On a hot June afternoon in a small village near Sialkot, Punjab, 17-year-old Muafia Bibi and her husband Sajjad were dragged from their home, tied up and viciously slaughtered in broad daylight by Muafia Bibi’s relatives. Villagers gathered and looked on as the couple were hacked to death. Barely married for a week, the crime warranting such a harsh punishment was that they had chosen to elope against the wishes of Muafia Bibi’s parents, thus bringing ‘dishonour’ to the family. The perpetrators, which included Muafia’s father and grandfather, were subsequently arrested, but not before they proudly declared their lack of remorse, stating that they had killed their daughter to show other women of the community “what would happen to them if they married someone of their own choice”. The brutality of the murders shocked human rights activists, lawyers, politicians and civil society actors across Pakistan, particularly as it came on the heels of another vicious honour killing.
In 2013 alone there were 869 killings carried out in the name of ‘honour’.
In May 2014, a pregnant woman, Farzana Parveen, was stoned to death outside the Lahore High Court, also for marrying against the wishes of her family. Lawyers and local police stood by and watched as her father and brothers pelted her with bricks, killing her. Five men, including Farzana’s father, were later charged with her murder. “I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it,” her father told police, adding that it had been an “honour killing”.
While both cases attracted local and international media attention there are countless others which go unreported and unnoticed, written off as ‘suicides’ or ‘domestic accidents’. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in 2013 alone there were 869 killings carried out in the name of ‘honour’. But it is assumed that the actual number is much higher. Given that family members carry out or give consent for most of these killings, many go unreported. Of reported cases too, many remain unpunished. Although Pakistan has put in place legal provisions to prosecute honour crimes, loopholes in the prevailing legislation, problems with implementation and enforcement, and a patriarchal social context that deems such acts acceptable, have contributed to a culture of impunity allowing the perpetrators to literally get away with murder.
The notion of ‘honour’
Regarded as a cultural/familial form of violence, honour crimes primarily occur in a patriarchal context where the notion of ‘honour’ is tied up with female family members. In such a setting, women and their bodies become repositories of family honour, and also by extension, come to represent the ‘reputation’ which the family – particularly its male members – enjoys within the larger community and society. Regulating and policing female behaviour and sexuality is paramount in this social order so as to ensure that it does not bring shame to the family in any way. Thus, honour crimes are usually carried out by men against female family members who are deemed to have engaged in actual or perceived ‘immoral behaviour’. Such behaviour ranges from engaging in extramarital or premarital sex, going against the family’s wishes to marry, running away from home, seeking a divorce or remarriage or having an ‘illicit’ relationship. ‘Immorality’, however, is not restricted or determined solely by sexual conduct, but goes beyond to encompass any behaviour which challenges male control over female family members. In some cases, even the hint of a transgression, for instance having a conversation with a strange man, is enough to warrant punishment. In others, honour crimes are used as a guise for financial and material exchanges carried out to settle family disputes or tribal feuds, to gain control of wealth and property, or to acquire a large dowry.
Acts through which the ‘lost’ family ‘honour’ may be restored range from the cutting of the ‘transgressor’s nose, forced marriage, confinement, rape, acid attacks and public shaming to murder. While men may also be victims of such crimes by dint of their association with the female ‘transgressor’, attacks primarily target women. Underlying honour crimes is the notion of male supremacy and female subordination and the reassertion of male control, masculinity and power.
Although not condoned or permitted under Islam, honour crimes occur all over Pakistan. They are referred to as karo kari in Sindh, siyakari in Balochistan, kala kali in Punjab and tor tora in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa – terms which all literally denote the ‘black’ nature of the ‘disreputable’ person and their crime. The impunity with which they are carried out shows that the victim is held responsible and seen as carrying the blame for the violence perpetrated against her as she transgressed prescribed norms of behaviour. The fact that many are carried out in public view indicates that they tend to receive acquiescence and legitimacy from the larger community.
One of the main reasons cited for the continued occurrence and frequency of honour crimes is the weakness of Pakistan’s justice system and the presence of discriminatory legislation against women which allows these crimes to go unpunished. The roots of these problems can be traced back to General Zia ul Haq’s military rule (1977-1989), during which significant changes aimed at Islamising the legal system were initiated and carried out. Through the passage of certain laws, women’s subordinate status was defined and cemented. For example, the 1979 Hudood Ordinances criminalised sexual relations outside marriage and required four male witnesses to prove a rape. Family members were also granted state sanction to monitor and control the sexual behaviour of their female relatives. The Hudood Ordinances, particularly the Zina Ordinance which criminalises adultery (zina) and pre-marital sex, have frequently been used by families to register zina cases against female relatives who go against their wishes by choosing to elope, leave their marriages or challenge familial control in other ways.
