There is no honor in killing an innocent, unarmed woman or killing an unborn child or passively witnessing cold blooded murder. There is no honor in following custom that justifies or pardons a murderer. There is no honor in shrouding death with laws that tangle the arms and legs of justice.
Quite simply, there is no honor in honor killing. There is only shame. And while many of us will consider this a universal, undeniable truth, many more will disagree and therein lies the problem.
In Pakistan, after years of canvassing, in 2004, human rights activists were able to coerce the government in promulgating a law that criminalized all murders made under the name of ‘honor’; a law that promised to punish the perpetrators, aiders, abettors and supporters of such crimes. According to Aurat Foundation though – an NGO spearheading the struggle for the emancipation of women – the law ‘had no teeth’ which is why it failed to influence the number of honor killings in the country.
Maliha Zia Lari, a practicing lawyer and researcher on human rights, studied the efficacy of this law in four districts – Ghotki, Naseerabad, Nowshera and Gujrat – and in 2011 published findings in a report called ‘Honor Killings in Pakistan and Compliance of Law’.
Among several insights about the complexion of honor killings and the challenges associated with discouraging crimes against women, the report reveals that a majority of people do not know about the law promulgated in 2004, and ‘what is far worse is that this ignorance also exists within the fundamental players of the justice sector, including the police, lawyers and even the judges’.
The most recent substantiation of Maliha’s finding was when 25-year old Farzana Iqbal and her unborn child were killed outside the guarded gates of the Lahore High Court just a few days ago. At least twelve offenders, including the victim’s father and brothers, beat Farzana to death because she exercised her own free will and married ‘another man’ named Muhammad Iqbal. When the offenders fired shots in the air no one came to Farzana’s help – not the silent bystanders, not the police, not even her husband. Furthermore, eleven of the twelve offenders somehow miraculously got away without a scratch from the police.
A number of fundamental lacunas makes the Honor Killing Act ineffective which means that the killers of Farzana Iqbal and her unborn child will probably continue to roam the streets unharmed, just like numerous other criminals who have murdered women in the name of honor.
The most obvious gap in the Criminal Law (Amendments) Act 2004 is the provision for waivers. Crimes committed between close members of the family are compoundable which essentially means that if the heirs of the victim choose to forgive the offender, the offender can pay a certain fee and walk away. When a criminal is both offender and heir to the victim, this provision fails to make sense, let alone deliver justice. Furthermore, punishment for honor killing is not mandatory which makes the entire purpose of introducing the legislation redundant.
Tahira S. Khan in her book ‘Beyond Honor’ gathers expert legal opinion on the matter to assert that the existing laws ‘leave ample space for judicial gender biases to intervene and result in lenient sentences to murderers and facilitate compromises which allow perpetrators to get away with minimal or no penalty’.
Legislation, as redundant as it may be on this matter, can only but assist a small percentage of the victims since a large number of crimes go unreported. There is a strange ‘culture of silence’ in our society that forbids us from commenting on issues related to ‘ghairat’ and honor. In districts like Nowshera for example, where honor killing is prevalent and acknowledged as an acceptable practice by its residents, not a single FIR was registered to report a crime between 2005 and 2010.
According to a representative of Noor Education Trust, ‘women are killed in the name of honor but are buried silently and the matter is kept hidden’. Police officers (interviewed by Maliha Lari, the author of Honor Killings in Pakistan and the compliance of Law) say they often find dead bodies of women murdered by gunfire in the river. Subsequently, the case file is marked ‘unknown dead body’ and in the absence of any interest from the family of the deceased or the community at large, investigations are rarely followed.
In most cases, the pressure to use violence against women who act ‘out of line’ stems from the collective disapproval of a community the offender is very much a part of. So in many ways, the community aids the crime and when it comes down to investigation, people simply refuse to testify against the criminal. For this reason, several cases of honor crimes are settled before they reach the court and men who have actually murdered in the name of honor become custodians of an established social order.
To counter and ultimately squash crime in the name of honor, amendments to improve the Honor Killing Act will be critical but not enough. Law enforcers that watched Farzana Iqbal die should be punished. Media that went silent after reporting the crime should follow up on the issue and it should educate people about the Honor Killing Act. Schools, colleges and offices should practice equity and recognize women as equal members of society. Violence against women should be discussed and discouraged in religious gatherings.
Sounds like a tall order considering Farzana Iqbal is already off the media radar. But before you take her off yours, consider this: only a fraction of the recommendations above could help protect an innocent life. It is a shame we couldn’t protect Farzana Iqbal but maybe by telling her story we can begin to change minds and eventually save similar, equally vulnerable lives.
n The writer is a communications consultant based in Lahore.