Sep 2, 2008
Time to stop hiding behind custom, tradition or religion
Given the multiple issues facing Pakistanis, the last thing we surely need is for a legislator to defend a heinous crime in the name of tradition or custom. We don’t need the heinous crime either, in this case the murder of women who were apparently defying their families by trying to marry of their own choice.
The resistance of conservative families to expressions of autonomy by their daughters is an ongoing problem in patriarchal, conservative societies like ours. Some parents accept their children’s wishes. Others submit to the inevitable, cutting off inheritance or refusing to meet them. In Pakistan, some misuse the legal system to gain submission, filing cases of ‘zina’ (adultery) against daughters who elope, preferring to see them tried for a crime punishable by death rather than married to someone ‘unsuitable’. Others resort to physical violence, locking up the erring child without food, cutting off all communication in an effort to gain submission. In the most extreme cases, some family member uses a gun, a knife or an axe to end the defiance once and for all -- termed a ‘crime of passion’ in much of the world. Here, it is called ‘honour killing’.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded over 600 cases of ‘honour’ killings or ‘karo kari’ last year – just the reported incidents, compiled from reports appearing daily in the media. Over ninety such murders were reported in the first three months of this year alone. The actual number may be higher, as not all cases are reported. Is the violence actually rising or is it just that the media is reporting such cases with greater frequency? The media boom is certainly instrumental in bringing more such stories to light. However, such cases may also be on the rise because of emerging conflicts within a rapidly modernising conservative, patriarchal society where women are traditionally seen as family property and the repositories of honour.
Greater exposure to media and more education leads to a heightened awareness of human rights issues. Those who defy the old order have greater support – legal, moral, and financial -- from various non-government and even some government organisations.
Pitted against these developments are conservative elements fearful of their culture and traditions changing before their eyes, who then seek to codify ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’, until now fairly amorphous. This may be the context of the inexcusable justification that Senator Israrullah Zehri of the BNP presented in defence of the brutal murders reported in his home province Balochistan: five women reportedly beaten, shot and then buried alive for defying their families.
This is hardly the first time that culture and tradition, or even religion, were used to justify violence and suppression of women. The prosecuting lawyer in the Samia Waheed ‘love marriage case’ argued that in the sect of Islam to which Samia belonged, a woman must seek the ‘wali’ or guardian’s approval to marry “even if she is sixty years old”. Although she won the case, fearful for her life, she fled abroad along with the man she had eloped with.
In another infamous case, Saima Sarwar wasn’t so lucky. The young woman from Peshawar had left her abusive, drug-dependent husband. Her parents accepted that but drew the line at her intention to divorce him and re-marry. She took refuge at a women’s shelter in Lahore. In April 1999, her mother asked to meet Saima at AGHS, the office of her attorney Hina Jillani, arriving with a manservant. As Saima entered the room, he pulled out a pistol and shot her dead. Her mother escaped in a rickshaw but a plainclothes policeman at AGHS shot the murderer dead as he attempted to flee. Entering the building immediately after the incident, one had to step around the body sprawled on the stairs in a pool of blood. Upstairs, the victim’s petite black-clad body lay on the floor by Hina Jillani’s desk, a bullet lodged in the wall behind it, having missed Ms Jillani herself.
What many found astounding was that Saima’s parents were not some illiterate people from a remote tribal area, but educated, influential, city dwellers. The father was a businessman who had headed the Peshawar Chamber of Commerce and Industry while the mother was a gynaecologist.
Then too, there was uproar in the Senate, when former law minister Iqbal Haider of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party initiated a resolution against the murder on August 2, 1999. Like Israrullah Zehri of the Balochistan National Party which has secular, nationalist credentials, Ajmal Khattak, the supposedly progressive leader of the Awami National Party, a successor of the National Awami Party, also a secular, nationalist party, had shouted Mr Haider down. He held that Saima Sarwar had disgraced her family who had acted according to Pakhtoon tradition. Some senators from FATA physically attacked Mr Haider. Only four Senators stood in support of the resolution: besides Iqbal Haider, his party colleagues the indominatible Aitzaz Ahsan, then leader of opposition in the Senate, and the late Hussain Shah Rashidi. The fourth was the MQM’s Jamiluddin Aali. Twenty-four Senators including the PML-Q’s presidential candiate Mushahid Hussain Syed (then with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML) and other luminaries like the retired judge Javed Iqbal and former foreign secretary Akram Zaki stood to oppose it.
Flash forward to another democratic era barely a decade later. Another horrific murder, another voice raised in the Senate (this time by a woman), and another Senator’s justification in the name of tradition.
Whether the women were buried alive or whether they were already dead when buried is beside the point. The tragedy is not so much how they suffered (although the murder is more horrific if they were still breathing when buried). First of all, no one has the right to take another life. Second, the women’s ‘crime’ (to want to marry of their own choice) was no crime under any law or religion. Third, even if murdering women who disgrace their families is accepted in some areas, not every aggrieved family resorts to such action. And fourth but not least, slavery too was once a widely accepted custom. So was the burying alive of baby girls. Neither practice is condoned now, in any way, anywhere in the world.
Interestingly, both these Senate debates for and against the murder of women for ‘honour’ took place after particularly gruesome crimes committed under a democratic dispensation. This is certainly not because there was less gender violence when the military was at the helm of affairs. Violence against women has risen over the last decade. It was at its peak under Gen Ziaul Haq and his discriminatory ‘religious’ laws that strengthened reactionary forces and reinforced negative stereotypes about women. But democracy, with elected representatives answerable to their constituencies, opens up spaces to discuss and debate such issues rather than sweeping them under the carpet, going beyond knee-jerk responses like incident-specific legislation such as that enacted after the public denuding and humiliation of women in the infamous Nawabpur case of 1984 (also on the pretext of ‘honour’).
Some would prefer not to discuss such issues because this ‘brings a bad name to the country’ (or province). They need to ask themselves who is responsible: those who perpetuate the violence, or those who are its victims? What would make us a better, stronger nation: dealing with the issue, or burying it in the sand.