This story about a pregnant 25 year old woman, Farzana Parveen, being bashed to death with bricks by her brothers and uncles because she dared to marry of her own choice, is the kind of news that makes your heart drop and your stomach churn. It’s being called an “honour killing” in the press, but it is murder - in fact, we should call it an execution.
Farzana was going to court in Lahore to testify that she had married her husband out of choice, in response to a fake kidnapping case brought about by her family, who were enraged that she chose to marry him instead of the cousin they’d picked out for her. Thirty people stood and watched as Farzana was shot at and attacked with bricks, but nobody did anything.
It reminds me of the famous case of Saima Sarwar of Peshawar, who sought legal help from famed human rights lawyer Asma Jehangir, in fighting her own case against her family to divorce her chosen husband and marry a man of her own choice. Saima’s mother and uncle showed up in Asma Jehangir’s office while Saima was there, and her uncle shot her in the head. Saima died, and the uncle was never prosecuted because Saima’s family “forgave” him for the crime.
People in Pakistan get away with these kinds of executions of women because of weak laws, contradictory legislation, and the overarching power of jirgas, or extra-judicial tribal court systems which reserve the harshest punishments for women exercising their free will.
We have a Protection of Women ordinance, enacted in 2006, which amended the Hudood Ordinances, making rape a crime under the Pakistan Penal Code, and also made it illegal to force a woman to marry, kidnap or sell her into prostitution, and accuse her falsely of adultery or extramarital sex. We also have a bill, enacted in 2004, which makes “honour killing” a crime. A Punjab law minister called for the crime to be tried in anti-terrorism courts in 2011, but I’m unsure whether this was ever enacted.
However, the 2004 law against “honour killing” is contradicted directly by the Islamic law of Qisas and Diyat, which allows a family of a victim to “forgive” the criminal and lessen the punishment or forgo it altogether. Most criminals use this loophole to get away with their crime.
Worse still is that attitudes towards women who marry of their own free choice as having stained the honour of the family still persist. Even the policemen at police stations often won’t register a crime against a woman in this case because they agree with or sympathise with the angry family who wanted her dead. Combine this with a still-strong jirga system where men get together and condemn a woman (and sometimes her husband or partner, but he is almost never met with the same fate) to death for having acted out of her own free will.
They ignore the tenet of Islam that states any marriage must be enacted out of free will, and that a woman has the right to choose her own husband. This law in Islam is set in stone and cannot be argued with. But the tribal system, which is steeped in patriarchy, ignores this basic fact and still seeks to control the lives and bodies of women by forcing them into marriages they don’t always want.
I’ve often heard activists try to make the phrases “There is no honour in honour killing” and “dishonour killing” stick. It will take more than a few catchphrases to undo centuries of regressive, misogynistic thinking and attitudes, dearly adhered to because it suits the power structure that is already in existence. To get people to understand that an honour killing is murder, plain and simple, is the first step. For a man to understand that his honour doesn’t lie in a woman’s body may be the second step, but to get him to accept that she has her own autonomy and independence, and control over her own body is a final phase in the evolution of Pakistani society that may take generations to achieve.
In the meantime we’ll have people like Farzana and her unborn child, beaten to death with bricks grabbed from a construction site, outside a court in Lahore, while onlookers do nothing but watch and take photographs on their cell phones. We will have a nation where the laws do not protect women. We will have a country that people look at in disgust and horror, and grimace at, and thank God they do not have to raise their daughters there.
Farzana must not die in vain. We must use her death as a turning point in how we prosecute the executioners of women who exercise their free will. They are braver than all the men who sit in judgment over a woman like Farzana, condemning her to a death she does not deserve.
But do not rest complacent, even those of you who live in so-called civilised societies. All over the world, there is a war going on against women. In Pakistan, it takes the form of Farzana Parveen’s body, prone and covered by a sheet, battered and broken, in the ambulance, with her bewildered husband sitting next to her. In Nigeria, it takes the form of 200 schoolgirls kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery by Boko Haram. In the United States, we have three women and three men dead because of the revenge fantasies of a spoilt, rich boy who thought that he was owed sex by “blonde sluts”.
We’re already in the middle of the third world war. It is the war for women’s rights, safety, and dignity. We are not winning this war yet. I wonder if we ever will.