Focus on honour killings

Jamila Khan, (not her real name) was confident when she described her narrow escape from an honour killing in Pakistan's Punjab Province. "Women were always hated in my household. My mother hated having girls," the 25-year-old told IRIN in the Pakistani, capital, Islamabad.

From early on, Khan said she was stopped from progressing in every aspect of life. "I had to fight to go to school. I was tied up with rope and beaten on many occasions, and the bones in my hands have been broken so many times," she said.

Describing her treatment as worse than that meted out to animals, she said she had finally fled her home after her brother accused her of having premarital sex, ordered her to stay indoors, removed all the door-locks in the house to prevent her from hiding, and then threatened to electrocute her. Had she not fled, "I would be dead now", she asserted.

Khan escaped what could well have been a brutal honour killing (when a male family member kills a female relative to protect the family's honour) and has been living in a safe house in Islamabad since May 2002. She was lucky, but hundreds - possibly thousands - of other women in this South Asian country are not.

According to Pakistan's Human Rights Commission (HRCP), honour killings and other forms of violence against women are increasing. "One of the main reasons why honour killings are increasing is because people are getting away with it, and there is poor prosecution," Kamila Hyat, a joint director of the HRCP, told IRIN from the eastern Punjabi city of Lahore. "Only 20 percent of cases are brought to justice," she
added, calling for tougher laws on domestic violence.

Under Pakistan's penal code, honour killings are treated as murder. However, the law states that the family of the victim is allowed to compromise with the killer (who is usually a relative). "We are calling for this law to be changed," Hina Jilani, a human rights lawyer, told IRIN from Lahore.

Methods of carrying out honour killings vary across the country. In the southern province of Sindh, where it is often referred to as "karo kari", the victim is hacked to death, often with the complicity of the community. Among the tribal Pashtun communities in North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan in the southwest, where the practice is known as "tur", the victim can be hacked, stabbed, burned or shot. In both cases, the practice's name means "black" in the local languages, in reference to the perceived culturally unacceptable behaviour of the victims.

In the populous Punjab, the killings - usually by shooting - are more often based on individual decisions and carried out in private. In most cases, husbands, fathers or brothers of the women concerned perpetrate the murders. In some cases, jirgas, or tribal councils, decide that the woman should be killed and send men to execute her.

The victims range from pre-pubescent girls to grandmothers. They are usually killed on the mere allegation of having engaged in 'illicit' sexual relationships. 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 a man's honour and, concomitantly, to justify killing the woman.

However, the threat of an honour killing is not confined to Pakistan. Women from this Islamic country living abroad are not immune from this violent method of death. In May 1999, the Nottingham crown court in the UK sentenced a Pakistani woman and her adult son to life imprisonment for murdering the woman's daughter, Rukhsana Naz, a pregnant mother of two children. She had been perceived to have brought shame on the family by having a sexual relationship outside marriage. Her brother reportedly strangled Rukhsana, while her mother held her down.

HRCP statistics for the first 10 months of 2001 reveal at least 379 cases in the southeastern province of Sindh, the victims of 151 of which were men. This compares to a total of 196 cases reported in 1998. "Sindh is the only place in the country where the lives of men are also taken in honour killings," Hyat explained, adding that these figures were an inadequate reflection of the true state of affairs.

In the Punjab, there were 227 reported honour killings in 2001. However, there were also some 722 murder cases involving women, and the likelihood of a proportion of them being honour killings was high. One of the most disturbing cases in the Punjab was that of Samia Sarwar, who was murdered for trying to escape an abusive marriage. At the instigation of her own parents, the 36-year-old woman was shot dead in her lawyer’s office in Lahore on 6 April 1999. Although the circumstances of her death are well known, the case was never brought to court.

Advocates who defend women’s rights are also the targets of violence. For example, Hina Jilani, who helped Sarwar pursue a divorce, says she has received numerous death threats.

Following Sarwar's death, a resolution condemning honour killings was proposed by a member of parliament, but according to Jilani, it was withdrawn. "The senate refused to debate the resolution, with some members of parliament saying that it was part of our culture. This is totally unacceptable," she asserted.

With growing pressure on the government to act, officials are adamant that every effort is being made to resolve the problem. "There are five recent cases of honour killings in the Punjab Province, and we are perusing them rigorously," an official of the Ministry of Women's Development and Special Education, who asked not to be named, told IRIN. Describing Pakistani court procedures as cumbersome, he said the ministry was hopeful for positive outcomes.

Regarding the implementation and review of the Hudud Ordinance (based on the Islamic Shari'ah), which is said to discriminate against women in domestic violence cases, the official said: "The National Commission on the Status of Women has been reviewing these laws." He added that the law had been under discussion for two years, and that a report on ensuing recommendations was now being prepared by the commission's chairperson. "This report will become the basis for any modifications to the ordinance," he maintained.

According to activists, suppression and degradation of women are rife in this Islamic society. A survey HRCP conducted in January 2001 found the extent of women's ignorance of their rights to be alarming. A total of 64 percent of female postgraduates interviewed by Karachi University students were unaware of their basic legal rights, which theoretically afford them equality in society. Some 50 percent felt they were discriminated against due to social factors linked to tradition.

Other prominent women's rights activists in this nation of 140 million have also expressed grave concern over increasing numbers of honour killings as we enter 2003. "There has certainly not been a decrease in 2002, and in fact the numbers are rising," the head of the Pakistan Women's Association NGO, Shanaz Bokhari, told IRIN in Islamabad.

Data collected by her NGO for 2002, show a significant increase in the atrocious crime of honour killing. Based on 7,000 newspaper clippings, her findings show 1,246 cases of domestic violence, 233 of which were classic "karo kari", and 1,900 cases of women killed by brothers, fathers or husbands. "These statistics are from a few national newspaper clippings, and they are very alarming. I expect this is the tip of the iceberg," she warned.

Bokhari said she believed there were two reasons for the significant increase: firstly, that the press was highlighting the problem more freely, and, secondly, that more victims or relatives of victims were now coming forward because of the media campaigns.

The women's rights activist commended efforts at policy making levels towards strengthening the status of women. "Hats off to them for this as there are now huge number of women, compared to before, at policy making levels," she noted, asserting, however, that the government was merely paying lip service to issues concerning violence against women.

Calling for a closer investigation into the situation in the NWFP, Bokhari said it was important to reach out to remote communities to monitor the situation of honour killings there. "We don't know how many women have been killed in the NWFP, because it is difficult to access this information there," she said, adding that it was a very conservative society.

Bokhari added said there was also concern over the increasing incidences of domestic violence. "We have seen many cases where men have chopped women's noses off as punishment for arguing or some [other] stupid reason," she said. "We need to have domestic violence legislation which can handle these cases if we are to save the lives of hundreds of innocent women in this country."