unfaithful women and their lovers by their husbands. Although France abolished the article in 1975, it was copied by majority of former French colonies, most particularly by Middle-Eastern Arab countries including Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and Tunisia. The Napoleonic Code proved very influential, and continues to inspire many countries to date.
Unfortunately, just after the death of Quaid-e-Azam, Pakistan was forced to abandon his vision. Pakistan passed the Objectives Resolution and looked towards the Arab countries which were themselves under the influence of foreign powers.
During Zia’s era, Pakistan opened its doors to the Afghan jihad. It is highly regrettable that this also brought Napoleon-inspired ideologies into the country. Zia’s attempt to promote extremism in the country resulted in an increase in honour killings. Prior to Zia, I can’t find any high-profile incident of honour killing. The introduction of the Hudood Ordinance further made Pakistani women very insecure and helpless.
It is another tragedy that sometimes the last rites of these innocent women are not performed, while, on the other hand, barbaric murderers are honoured by society as heroes. Our law is helpless against such culprits due to the fact that the murdered and the murderer are both close relatives. It is quite legal for the heir of the murdered to forgive the murderer.
This insane practice of honour killing must be stopped at any cost. First of all, we need to change our mindset towards women as there is no ‘honour’ in killing. All God-fearing citizens must come together to denounce this insane crime. Religious scholars, intellectuals and the civil society must come forward to initiate a collective struggle for the implementation of the Women’s Protection Bill to curb honour killings. It is also our media’s responsibility to increase public awareness for protection of women’s rights and project a positive image of Pakistan. I also appeal to the West to share their experiences with us about how to get rid of such a barbaric crime.
Parents must understand that in today’s digital age, cross-cultural, interfaith and mixed marriages are considered normal throughout the globe. Killing a girl in the name honour because she wanted to marry someone outside of her family and according to her choice must not be the prime reason for taking her life.
Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani- The writer is a member of the National Assembly and patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Hindu Council.