The Qisas and Diyat laws (qisas meaning retribution or equal punishment for a crime i.e. ‘a life for a life’ and ‘an eye for an eye’; diyat meaning blood money) were also conceived and drafted under General Zia and later formally passed in 1990 in the form of the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance. The Ordinance was formally passed as a law through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act in 1997. This Act amended the Pakistan Penal Code (1860) by replacing sections 299 to 338 with the Qisas and Diyat provisions which govern compensation and retribution for crimes involving bodily injury such as murder, attempted murder and bodily harm. According to the Act, a victim or her/his heirs (in case of her/his death) have the right to dictate punishment (death in the case of murder or other forms of retribution for injury), forgive the assailant or agree to a settlement in the form of monetary compensation (diyat). The law thus places the choice of prosecution in the hands of the victim or her/his heirs rather than in the hands of the state.
I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it.
The Qisas and Diyat Act has been criticised by women’s rights activists and human rights lawyers for ‘privatising’ justice as it provides for the settlement of murder cases out of court. This is particularly problematic in cases of honour killings where the murderer is usually a next-of-kin who can gain forgiveness and/or exchange money and walk free. For instance, if a brother kills his sister, their father, the girl’s guardian, can forgive the son. In case the victim or heir chooses to waive qisas the offender is subject to tazir (discretionary punishment) to be imposed by the state. In these instances, judges have the power to determine the extent of the punishment depending on the nature of the crime.
The broad degree of judicial discretion and leeway also allows for discrimination to take place. In many cases, the provision of ‘grave and sudden provocation’ allows courts to minimise the severity of the crimes and to acquit or deliver reduced and lenient sentences to men who claim ‘honour’ as the reason for killing a woman. The ‘provocation’ plea is based on Section 304(1) of the Pakistan Penal Code (1860) as it existed prior to the promulgation of the Qisas and Diyat Act which stated “the provocation must be grave and sudden; due to the gravity and suddenness of the provocation the accused should have been deprived of the power of self control”. Although this provision was abolished and removed from the Penal Code by the Qisas and Diyat Act it continues to be applied to defend perpetrators of honour killings (i.e. by portraying their crimes as unintentional or non-premeditated murders which occurred as a result of ‘loss of self control’ on the part of the perpetrator on account of the ‘immoral behaviour’ of his wife, sister, or other female relative). Lenient sentences given on these grounds show the patriarchal biases which exist within the justice system allowing judges to pass judgements on women who ‘deserved’ the punishment they received as well as to minimise the sentences of perpetrators.
Complicating the picture is the presence of extra-legal judicial structures in the form of panchayats, jirgas, and fasilo (councils of elders or village councils). These local tribunals dominated by village elders, religious leaders and tribal/clan heads were declared illegal by Pakistan’s Supreme Court in 2011 and are restricted under Article 175 (1 and 2) of Pakistan’s Constitution. However, they continue to operate and hand out ‘justice’, usually to the detriment of women and with the knowledge, acquiescence and support of local political leaders and the public administration. There is evidence to suggest that in some cases, punishments in the name of honour are given out by jirgas to settle family feuds or debts and/or exact revenge. A 2011 study carried out by Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani NGO, showed that a majority of women are killed after being declared kari (‘black’/disreputable woman) by local tribunals. The most well known case is that of Mukhtar Mai who was gang-raped and then paraded naked in Muzaffargarh district in 2002 on the orders of a panchayat as retribution for her brother’s alleged ‘improper’ relationship with a girl from another tribe. The study revealed the complicity of local state officials, particularly the police, in such cases and recorded widespread police inaction regarding honour crimes. It showed that many officials prefer a compromise between the parties on what they regard as ‘private, family matters’, or to take money to not register a case against the perpetrator.
