On 14 May, two teenage girls in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province were killed by a family member in the name of “honour” after a short mobile video of them with a young man surfaced on social media.

Interestingly, the incident, which took place in Shamplan village in the Garyom region on the border between North and South Waziristan, comes nearly eight years after the 2012 Kohistan video scandal, in which at least tgree women were killed for “honour” after a video showing them singing and clapping with two boys went viral in the ultra-conservative and remote district of Kohistan, KP province.

The term “honour killing” is so widely relevant in Pakistan that it even has regional variation – karo-kari in Sindh, siyahkari in Balochistan, kala-kali in Punjab and tor-tora in the tribal areas of north west.

Violence against women has become an accepted norm in Pakistan, legitimised with a concoction of tribal laws, clan and family traditions, and religion. Women are subjected to various forms of coercion and ferocity not only due to percolation, but also acceptance of radical ideas and concepts that are deep-rooted in Pakistani society.

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For many in Pakistan, women and girls are seen to symbolise family honour, and any act defying the ‘honour’ of family, clan, tribe and religion will cause a death penalty to the ‘perpetrator’ of crime.

Women in Pakistan, much like in other parts of South Asia, have to face various forms of violence, prejudice and inequality in almost every facet of life. Violence against women in many fields is often not regarded as a desecration of human rights but, rather as a normal feature of life in Pakistani.

As members in a male-dominated society where culture recognises them as inferior to men, women don’t have it easy in Pakistan. In fact, the male populace in Pakistan seems to beeb observing two different forms of patriarchy – the public and the private patriarchal culture of power and violence to control women. 

The list of incidents of violence against women in Pakistan goes on and on.

On 16 January, two Pakistani-origin British Girls Maria, 24, and Nadia, 17, were found dead in Gujrat city in Punjab. It is suspected that their deaths were a result of honour killings. On 12 November 2019, a 11-year-old girl was stoned to death by her family members in an honour killing incident in the Kirthar mountain range of Sindh’s Dadu District. On 6 July 2019, Fatima Bibi was shot dead by her brother in another incident of honour killing in Karachi.

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Often, the most severe punishments for transgressions of ‘honour’ or for bringing ‘shame’ on a family are decreed by councils of tribal elders (jirgas) – in which women have no place. According to a recent estimates, hundreds of women and girls are subject to honour killings in Pakistan every year. The statistics vary from around 900 to just over 1,000 each year.

But these figures represent only instances documented by human rights groups based on reports from the media or law enforcement authorities, according to Amnesty International. It is very hard to get accurate date on the incidents of honour killing in Pakistan. However, according to recent reports, as many as 510 females fell victim to honour killings in Sindh between 2014 and 2019.

The presence of two parallel justice systems in Pakistan has complicated the legal status of honour killings in the country. On one hand, the formal legal system consists of legislative mechanisms and judicial rulings that consume time and money before reaching any conclusion. On the other hand, the informal justice system consists of customary law that allows elders to make decisions based on their wisdom and local traditions.

Supreme Court of Pakistan, Islamabad | Photo: WC

Often, the cases of “honour killing” are dealt with at the local level in a village or tribal council. Even in urban centres, like Karachi, such cases are ‘solved’ by elders within the precise locality. Strangely, in most cases, male members of the girl’s family are instigated to kill her and maintain the honour of family by neighbours.

Seeking justice for “honour killing” is an uphill task in Pakistan, as several legal loopholes allow perpetrators of honour killings to escape any punishment. Under Pakistani law, in cases of murder, the victim’s family is allowed to pardon the perpetrators. The offenders are then freed from prosecution and sentencing.

Nonetheless, certain amendments were introduced in relevant laws in 2004 through the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, such as increasing the punishments and allowing courts to award punishment on account of causing chaos or disorder in society. Still, ambiguities remain, like validity of the waivers in cases of honour crimes and leaving the punishment in honour crimes at the discretion of the court.

Interestingly, in August 2019, in an important enforcement of laws to prosecute honour killings, the parents of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media celebrity who was murdered by her brother in three years earlier, were denied their request to ‘pardon’ the perpetrators. After Qandeel’s murder, the Parliament passed a law closing the pardon loophole used by families to protect perpetrators.

But in reality, the situation remains more or less the same, as majority of cases related to honour killing are settled out of court.

Other factors, such as faulty investigations, abysmally low rates of conviction, ineffective deterrence of the law and criminal justice system, collusion between offenders and witnesses, and unwillingness to implement the law due to overwhelming social acceptance of the crime and the influence of power holders, continue to come in the way of effectively fighting the “honour killing” menace.

In December 2019, Pakistan was ranked 151st out of 153 by the World Economic Forum on the Global Gender Gap Index. The emerging voice of women in the shape of Aurat March, which was initiated two years back, is trying to bring an assertive change in the patriarchal mindset of Pakistani state and society.

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The Aurat March is organised under the banner of “Hum Auratain” (we women), an umbrella term for a united front of feminist women, transgender individuals, nonbinary persons, and gender and sexual minorities who stand against the patriarchal structures that result in the sexual, economic, and structural exploitation of women.

No doubt the movement is facing backlash, both religious and political. But, it is a welcome change in a dogma-based country like Pakistan, where a woman can be killed in the name of honour without much legal ramification for the killer.

Views are the author’s own.

Dr Sanchita Bhattacharya is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Conflict Management.

Featured image (representational): A young student at a school near Rawalpindi, Pakistan | Stars Foundation, Flickr