The price of honour

Ending honour killings in Pakistan

Tayla Badings

Law, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | Asia, South Asia

12 May 2017

Over recent years Pakistan has taken significant steps to put an end to honour killings, but more needs to be done to put a stop to the practice once and for all, Tayla Badings writes.

On 8 June 2016, Zeenat Rafiq, an 18-year-old girl from Lahore in Pakistan, was burnt to death by her mother for bringing shame to her family by marrying a man of her choice. A week earlier, a 19-year-old school teacher in Punjab was tortured and burnt to death by family members for refusing an arranged marriage proposal. In the same month, the body of 16-year-old Amber was found in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, inside a car that had been set on fire. The elders in Amber’s community had ordered her death after she had helped her friend marry a man of her own choice.

In Pakistan, these are known as honour killings, and until recently they were legal. But even after new laws were passed in October last year against honour killings, the practice continues.

Honour killings have long been a problem in Pakistan. Official government figures have reported around 1,000 per year, but unofficial estimates put that number at 3,000 to 4,000 each year. An honour killing is the murder of a family member, usually a girl or woman, who is said to have brought shame to their family. This ‘shame’ could be from running away (typically as the result of domestic abuse or arranged marriages), refusal of an arranged marriage, marriage to a person of one’s choice, or premarital intercourse.

Honour killings are often carried out by other members of the family. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that between 1998 and 2002, “1,235 of the 1,339 individuals accused of honour killings… were members of the victim’s family: 462 brothers, 395 husbands, 217 relatives, 103 fathers, and 53 sons”.

Prior to October, honour killings were pardonable within the Pakistani Penal Code (PPC). The law goes back to the historical and radical process of Islamisation in Pakistan following military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup in 1977. He amended the secular laws of murder and homicide in accordance with Shari’a law and established the Federal Shariat Court. This court holds influence over the Supreme and High courts and has the power to examine and rule on cases in order to determine whether Pakistani law is compliant with Shari’a law. In 1990, The Shariat Appellate Bench of the Supreme Court invoked the principles of Qisas (retaliation) and Diyat (blood money).

The incorporation of these Islamic concepts into Pakistani law has meant that murders labelled as honour killings mostly go unpunished. The principles of Qisas and Diyat allow the guardian of the honour killing victim, usually a father or eldest brother, to forgive the murderer. This is due to the fact that in Pakistan, homicides are deemed private offences against the individual, meaning that only the victim’s family can pursue charges.

To understand why honour killings occur and at such high rates, you need to understand the cultural significance of honour in Pakistan.

More on this: Get real on violence against women

Honour is said to be a measure of one’s social prestige in the community and is dependent upon the community’s collective view of the person. Honour is something that can be lost and is therefore a trait that is earnt and aligned with certain virtues, such as magnanimity, honesty, courage and kindness. Honour is held in extreme importance in some countries, including Pakistan, where it determines a person’s reliability, trustworthiness, and the significance of their opinion within the community.

In Pakistan, when a woman acts in ways which are considered immoral or unchaste, or are perceived to violate Islamic customary practices and bring dishonour upon her family, the death of this woman is often seen as one of the only ways to restore the honour that she had lost or betrayed.

Within the Pakistani legal system, steps have been taken to combat discrimination against women and ultimately work towards ending the practice of honour killings. The most noteworthy legislative reform was the changes to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2004, which inserted the new offence of ‘honour killing’ into the PPC. This meant that the accused honour killer/s can no longer be pardoned by the victim’s guardian. This legislation was a good start for Pakistan, however, it was criticised for still allowing the accused to enter into a compromise with the courts through payment of compensation.

In 2016 the honour killing of 25-year-old Pakistani social media star, Qandeel Baloch, by her brother shocked the world. Waseem Baloch strangled his sister to death at their home and showed no remorse, saying, “girls are born to stay at home and follow traditions… I am proud of what I did. I drugged her first, then I killed her”.

In October 2016, three months after Baloch’s death, Pakistan’s parliament unanimously passed a ground-breaking new law which no longer allows honour killers to walk free if pardoned. The bill guarantees mandatory prison sentences of 25 years to the accused. “There is no honour in honour killing,” said Pakistan’s prime minister, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, after the bill passed.

The next challenge will be to see how effectively the Pakistani government and the courts implement and enforce the law. It seems, however, that it will take more than legal action to stamp out this practice. Since the new law was passed, there have already been around 40 honour killings recorded, such as 20-year-old Hayat Khan, who in January stabbed his 16-year-old sister to death for frequently talking to a boy on the telephone. As Abdul Hai, from Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission says, the new laws alone will not stop honour killings. Education of men and women at a grassroots community level is needed to change society’s mindset, empower women and sensitise men to this important issue.

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