Legal action to address honour crimes kicked into gear in 1999 following the highly publicised Saima Sarwar case. Saima, a young woman from Peshawar, wanted to divorce her husband, a cousin, on the grounds that he was abusive. Her parents denied her the permission to do so which led her to seek protection at a women’s shelter in Lahore. In April 1999, her mother asked to meet her at the office of her attorney Hina Jilani, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist. Saima’s mother and uncle came to the lawyer’s office with a hired hit man who shot and killed Saima. Although the case garnered immense publicity because of the fact that the murder was carried out in front of numerous witnesses and in a prominent lawyer’s office, Saima’s mother and uncle, accomplices to her murder were never convicted (the hit man was killed while fleeing). Using the Qisas and Diyat Act, Saima’s parents ‘forgave’ the killer. After Saima’s death, a resolution condemning honour killings was introduced in the Senate, the upper house of Parliament. However, the resolution was criticised by several parliamentarians on the grounds that Saima’s family had acted in accordance with ‘cultural traditions’. The resolution was subsequently withdrawn.
Regardless of this setback, honour killings remained a key concern for women’s rights activists. Under General Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008), a National Commission on the Status of Women (NSCW) was set up in 2000, which listed addressing honour crimes through legal reform as a key priority. With the help of women’s rights activists, civil society actors and prominent female parliamentarians, steps were taken to formulate a legislative bill dealing with honour killings. It was handed over to parliament in 2004. Musharraf allowed the passage of the bill but what was eventually enacted into law was a much weaker version of the proposed legislation; allegedly to appease Musharraf’s Islamist allies in parliament who opposed the original bill on grounds that it would encourage ‘immorality’. The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2004, also known as the Honour Killings Act, was enacted in January 2005. The Act amended the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 (PPC) and the Criminal Procedure Code 1898 (CrPC) to declare honour killings as murder and prescribed penal punishments including a maximum of 25 years imprisonment for such crimes. It also laid down a definition of ‘honour crimes’ that includes all “offenses committed in the name or on the pretext of honour” against women (and men) who were deemed to have brought ‘dishonour’ to the family. Additionally, it assigned the responsibility of investigating honour crimes to high ranking police officials and declared illegal the act of bartering women in compensation settlements (badl-i-sulah).
The rising number of honour killings in Pakistan reflects a collapse of the criminal justice system whose primary victims are women.
While an important step, the law was criticised by women’s rights activists for failing to do enough. The 2011 Aurat Foundation study showed that despite the passage of the bill, honour killings did not decrease. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, 557 women were killed in the name of honour in 2010, whereas by 2013 that number had risen to 869. The biggest loophole in the law is that it failed to do away with the Qisas and Diyat Act thus retaining the provisions of waiver, which allows the murderer – usually a next of kin – to seek forgiveness or provide compensation and escape punishment. It also did not make punishment for honour crimes mandatory. Though it laid down minimum sentences for honour killings (10 years imprisonment) they are not mandatory and in cases where qisas is waived by the victim’s guardian the awarding of the penalty is left solely at the discretion of courts, allowing perpetrators to obtain lenient sentences or acquittals. The Act also failed to explicitly rule out pleas based on ‘grave and sudden provocation’ which continues to be used by courts to make concessions. It also did not lay down punishments for other involved parties, such as tribal councils, which often abet and condone honour crimes.
Further legal reforms needed
According to Asma Jahangir, renowned human rights activist and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, the rising number of honour killings in Pakistan reflects a collapse of the criminal justice system whose primary victims are women. The passage of the Honour Killings Act was an important step in addressing honour crimes. However, the prevalence of such crimes and their low conviction rates shows that critical problems still exist. These include lack of knowledge and awareness about prevailing legislation, poor implementation by police and law enforcement officials, and loopholes in the law such as in the Qisas and Diyat Act which allow for out-of-court settlements or acquittals. The resulting lack of reliable data on honour crimes is also problematic.
As recent cases of honour killings have highlighted, a culture of impunity underlies the persistence of honour crimes in Pakistan. Murderers are allowed to escape, in some cases given protection by the community reflecting an internalisation of social norms whose victims continue to be women. Despite loopholes, legal structures remain a critical tool in curbing such practices and addressing the patriarchal social norms which condone them. Further legal reforms are necessary and should include repealing the Qisas and Diyat Act, deeming honour killings as intentional murder and explicitly prohibiting the mitigation of sentences through the application of the defence of grave and sudden provocation. Cracking down on jirgas and other extra-legal tribunals will also signal state intent to no longer tolerate crimes against women in the name of culture. Only by taking these steps can the state aim to prevent honour crimes and those who carry them out from ‘getting away with murder’.
~Bushra Asif is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Chicago working on gender laws in Pakistan.