Killing in the name of ‘honour’: Does it rattle thy honour?

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By Mahwash Ajaz

Father shoots daughter. An uncle opens fire on his niece. A husband slits his wife’s throat. A group of men decide that they will kill a woman and eventually murder her. A brother decides that his sister’s character is bad so she must die at his hands. No remorse. No penitence. For they are the judge, jury and, quite literally, the executioners of what can be considered as ‘honour’ and ‘respect’.

And honour is restored when a woman is killed.

Last year, in the month of July, Pakistan witnessed a brother, stating categorically on national television that he killed his sister – Fouzia Azeem, because she tarnished the family honour.

The dead girl was more famously known as Qandeel Baloch, a girl who shot to fame and gained a social media celebrity status by her videos and interviews. She was drugged and asphyxiated by her brother and his cronies, and was dead many hours before her father found her and reported the cold-blooded murder to the police. She had come back to her town to spend Eid with them because she feared someone would kill her. Upon her death, the poor, aging parents lost their daughter who took care of them when no one else could. Qandeel had recently taken a few photos with a cleric named Mufti Qavi that went viral on social media – and this, among many other acts of ‘dishonour’ led her brother to kill her.


Qandeel Baloch addressing a press conference in Lahore. Later, she was murdered by her brother. Photo: AP


Qandeel’s brother spoke to the media with his head held high, in full control of his senses and emotions and enunciated clearly that he had killed her over honour.

A report recently published by the Human Rights Commission recorded over one thousand women killed in the name of honour in the past year. Between 2008 to 2014, over 3000 women lost their lives over a mere concept of ‘respect’, ‘honour’ and ‘tradition’ that has become so toxic that it allows men to kill with impunity and liberty. But these are conservative statistics.

Honour killing is on the rise. A report calculated a massive increase in the past years and in 2016 alone there were over 1000 deaths in the name of honour. Most of these women were statistics (and many of them still are) until Qandeel’s death brought international attention towards Pakistan’s honour killing problem and the government announced an anti-honour-killing bill in which the family of the murderer would not be allowed to forgive the murderer (as per diyat laws). In most cases, men would immediately surrender after killing their women and the other men in the family would forgive them and there would be no deterrent for the next man who would decide to end the life of his sister, mother, daughter or wife over a mere whim or suspicion of character.

But did it change anything in the long run?

In this past year, honour killings continued with almost a new case reported each day. These statistics exclude the many cases that do not make way into the mainstream media. There is also little follow up on the media and in the press about just how much the law is having an impact on various cases that keep showing up every day. There is little to no data about how these cases are moving forwards.

I had been documenting deaths in the name of honour for a while. Hearing about Qandeel shocked me for many reasons because the usual cases of honour killing involve anonymity by media or press. Every once a few years a case becomes high profile and it contributes to the discourse about gender based violence in our part of the world.

Overall, the conversation about honour and respect that is merely restricted to a woman’s character is limited to seminars or the occasional telefilm or drama that aims to highlight this issue. The data, however, keeps piling up. I started an honour killing thread on Twitter, linking each death with the previous one. I started it the day Qandeel died, and each death is as tragic as the first. The reasons are similar, the method gruesome and the murderers, like Qandeel’s brother, unrepentant. They either run away never to be caught again – or are forgiven by the ‘elders’ of their family.


Qandeel s brother, Waseem Azeem, presented before the media by the police after being arrested for her murder. Photo: AP


The problem isn’t limited to statistics alone. To this date, there is an uncomfortable moral grey area when it comes to people openly condemning Qandeel’s murder, with most of these opinions holding a ‘however’ clause. They insist on clarifying that they disagreed with the choices Qandeel made but felt sorry that she died. Horrifying still, many claim that Qandeel’s brother did the right thing. The mindset that killed Qandeel is alive like a silent, virulent monster that courses within Pakistani society’s very bloodstream.

Currently airing on Urdu1 is a drama serial known as “Baaghi”, which stars Saba Qamar as Qandeel. The story revolves around a girl named Fouzia Batool (based on Qandeel) who suffers the same ignominy women of her nature do in a patriarchal society. “Fouzia” is shown as empowered, intelligent and capable. Her brother (played by Sarmad Khoosat) is a vile misogynist who hates Qandeel’s tendency to assert herself.

Saba beautifully portrays the ethos of Qandeel and the drama is an accurate commentary on the various misogynist practices that exist in our society whether it is subjecting a woman to abuse or objectifying a woman for pleasure. Another drama, “Ghairat”, stars Syed Jibran and Iqra Aziz and Muneeb Butt, also sheds light on the ‘ghairat’ problem in Pakistan. Syed Jibran plays a brother who kills his sister and abuses his other sister because she decides to marry out of her own free will. The drama captures the significance and the mindset behind honour killing and tackles the story of victims of honour killing and the aftermath of it.

