Robin Zia lives a full life – has a family, a business, owns property in Lahore and goes to church every Sunday. The fact that 12 years back he had butchered his sister Zeenat with her husband, whom she had married against their will, does not have any bearing on his conscience. When I went to meet him at his house, he was very respectful, offered me lunch and called me “Aapi”- an Urdu word for an elder sister. While he remembers the act of killing his sister with a butcher knife with a pained expression, he would not accept that the idea of “honour” or his fear of society’s reaction to his sister marrying out of her own free will was misplaced, let alone a crime.
To him and his courteous brother Salman Zia – who abetted the murder, while the act of killing was committed by Robin – they were men with the burden of avenging the wrong done by their sister. As they tried to explain their reasons for the murders, they did not see any other course than killing their sister and her husband.
“When one’s daughter or sister runs away from home, a man’s mind cannot see beyond that betrayal of trust by the woman. And please tell us what could be the alternative solution, in such circumstances?”
While there were moments of remorse, their imaginations stopped there.
Robin and his brother were released after a few months in prison through statement of forgiveness by their mother, through the “qisas” and “diyat” ordinance – stipulations based on an interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law, that permit compoundability of murder. While their mother grieved for her daughter, she could not lose her sons. Human rights defenders have been suggesting for years that the state should not use this compoundability – at least in cases of women’s honour killings.
‘Killings every day’
This casual bargain between blood relations over a dead body of a female relative is what Farzana Parveen’s family is counting on as well. On May 27, when 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was brutally killed with bricks outside the Lahore High Court, condemnations came pouring in through international and domestic press. This uproar against the killing was loud enough that the Pakistani prime minister eventually “took notice”. In cases where the prime minister or chief minister of provinces take notice of incidents of gross human rights violation, the result at best is an investigation, a trial and maybe a just verdict.
However, expecting consequential structural changes is a bit much in Pakistan. We are still at a point where rights groups and defenders are struggling to convince parliamentarians to throw their weight behind legislation that protects women and ensures effective implementation.
|101 East – Pakistan: The Enemy Within|
The furor over the bad publicity for Pakistan and the fact that we were being painted as a society tolerant of barbaric acts such as killings, has also resulted in a few clerics who call themselves moderate declaring “fatwas”, or Islamic edicts, against killing women in the name of honour.
At the same time, these same clerics have repeatedly taken – and continue to take – heinous stances against religious minorities in Pakistan and endorse the controversial blasphemy laws. Therefore, such moves may help burnish the state’s image a little, but there is not much hope of this decree being effective.
Following Farzana’s killing, it was soon reported that her husband had killed his first wife to marry Farzana out of love, and that he had already paid her family a price, which was not enough for her family – and that was what led to her bludgeoning in broad daylight. Just like thousands of murders of women over the so-called honour of men, all it reveals is the impunity with which women can be murdered here, and the role the lack of legislation has played in perpetuating the barbaric practice.
English-language newspapers in Pakistan frequently publish news briefs with stories of honour killings and violence against women. Often within a week, two or three incidents of femicides are recorded. Sometimes, honour is not even the motive; women are just burnt or killed by the family members for not bringing enough dowry. Yes, that still happens too.
This is the value of a woman’s murder in the name of what the society still refers to as “honour” in a now comparatively sensitised Pakistan. The distance of such crimes from the provincial capitals is another reason for lack of focus and investigation by the press. As a society, we are desensitised to cases of violence against women, acid attacks and honour killings, because the general view is that these crimes are committed mostly against women who are poor or in villages. In fact to us, the aforementioned crimes are just numbers released by women’s rights organisation after every six months, or at the end of a year, which are then highlighted by certain liberal newspapers.
Rights activists who investigate honour killings and cases of violence against women have detected a pattern in which women bear the brunt of a political fight over land and face sexual harassment from landlords. Such crimes are sometimes passed off as honour killings. For instance, most murders happen when there is time for harvesting in rural areas across Pakistan. Women’s rights activist and lawyer Maliha Zia of Aurat Foundation says that unless the state takes responsibility and considers these murders crimes against the state instead crimes against ordinary individuals, we will remain stuck.
How many Farzanas and Zeenats will catch the public’s eye or have their murders highlighted so that we may see the perpetrators charged is a problem that unfortunately in the foreseeable future I do not see any resolution for. I am not wondering about an eradication of honour killing entirely because that would be just my fantasy.
Rabia Mehmood is a freelance journalist based out of Pakistan. She reports in print and video.