On May 27, a young woman was killed in Lahore, outside the High Court. Farzana Parveen, 25, died before she could tell the court that she had not been abducted by Iqbal, the widower she had married and whose child she was five months pregnant with. She had, in fact, married him of her own free will, rather than marry the cousin her parents had chosen for her.
For her family, this was a matter of ‘honour’. By exercising her right to marry a man of her choice, a right guaranteed by Pakistan’s laws as well as the dominant religion, Islam, Farzana had violated their honour. They had filed a case of kidnapping against Iqbal, which the couple was contesting.
But that morning, as they stepped out from their lawyer’s office to walk to the High Court nearby, a group of men from Farzana’s village, not far from Lahore, attacked the couple. The attackers included her brothers, father, and the cousin to whom her parents had betrothed her.
Farzana resisted as they tried to drag her away. Incredibly, the police stationed nearby did not intervene. One of her brothers fired a gun – the bullets whizzed into the air. Farzana tried to flee, stumbled, and fell. Her relatives caught her and beat her on the head with bricks from a nearby construction site. They fled before the police could arrest them – except for her father, Muhammad Azeem. Talking to reporters from the police lock-up later that day, he said he had killed his daughter to preserve the family’s honour.
The case caught the attention of news media around the world, many of which flashed headlines along the lines of ‘Pakistani woman stoned to death in front of high court’.
The murder of Farzana was horrific enough, but such headlines are misleading. Being attacked with bricks outside a court building where the victim was going to testify is not the same as being ‘stoned to death outside court’. The latter evokes images of Taliban-style executions of allegedly immoral women.
Farzana’s murder isn’t the first such barbaric one to take place in Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in its annual reports, documents over 800 cases of murder for ‘honour’ every year; in 2013 alone, while the actual number is likely to be far higher.
That ‘honour’ killings/crimes have a long history and occur in many parts of the world under different forms and names is no consolation, as activists point out.
“Of concern is that the practice remains a shamefully celebrated and accepted crime in many places, including Pakistan; that women are abused, maimed and killed on mere suspicion and accusation; that innocent women are killed for reasons that have nothing to do with their own acts: to secure property, to extract money from someone, to ensure a lesser sentence when a man has murdered another man for reasons totally unrelated to any woman; that the physical murder of such women is compounded by destroying their life and memory by falsely accusing them of sexual misbehaviour,” to quote the late advocate Hassam Qadir Shah, in ‘There is no ‘honour’ in Killing – don’t let them get away with murder’ (Shirkat Gah, 2002), a booklet on criminal procedures in Pakistan.
A large part of the booklet deals with the Qisas and Diyat (blood money) law in Pakistan promulgated in 1990, that allows the families of murder victims to ‘forgive’ the murderer, with or without accepting a sum of money from the perpetrator. ‘Honour killings’ stem from tribal traditions and customary practices, and have no religious sanction. Activists have, since the imposition of Qisas and Diyat, been agitating for its repeal, amendment or at least procedural changes.
Earlier, men used to get away with ‘honour killing’ by pleading guilty to a ‘crime of passion’, which carried a minimal sentence.
Over the last couple of decades ‘love marriages’ have become more common in Pakistan. According to an informal survey, hundreds of couples go for court marriages every year – marriages most probably not approved of by their families. These cases do not make the news. Those that involve violence hit the headlines.
There is an urgent need for the government to take steps to end the prevalent culture of impunity in Pakistan that allows culprits to get away with murder on one or other pretext – culture, religion or passion.