Feb 13, 2009

As my tears flowed... (Chapter 2)



"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.

22 comments:

Indian Home Maker said...

Horrifying ... aren't we headed the same way?

roop said...

gosh, surbhi, i try and read this blog everyday but can't. i stop mid-way. so much pain. so much heartache. soemtimes i wonder if we are better off living cozily in our lives rather than torturing ourselves by thinking of those who are suffering everyday.

it is indeed too much to handle. :( i wish i could change something.

Surbhi said...

IHM:
Sure we are. India's taking steady and continual steps towards this. And moving slowly towards Chapter 1 of my series. If ever there was a need to educate people (and I mean educate, not just make them able to read and write), it was yesterday. Today, the results are in front of us, courtesy saffron and green fundamentalism.

Surbhi said...

Roop:
You can't imagine what I felt writing this, and more so, Chapter 1. I had to stop so many times because I wept so hard. Wept for what a nation has become. Wept for what homes have become. Wept for what lives have become.
You and I both know, Roop, that despite our wishing to, we cannot live in peace. The reason I started this series is to make people aware of what other humans like us face. The horror is real, and it is immense. I know I may not be able to do anything for these souls that suffer so, yet by raising my voice I manage to assuage at least some amount of guilt for leading a happy, productive and free life.

Goofy Mumma said...

First of all let me shower my appreciation on you for deeply researching this matter and then writing about it so well, and so deep.

I have no words to say what I feel after reading this. I actually wanted to stop half way, but forced myself to read on, because if it is happening to women in this world, I should know atleast. I really have no words to describe my sorrow and helplessness.

Surbhi said...

Goofy Mumma:
Thanks for the appreciation and support. You'll also know how I must have felt to read about, and even worse, write about this. It seems so unreal, yet it is so chillingly close. Plus with hardly any difference between the culture and society of Pakistan and India, and there being essentially the same people with the same mindsets, it all become all the more real. By talking about this, at least we may make people aware and probably some may change. Wishful thinking, though...

Solilo said...

Surbhi,

It left a aching feeling. These women most of them have no clue about where to go and what to do. They are locked in cages forever.

Have you heard Andrabi? That is one sicko woman. She is educated and women like her could have made a difference to her community instead what she chose? To join the sicko terrorists and say things like 'Men should work outside and women should make rotis'.

I don't think we are ever going to be at that level. We still have sane voices in majority among all genders. Hope we can together bring a difference.

You should do a guest post for 'NO gender inequality'. We would appreciate that.

Indyeah said...

Everytime I come here on your blog here Surabhi(and I come a lot)I just stop midway in a sentence and am not able to go further....

and I never know what to comment...there is so much of pain and suffering that I find it hard to read this...
But that is the coward's way out is it not?
because all these stories too are part of my world..
and So I finished reading this today and thought of commenting for the first time...

I can only imagine what you go thorugh writing all of this..

wishing and hoping that I can change things....and that with our collective efforts they will change...

Surbhi said...

Solilo:
Thanks, I'm so touched and honoured. I'll def. do a guest post for "No gender inequality", and anything else that can make a difference.
You know, I wonder why it is so hard for some women to have a self-esttem and some self-respect. I mean, I could live without anything but those. It is sad yet true that many times it is women and not men who are a woman's true enemy.

Surbhi said...

Indyeah:
Thanks so much. I'm so touched you're a regular here, as I am at your blogs. As much as we all wish to change things, I wonder how much we actually could for people in a foreign land. At the very least we could contribute by preventing such things happening in India and wherever else we live.
But you know what, every oppressor does meet his/her end soon, for there always will be one person to begin a revolt and that tiny push will be all it takes. And I so hope that push in Afghanistan, Pakistan and all other such places comes sooner than it seems likely.

freespirit said...

Heart-breaking...

They treat women as commodities, we treat them as extensions of others' identities. For them honour is sacred and needs to be protected a any cost, for us honour is paramount. The only difference, so far, was the fact that no one resorted to violence to 'police' those who refused to adhere to societal norms. Now there are fundamentalist groups, supported in part by the Government, who believe in the use of violence on individuals who think differently from them. I'm not talking only about women's rights here, though that's the focus, I'm also referring to the increasing intolerance towards anyone who is 'different'. How much better are we than them? Our attitudes at least, if not our actions, toward those who are different need to be changed drastically...

