A placard from a 2008 human rights protest in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Getty
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The stoning of Farzana P

The death of a 25-year-old pregnant woman at the hands of her family was not an “honour killing”. It was murder.

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.

This article first appeared on binashah.blogspot.co.uk and is crossposted here with permission. You can follow Bina on Twitter @binashah

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website, meetup.com, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game