It s been one year since Qandeel died and questions still hold. Did her murder have a significant impact on the discourse on honour killing? And how do we view generally female celebrities?

Human rights activist and environmental activist, Afia Salam said: ‘The manner of her killing did send shockwaves and the question of a female s agency in her decision making about life choices did come up. There was discussion about the inherent hypocrisies of the society which had a clear class bias. However, just not enough discussion to even begin any change in attitudes.

Tanzeela Mazhar, an outspoken anchor and television personality said, “I think her death could not create the impact I thought it would. Celebrities or any ‘outgoing woman’ is considered a woman with bad character. The reasons are their glamourous outfits and confident way of moving around. I tried to hold a protest here in Islamabad and I was utterly shocked to see response from some of my liberal friends who suggested to me that I should not hold this protest for a dubious character. Honour killing is an easy myth to justify a crime. Till the time crimes against women are not treated as crimes, things will remain bad. When it comes to crimes against women our system of social justice gets slow or partially blind. QB was a bold and brave girl and out society doesn’t know how to celebrate brave women.”


Ambulance carrying the dead body of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch in what was termed a  honour killing  by her brother. Photo: Reuters


Digital rights activist and feminist, Nighat Dad said, “We could have made a good precedent out of Qandeel’s case. But there was a lack of interest of authorities, ignorance around forensic evidence and then there were the old parents, who were complainants, and had a lot of pressure from sons on whom they are financially dependent upon after the killing of their bread winner. They had nowhere to go except going back to their own sons who pressured them to take back the case against most of the sons, except Waseem. New law will have no impact until the root causes of honour killing are addressed.”

Journalist and blogger, Tazeen Javed said, “One impact was very significant. Now the state is the party in honour killing cases so powerful groups cannot enforce maafinaama or Qisas and diyat compensation on victim s family and get away with the murder. The state is the one pursuing the case. As far as the general public and their views of female celebrities go, it is still deplorable how they behave and consider it their duty to insult them. Case in point Urwa Hocane s wedding photos where she was criticised viciously for her clothes and her decision to have fun at her own wedding. People were just as ruthless when they went after Misbah s wife for not wearing hijab.”

Samar Minallah Khan, a documentary filmmaker and anthropologist said, “The fact that Qandeel s parents are being pressurised to  save  their son – a murderer, says a lot about the discourse. We have to look at the root cause. Qandeel was exploited by the media for its cheap ratings and the family for money. As with the majority of rural women of Pakistan, she was not treated as a hard working woman struggling to survive in a patriarchal society. The fact that she was bold and had a voice was the  sin  she had committed. Our society is not a  bold-women friendly  society. Fouzia Azeem had to put up an act as Qandeel Baloch because our society has no place for a woman belonging to a lower stratum with a voice that is bold, honest and hard hitting. Unless, the root cause of honour killing is addressed, laws will remain ineffective. Yes, laws act as a deterrent, but in honour killings, it’s too late once a woman is dead. The change has to come at a society level where communities, local elders and decision makers show zero tolerance towards this despicable crime.”

The guardians of our social norms have thus decided: the onus of upholding honour inevitably lies with women. She is the one who is supposed to protect it, guard it, and be prepared to live a life of ruin in case it is tarnished in any way. She cannot fall in love or break a relationship, be outspoken or live life on her own terms. All these elements damage a man’s honour. How? Your guess is as good as mine.

Many people posit that Qandeel’s videos were shameless and vulgar. But this explanation confuses me. Are we not in the digital age where she wasn’t exactly a hundred foot poster that was stuck on the highway that your moral outrage just couldn’t bypass? If you do not like something, it just stops showing up on your newsfeed. So how do people find a way to justify a woman’s murder by her brother over honour? And the answer was simple: it’s not about Qandeel or any girl like her who is online and speaking her mind or doing what she wants to do or challenging the norms of everything around her. It is the mindset that sees vulgarity in a woman’s ability to choose. This mindset sees a problem every time it witnesses a woman playing cricket or acting in a movie or contesting elections or running a business or even riding a motorcycle. It is then when all of these acts become a matter of ‘honour’ and ‘ghairat’.

It is the mindset that allows men to kill and families to forgive the murderers. They are able to forgive a man who has ended a life, refuting the law of the land, but not a woman who has decided to challenge the rules set by society, and merely asked to live life on her own terms.

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