Surbhi said...

Freespirit:
True, there is no difference. But for a border that exists for the last half century, we are essentially the same people - the same history, the same traditions, the same habits, the same mentality. Its just that people here are turning out to be more vocal these days, and that there are more number of vocal people here. But that is only in our cities. In our villages and those places shielded from the media glare, the stories are all the same.

R.K. said...

There have been honour killings in our country too, but before that i've never witnessed such a horrible incident. I am frustrated at these happenings, and it seems that the people in power who are busy in fulfilling their own desires instead of spreading education and implementation of law are responsible for this.
There has never been any so called LEADER brave enough to take harsh steps. I suppose government is something which should take care of the people like a child, punishing them for wrong doings, and rewarding them for right ones. I expect all the people who reach the power to have a conscience. I feel that they know what is right, what is wrong, but they dont wanna take any solid decision due to the fear of losing a vote bank.

These incidents make me feel that there has been so much decline in thinking ability of human brains. Just before this, i read an article in Hindustan Times regarding their report on present situation of Gujrat's muslim community. "We saw rioters slam babies on stones" was the heading.....
And then, the so called spiritual gurus ask us to follow the path of detachment. Now perhaps we are on the path of evolution to be the most dangerous species that could ever exist.

Surbhi said...

RK:
Welcome!
When you talked about spiritual gurus advocating detachment, a cynical laugh escaped my lips. I was thinking that people get detached to the level that they stop seeing others as humans, even!
Moreover, you are right in saying we are the most dangerous species ever - we are a danger to other species as well as our own. Just read my Chapter 1 and you'll know!
As for those high up in the power pyramid, don't even get me started. I'm dedicating most posts in my other blog to them!

chandni said...

broke my heart.

There is so much I want to say, there is so much I want to do...

For now, thank you for writing this.

Solilo said...

Sur, How are you? Just checking.

@lankr1ta said...

Yes, I have heard hygiene to explain the caste system- as in "they" are not like us, so "they" use different cups or glasses.

This blog is amazing. Will write a beter thought out comment

Surbhi said...

Chandni:
:)

Surbhi said...

Solilo:
It works! :P

Surbhi said...

Alankrita:
Thanks for the compliments. Will wait for your comments. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Surbhi,
Incredible as it sounds, until last year I was firmly convinced that honour killings did not occur in India. I would disdainfully read about honor killings in Jordanian, Saudi Arabian and Pakistani blogs and have the audacity to think, "those wretched, woman-hating Islamic cultures". I am ashamed of my own insularity now. Mutalik has dispelled my misplaced belief that Indian women have it any better. I cannot, for the life of me understand why I turned a blind eye to all the evidence of honor killings in India. Perhaps it was unconscious denial. Perhaps a desperate hope that Indians may burn women for dowry, but they did not kill them for honor. I have come to realize that in many ways, Indian women are worse off than women in Islamic countries. Islam forbids the killing of girl babies, Hinduism doesn't. Islam has no concept of stree-dhan, Hinduism does -- the result is unabated female foeticide and ever increasing dowry deaths. What were our forefathers thinking when they thought up such abhorrent woman-hating customs? How did human society fall so low? And we say that animals are inferior? Show me one male lion who kills his mate the way male humans often do. Show me one tiger who rapes a tigress, the way male humans do. Who's the animal here? Us, I think.
Preeti

Surbhi said...

Preeti:
You have put it far better than I could have.
Yes, we are the animals here. If an animal kills, it is because it lacks the intelligence of the human mind and must do so to ensure its survival. But when a human kills, it is seldom for survival and mostly for some twisted reason or megalomaniac fantasy to seem superior to the victim(s).
As for religion, trust me - every single one of them is judgmental of and skewed against the female. A woman in any society is either a goddess or a whore - there is no in-between. Worse, the characteristics to decide whether she is a goddess or a whore are many, each as different as the next, all of which can be tweaked at will to suit the situation.
Errr... Do you blog? If yes, lemme know. If not, NOW is the time to start. You write so well. These comments of yours could make individual posts.
Hope to see you in the blogging world soon. :)