Honour killings in Pakistan: little hope of change

In the space of just a few weeks, two cases of honour killings in Pakistan shocked the world. Although some might expect such global outrage and attention to help trigger change, activists in Pakistan do not hold out much hope for improvement in the near future. By Roma Rajpal Weiss

Eighteen-year-old Saba Maqsood from Islamabad was shot by her father and thrown into a canal for having married the man of her choice. Maqsood survived the attempt on her life and is currently recovering from the attack. This case was reported just weeks after the killing of Farzana Parveen.

Parveen, who was pregnant and 25 years of age, was beaten to death by her father and an angry mob that included other relatives. She was attacked in broad daylight just outside the city’s High Court on one of the busiest streets of Lahore. She too had chosen to marry the man she loved instead of going through with a marriage arranged by her family. Prior to the killing, her family had threatened her husband and filed a law-suit against him. Parveen was on her way to court to testify in his defence when she was bludgeoned to death.

These cases are classified as honour killings. The families of Maqsood and Parveen saw it fit to intervene in their choice of spouse and punish them for bringing “shame” upon their respective families. In the conservative societies of South Asia, honour killings are a common punishment for women who dare go against their family’s wishes or allegedly indulge in adultery or illicit sexual behaviour.

5,000 cases worldwide

According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 869 cases of honour killings were reported in Pakistan last year. The UN estimates that there were around 5,000 such cases around the world in 2013.

Mohammad Iqbal sits next to his wife Farzana's body in an ambulance outside a morgue in Lahore, Pakistan, 27 May 2014 (photo: Reuters)

Deadly circle of violence and murder: in a macabre twist to the already tragic story of the honour killing of Farzana Parveen, her husband, Mohammad Iqbal, admitted after her death that he had killed his previous wife, apparently in order to be able to marry Ms Parveen

Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer based in Lahore, told Qantara.de: “The real figure is certainly much higher. The primary problem with ascertaining accurate numbers for honour killings is that a large number of the killings go unreported.” Honour killings are also a common way of exacting revenge in many patriarchal societies. “Izzat”, the Urdu word for honour, is associated with the female members of a family. The loss of honour in a female member of the family is associated with a loss of face and respect in society

Honour killings are not only restricted to the Muslim community in Pakistan. Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told Qantara.de: “In rare cases, they have also been reported among the Christian community in the country. Caste-clashes in India also result in a high number of honour killings. When a family believes that a woman has brought shame to them, she is killed, and the killers get away with it because the family reaches a compromise amongst themselves.” Yusuf believes that unless the government intervenes to stop such compromises within families, there is no hope for change.

Pakistani law impedes conviction

Ijaz explains the legal problem with honour killings in Pakistan: “The criminal justice system is ‘privatised’; the murder is not an offence against the state, but against the family or legal heirs of the person who has been murdered, who have the right to forgive the murderer, because often the decision to kill is made at the family level.”

In accordance with Islamic provisions incorporated into the Pakistan Penal Code, known as the “Qisas (retribution) and Diyat (blood money)” laws, the perpetrators of honour killings are often forgiven by the family members of the deceased.  Experts insist that these out-dated laws make convictions very difficult and facilitate impunity.

“Pakistani law allows an adult woman to marry of her own free will. However, the impunity with which an honour killing can be committed makes the exercise of this choice difficult and, as we have seen in the case of Farzana Parveen, even dangerous,” Ijaz told Qantara.de.

Mustafa Kharal, lawyer of pregnant woman Farzana Parveen, holds up her marriage certificate in Lahore, Pakistan, 28 May 2014 (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo)

To make the whole story more complicated, there were claims that Iqbal and Parveen were not properly married, a claim refuted by Farzana Parveen’s lawyer, Mustafa Kharal (seen here holding up her marriage certificate). According to experts, laws in Pakistan make it very difficult to convict anyone of honour killings

Condemnation from the Pakistan Ulema Council

In a fatwa issued last week, the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) stated that honour killings were generally devoid of any legal or Islamic justification. Hafiz Mohammed Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the PUC, told the press that “Killings committed in the name of honour or dignity are brutal and cruel. Murderers will not only be guilty of murder but also spreading mischief on earth.” He went on to say that “a daughter is a gift from Allah. And the feeling of being dishonoured by your daughter is forbidden in Islam.”

The Farzana Parveen case has shone a spotlight on women’s issues in Pakistan, putting pressure on the authorities to respond. It has triggered a debate about laws pertaining to violence against women in the country and the enforcement of these laws.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has demanded immediate action on the Parveen case, saying “This crime is totally unacceptable and must be dealt with in accordance with law promptly.”

Yusuf is sceptical about the inquiry and told Qantara.de that she feels it likely that the case will soon be forgotten. “This particular case has drawn the PM’s attention because there has been a huge uproar internationally.” She believes that nothing will change until the government treats honour killings in the same way as murder and revokes the Qisas and Diyat ordinance.

A link to the article can be found here.