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The honour problem

Rafia Zakaria

ON International Women’s Day, while the world was spending time ruminating on all the evils one half of its population is subject to, some residents of Rahim Yar Khan district were busy with something else.

According to newspaper reports from the Basti Ramday area, about 150 citizens gathered to hold a jirga. The problem was an old one: two young people from the community had eloped. The village was angry; if young people kept going off and contracting marriages on their own, what would be left of their tradition, their mores and their age-old customs?

Nearly everyone, including the girl’s father, felt wronged. Marriages, after all, are a way of solidifying relationships, sorting out property disputes and settling debts. People, especially unmarried people, are social capital. When they run away without paying up, everyone left behind loses.

The jirga did what jirgas have done in similar cases all over South Asia and the Middle East: they ordered the couple be killed.
They did this even though there are laws against honour killing in Pakistan, even though the couple’s only crime was to want to choose their life partner themselves, even though at some juncture, however distant, the man and woman concerned were indeed loved by their parents, raised from infants to grown adults.

Now they are hated because in prioritising their individual desires over that of the community, over the futures of younger siblings who will now have trouble finding spouses, or the marriages of aunts and uncles who will also bear the burden of the family shame, they have been stubborn and selfish.

This parsing of the intent of those who perpetuate honour crimes is an often ignored dimension of the issue.

In recent years, as legislation and activism against such crimes has grown, the assumption has simplistically been that passing laws against honour killings is sufficient to eliminate them. There have been many seminars on the evil, activists have compiled data and marched at rallies, bills have been introduced and passed.

At best, this premise has been expanded to include simultaneous work on educating community elders on the inhumanity of the act and on its grim and barbaric misogyny.

With laws and workshops, activists assume, the pestilence of honour killings, of people being killed needlessly for the crime of choice, can be eliminated. In the meantime, honour killings continue not secretly or surreptitiously but with crowds of people involved in issuing murderous edicts publicly and without any fear.

Here is why: first, honour killings represent not simply misogyny and retrogressive beliefs but a reaction against the unit of decision-making in a changing culture.

When an individual makes a decision based on the criterion of individual desires everything that is communal is immediately threatened. Failure to punish transgressions means that the community is weak, its edicts and pronouncements are not pressing on those wishing to belong and are, in fact, arbitrary and subject to being flouted.

Furthermore, those paying into the community coffers by not exercising individual choice — by marrying according to what was determined to be communal good rather than individual desire — feel spurned and duped. Of what value is their compromised life with the old husband or the fat wife if others are basking in the glow of being wed to their heart’s desire? None of the above assertions are new. What is new is their application in the Pakistani context which is suspended somewhere between a communal and individualist culture. The lethal hits on tradition and the popularisation of the individual over the community have come from some unexpected sources.

First among these would be the proliferation of religious extremism which seeks to recruit young men for jihadi outfits. If choosing your own spouse is one form of defiance against tradition, another equally selfish one is to choose to devote one’s life to a cause unrelated to the welfare or salvation of the community.

As the families of suicide bombers lament, orphaned children, hapless wives and devastated parents are left behind when a young person defies all ties and responsibilities in a misguided quest for individual salvation.

The object of their pursuit is undoubtedly different from those who choose to elope, but the unit of choice — the single person — is the same. Jirgas may never condemn them, but the cost they inflict on the old order is nevertheless the same.

Other recent assaults on tradition have been accomplished by the usual suspects: urbanisation and migration, floods and earthquakes, all of which have revealed just how unable communities and tribes actually are to pay up in terms of the security that is imagined to reside in the propriety of following communal dictates.

Along with being misogynistic and barbaric, honour crimes are also retaliation against a changing unit of human action, of societies lashing out against evaluating human behaviour in a new way.

Their particular proliferation in Pakistan is consequently representative of deep confusion over the moral value of this change.

With no strong state to step in and provide the security once provided by traditional institutions, the spectre of anarchy hangs ominously over many, and hapless communities feel that strong and bloody action is neces-sary against anyone who transgresses.
Honour killings are the sores of this disease of moral chaos, of unclear ethical parameters when the cost of choice begins to be imposed on one person alone versus entire families, castes or tribes.

Hopefully, the couple from Rahim Yar Khan will be able to make their escape into the anonymous slum of some faraway city where they can live out the remainder of their lives.

While they may get lucky, be favoured by fate and fortune, honour killings will continue in Pakistan as they will in every place where the move from thinking about good and bad is suspended in limbo between ‘we’ and ‘I’.

The writer is an attorney teaching political philosophy and constitutional law.