The news of the alleged rape and murder of British Pakistani woman, Samia Shahid by her father and ex-husband brought to the fore debate on increasing violence against women in Pakistan. The murder has generated quite the debate but it is important to realize that it represents just one of a string of incidents pertaining to ‘honour killing’ that have occurred in Pakistan during the past few months with the case of 18 year old Zeenat Bibi, who was burnt alive by her mother for marrying a man of her own choosing, serving as another example.
But let’s not assume that the phenomenon is exclusive to Pakistan. The use of violence to maintain honour dates back to prehistoric times and cultures, with honour-based violence being relayed in works of literature as well as historical events. For instance, Ancient Roman law made it legal for wives who had committed adultery to be murdered by their husbands. One prominent example in the western world is that of Henry VIII’s fifth wife who was beheaded due to allegations of adultery. The predominant view in Ancient Babylon was that a woman’s honour and virtue belonged to her family. China’s Ching dynasty passed a resolution whereby husbands and fathers could kill women who had dishonoured their families.
In literature Shakespeare’s Desdemona was murdered due to claims of adultery and the entire premise of Romeo and Juliet was based on family feuds due to ‘honour’. Titus Andronica’s Lavinia was murdered by her father Titus for having been deflowered and stained, with the shame being too much for him to bear.
As with many other societal issues religion is used as a tool for justification of the practice of ‘honour killing’ in Islamic states like Pakistan. However, there is no mention of honour killings in either the Quran or Hadith. Homicide is forbidden in Islam, to such an extent that strong verses like the one below have been used against it:
“Whoever kills a believer intentionally, their reward will be Hell, to abide therein forever, and the wrath and the curse of Allah are upon them, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for them.” (Holy Quran, Chapter 4, Verse 93)
Islamic law is not practiced faithfully, even in countries where Shari’a law is applicable. The prime example of this is when in 1977 young Saudi princess Mish’al was killed in a public square for wanting to marry a man out of love, instead of receiving 100 lashes.
Honour killings are carried out as public statements, to deter women from breaking their so called ‘code of honour’ and serve as an extreme depiction of men’s right to control women and subjugate them in chauvinistic societies, all the while glorifying their masculinity. This does not mean that women do not take part in such activities; even women have been witnessed as willing to use violence in order to protect their honour. However these women are also ones who have been molded by patriarchy into engendering misogyny.
The fractured nature of our postcolonial state makes it impossible for femicide of this nature to be prevented. Support for the tradition comes from the law that results in the perpetrators escaping punishment if the family of the victim forgives them, or by the payment of ‘blood money’. Unfortunately in most cases, the victims’ families are the ones committing the crime hence justice is not served. Sudden or grave provocation is often used as grounds for a more lenient sentence or in some cases even freedom. The term Masoom-ud-dam is sometimes used to blame the crime on the victim.
There is little awareness of the 2004 Criminal Amendment Act of Pakistan, which incorporates honour killing as an offence, even though it does account for Qisas and Biyat. Awareness is low even amongst the police and the legal system. The police, in particular is often unwilling to take such cases forward due to the general acceptance of the tradition in the society.
Media can play an important role here, not just by reporting incidents but also by providing information about the law and the unacceptability of such practices. Educational and social service campaigns should also be used to prevent such crimes with protection being given to potential victims. Nevertheless any steps taken for its prevention will be useless if the society does not understand how women should not be treated as mere emblems symbolising men’s honour. Rather than individual shaming of perpetrators, collective shaming is needed for societal perceptions to change. In order to fight misogyny, cultural misrepresentations and patriarchal stereotypes need to be altered with the burden of transformation lying with the community as a whole. After all, there must be something inherently wrong with a society, where some parents after murdering their children boast about the resulting increase in their respect and honour.