Despite some recent progress in terms of trying to address the dismal state of women’s rights in the country, our government clearly needs to do much more in view of the continued prevalence of brutal acts of murder of women being perpetuated in the name of honour. Consider, for instance, the fact that at least 675 Pakistani women and girls were murdered during the first nine months of the current year alone for allegedly defaming their family’s honour.
According to statistics compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), around 450 of the 675 women killed were accused of having ‘illicit relations’ and 129 of marrying without permission. Over 70 victims were under the age of 18. Some victims were raped or gang raped before being killed. At least 19 were killed by their sons, 49 by their fathers and 169 by their husbands. Given that the HRCP reported 791 honour killings in 2010, there has hardly been a discernible decrease during the current year.
Our state’s inability to enforce rule of law enables decisions concerning matters of life and death to be left in the hands of tribesmen and local elders. These extrajudicial arbitration systems use notions like that of honour to preserve the socio-economic status quo, within which women are both suppressed and exploited. Even when cases of brutal acts of honour killings reach the courts, there is lacklustre resolve to prosecute perpetrators. This is because these cases are often weakly formulated and followed up since they are considered matters pertaining to the private sphere of family affairs. It is said that the situation in Pakistan during the early decades of independence was better and the society was less regressive than what it has become today, largely due to legislative measures introduced under the dictatorial regime of the 1980s.
Islam itself does not condone marriage without consent. It gives property rights to women as well as custody of children. In effect, however, women in our country are traded like commodities to settle disputes and their custody rights are denied and used to blackmail them into submission. They are deprived of their rightful property which is taken away from them by other coercive or social pressure tactics.
Some years ago, a senator from Balochistan had the audacity to defend the burial of five Baloch women while they were alive, saying the act was in accordance with Baloch tribal traditions. Conversely, it is encouraging to note that the Sindh Assembly has just unanimously passed a resolution censuring honour killing, or karo-kari, and recommended the federal government to make the offence an unpardonable one under the country’s law. The Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill has been passed recently, which recommends stringent punishments for those who commit the crime of using acid to harm women.
But legislation is not enough. Police officials should be given training and awareness about new investigation laws regarding violence and discriminatory behaviour against women. A combination of legal reforms and effective exercise of administrative authority are needed to help curb such disturbing phenomenon.
There also needs to be a persistent social movement against gender discrimination and violence. Simultaneously, the lack of economic empowerment and education of women, which makes them vulnerable to varying degrees of exploitation and horrendous acts of violence, should also be addressed if Pakistan is to improve its existing record concerning women’s rights.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 28th, 2011.