"The right to life of women in Pakistan is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions."- Hina Jilani, lawyer and human rights activist
Zahida Perveen's head is shrouded in a white cotton veil, which she self-consciously tightens every few moments. But when she reaches down to her baby daughter, the veil falls away to reveal the face of one of Pakistan's most horrific social ills, broadly known as 'honour crimes'. Perveen's eyes are empty sockets of unseeing flesh, her earlobes have been sliced off, and her nose is a gaping, reddened stump of bone. Sixteen months ago, her husband, in a fit of rage over her alleged affair with a brother-in-law, bound her hands and feet and slashed her with a razor and knife. She was three months pregnant at the time. "He came home from the mosque and accused me of having a bad character," the petite 32-year-old murmured as she awaited a court hearing. "I told him it was not true, but he didn't believe me. He caught me and tied me up, and then he started cutting my face. He never said a word except, 'This is your last night.'" In court, Perveen's husband stated, "What I did was wrong, but I am satisfied. I did it for my honour and prestige."
Honour crimes are acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonour upon the family. A woman can be targeted by individuals within her family for a variety of reasons, including refusal to enter into a forced marriage, being the victim of sexual abuse or assault, seeking a divorce even from an abusive husband, or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that dishonours her husband or family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life. Some women who bridge social divides, publicly engage other communities, or adopt some of the customs or the religion of an outside group may thus also be attacked.
One of the most notorious such killings of recent times occurred in April 1999, when Samia Imran, a young married woman, was shot in the office of Hina Jilani, a prominent Pakistani lawyer helping her to seek a divorce which her family could never countenance. Samia, 28, arrived at the Lahore law office of Hina Jilani to seek a divorce from her violent husband. As she settled on a chair across the desk from Hina, her mother Sultana entered with a male companion. Samia half-rose in greeting, but the man, Habib-ur-Rehman, grabbed her and held a pistol to her head. The first bullet entered near Samia's eye and she fell. She did not scream; there was dead silence. She probably never even knew what was happening. The killer stood over Samia's body and fired again. Hina reached for her alarm button as the gunman and Sultana left. The mother never even bothered to look whether her daughter was dead. The aftermath of the murder was equally revealing. Members of Pakistan's upper house demanded punishment for the lawyer and none of Pakistan's political leaders condemned the attack. The clergy in Peshawar wanted the lawyer to be put to death for trying to help Samia.
The loose term 'honour killing' may also apply to killing of both males and females in cultures that practice it. This is practiced as 'karo-kari' in the Sindh province of Pakistan. Karo-Kari is a compound word literally meaning 'black male' and 'black female', metaphoric terms for the adulterer and the adulteress. These killings target women and men who choose to have relationships outside of their family's tribal affiliations and/or religious community. They are never given an opportunity to give their version of events: most significantly of all, often the making of the allegation alone suffices to defile honour and, concomitantly, to justify the killing.
Two main factors contribute against women in the name of honour. These are a woman's commodification and the cultural concept of honour. The concept of women as an object or commodity, and not a human being endowed with dignity and rights equal to those of men, is deeply rooted in tribal culture. From time immemorial, they have been considered to be the property of the men in their family, irrespective of their class, ethnic or religious groups. The owner of the property has the right to decide its fate. This concept of ownership has turned women into a commodity which can be exchanged, bought and sold. In fact, in the tribal society of Sindh and Baluchistan, a woman is equated with money. This view goes far towards creating a situation where she may be butchered if she transgresses the conditions under which she is bound to a man for life. She may also be freely traded or given away as part of a karo-kari settlement.
Ownership rights are at stake when women are to be married, almost always by arrangement of their parents. A major consideration is the young woman's future inheritance rights over family property or assets. In Pakistan, feudal and tribal customs dictate that property be kept in the family. It is not uncommon for girls to be married to cousins, so that control over the estate (jagir) is not weakened, as would happen if a daughter were to marry an outsider. In absence of a male cousin (paternal or maternal), the woman has to undergo the ceremony of haq-baksh-wai, or marriage with the Quran. While women are usually forced to accept such matrimonial decisions made by their fathers, men have the freedom to wed a second woman in accordance with their liking, and lead a life in the public sphere where they can find fulfillment. Women by contrast are usually confined almost entirely to the four walls of their home.
The commodification of women is also evident in that every marriage in the tribal society involves payment of a bride price. The bride is exchanged for a price in the market, which is paid by the groom to her father in lieu of the bride's possession and custody. The bride price varies according to the status, health, beauty and age of the woman and, like other possessions, the bride subsequently adds to the honour of the groom. To receive a sum of money in exchange for a bride is honourable not only to her family but also to the bride herself, whose worth is thereby acknowledged. Sometimes, the bride price is taken in the form of another woman. Men exchange their daughters and even granddaughters for new wives for themselves. While demanding a low bride price for their daughters, some men ask in addition that the as yet unborn granddaughter(s) be handed over to them to be married off for another bride price.
The commodification of women is also the basis of the practise of 'blood money', which is a compensation negotiated to end a dispute. Besides money, such compromise usually involves a woman to be given to the adversary. For instance, a woman may be handed over to compensate a man whose honour has been damaged or to settle a conflict between two tribes or families. The standard price to settle a conflict is either one girl above seven years of age or two girls under seven. Usually, it is seen that the girls' milk-teeth are broken to create the impression that they are above seven years of age. That way, a family would only have to give away one girl.
A man's property, wealth, and all that is linked with these forms the sum total of his honour value. A woman is also an object of value, and therefore is an integral part of the honour of a man. When the rights of a woman are transferred from her father to the man she is marrying, the guardianship of honour shifts as well. Perceived as the embodiment of the honour of their family, women must guard their virginity and chastity till, and even after, they are married. By entering an adulterous relationship, a woman subverts the familial order, undermines the ownership rights of others to her body, and indirectly challenges the social order as a whole.
Womens' bodies must not be given or taken away except in a regulated exchange, effected by men. Their physical chastity is of utmost importance. By the merest hint of an 'illicit' sexual interest, a woman loses her inherent value as an object worthy of possession, and therefore her right to live. In most tribes, there is no other punishment for a woman accused of 'illicit' sex but death, often in the most brutal of manners and with an audience to witness. Their dead bodies are thrown in rivers or buried in special hidden kari graveyards. Nobody mourns for them or honours their memory by performing the relevant rites of a funeral.
The perception of what defiles honour appears to have been continually widened to the point where it is now loose. Male control does not only extend to a woman's body and her sexual behaviour but all of her behaviour, including her movements, language and actions. In any of these areas, defiance by women translates into undermining male honour, and ultimately family and community honour. Severe punishments are reported for bringing food late, for answering back, or for stepping out of the house without permission.
As my tears flowed, I marvelled the paradox that women who enjoy such a poor status in society and have no standing in the family should become a focal point of a false and primitive concept of family honour, which they are accepted to uphold at the expense of their inclinations and preference for how they wish to live their life.