Different faces of honour in Pakistan

  • Complexities that go back centuries

Honour is a sacred term in our part of the world. As convoluted as its meaning can be, one thing is certain, its preservation brings havoc and has violent consequences in Pakistan. Honour, mainly attached with the person of a woman, and its preservation is a dubious myth used sparingly against a woman to punish and cater to the whim of the men in our society. This heinous practice, despite being outlawed, is still embedded as means of punishment in Pakistan and forms a major part of tribal punishment. Perhaps Elif Shafak in her book “Honour” sums up the conundrum surrounding meaning of honour best when she says: “…honour was more than a word, it was also a name. You could call your child ‘honour’ as long as it was a boy. Men had ‘honour’, old men, and middle-aged men, even schoolboys so young that they smelled of their mother’s milk. Women did not have honour. Instead they had shame. And as everyone knew, shame would be a rather poor name to bear”

Three years ago I wrote my first article titled “Relationship of a woman with land in Pakistan” that talked on karo kari and the systematic guarding of a woman’s honour by killing her in the name of honour so that her legal inheritance in land is avoided. Such archaic measures are ordered by the prevailing jirga system, which comprise tribal elders and men, who at their whim and under false pretexts of maintaining honour give decisions that are clan based rather than caste based. For them the preservation of land means preservation of a clan, which has a direct relation with preserving women’s honour. Therefore, in many cases the women who are married off in the same clan or tribe so that the land that they will inherit remains within the territorial jurisdiction of the same tribe. If she marries outside out of choice, she is either killed in the name of honour or completely banished from the community.

In many cases the women who are married off in the same clan or tribe so that the land that they will inherit remains within the territorial jurisdiction of the same tribe

Sadly this practice still prevails and is also not the only reason to kill in the name of honour. Few years ago I had an opportunity to work on the eradication of honour killing by reforming informal justice system and had a field visit to Balochistan to have a policy dialogue with members of the local Jirga. The aim of the project was to sensitise and engage with the elders to reform their Jirga system as means of informal justice system. One of the participant stated “If majority of the decisions in Jirga are about women, then there should be at least some women in the Jirga so that her say is reflected in the decisions.” In many parts of Pakistan tribal Jirga or panchyat are embedded in the social fabric. Such customs are stronger than law.

One of the goals of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is to achieve gender equality which goes on to state: “ End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere and eliminate all of forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.” It is depressing to watch such goals not materialising in the near future if we keep a solid lock on our mindsets. In the wake of rampant honour killings, rape and other violent forms of violence against women over the years, we are far away from achieving this.

Why? Firstly and most importantly the mindset of society is bent upon retaining patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes towards women and secondly our justice system does not provide quick redressal mechanism to uphold rule of law. The system is not sensitised enough to address the case head on and punish the criminal. The law then acts as an excuse to buy more time whilst the victim dies a painful death every day. Moreover, there are no correct statistics that tell us the actuality of honour killings and rape occurring every day. Many of the honour killing cases go unreported. In my view solely quoting statistics can also not be relied upon as part of the narrative on violence against women because of the inaccuracy in reporting sensitive data. The law often fails women who have been raped and victimised. The discourse of honour and the politics of preserving honour can be best summed up by the two landmark cases of Qandeel Baloch and Mukhtara Mai. The crimes of acid attacks, sexual assault, rape and honour killings make headlines every day yet the societal oblivion is astounding.

Despite having a law on honour killing since 2016, the crime is still on the rise due to the mindset that if a woman violates the conservative Pakistani traditions on love, marriage and public behaviour she will face the fate of being killed in the name of honour. Many of these honour killings have a sadistic element of killing so when in Karachi a girl was electrocuted or in a tribal village where the family sets off dogs on their own girl child, you know something somewhere has gone truly wrong in the society. Honour killing has nothing to do with religion or law instead it’s a self-inflicted customary practice by the male members of the family. Having strong institutions dispensing quick justice is critical for gender equality.

The complexity surrounding honour is centuries old as is its practice. The untiring efforts to campaign against it today will perhaps put future generation of girls in a better position to protect themselves.