So-called family honour is, at its root, male honour. PHOTO: FILE

What are we rewarding the Human Rights Ministry for?

In the past six months, 2,439 women had been raped, 9,529 kidnapped and 90 were killed in Punjab in the name of honour

Sadiq Bhanbhro February 14, 2022

On February 10, 2022, Prime Minister Imran Khan rewarded the top performing ministers and ministries in Pakistan, including the Human Rights ministry. Paradoxically, just three days earlier, a recent report had found that in the past six months, 2,439 women had been raped, 9,529 kidnapped and 90 killed in Punjab in the name of honour. A day before this report was issued a man had killed his sister in Sargodha under the pretext of honour after she had been gang-raped. Earlier this month, a study carried out by the women rights organisation, Sindh Suhai Sath, revealed that 176 people, including 128 women and 48 men, have been killed for honour in Sindh in 2021. However, these numbers are actually much higher when one takes into consideration the number of unreported cases.

Research reveals that the age of women and girls being killed for the sake of family honour can range from seven to 70. Furthermore, these killings usually occur at the hands of their husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, cousins, and in some cases, strangers hired by their families. Women have been killed for having sexual relationships (actual or alleged), having a boyfriend, marrying without family consent, being a victim of rape, leaving an abusive husband, using a mobile phone or posting pictures on Facebook. Women have been shot, axed to death, beheaded, poisoned, electrocuted, stoned, and even buried alive. Additionally, women in Pakistan are also raped in the name of honour.

For the last decade, I have been researching this issue in an attempt to find the answers for two fundamental questions: what is honour, and why do people kill or harm their loved ones for it?

My research reveals that a widely accepted narrative underlies honour killings in Pakistan. Family honour is not only an abstract concept but a highly valued and fiercely protected currency in many social groups and communities across cultures that consider women and girls the objects of this currency. Because of this assigned value, the maintenance of family honour and the avoidance of dishonour and shame are critical concerns in many groups. This is because honour defines the social position of a family within its respective social groups – be it a clan, caste, kinship class or community.

The narrative that honour is a natural sentiment innate to men, and therefore immutable, has unfortunately gained prevalence. Naturally, this narrative doesn’t operate in a void, and my research has found that so-called family honour is, at its root, male honour. This manifests itself at different levels – in a social group, community, class or caste through the patriarchal system called the honour system. This system is informal and customary, but it is often reinforced by the state and government institutions such as the police, judiciary and district administration. For instance, often honour killing disputes are settled through a jirga, panchayat, village, tribal or elderly councils that not only condone honour killings but provide infrastructure to the honour system to manifest its power through violence and killings.

Even though Pakistan passed the landmark Anti-Honour Killings Bill in 2016, the violence and killings in the name of honour have not decreased in the country. While the passing of such a law was a necessary step, it is not sufficient to stop the plague of honour violence and killings. For this to take place, as mentioned above, society needs to change from within to alter the social structures and narratives that enable men to kill women and girls for honour.

It might be instructive to refer to the historical practice of sati in India and foot binding in China in an attempt to grasp how they were systematically eradicated. Both were outlawed by their respective governments. Thousands of indigenous anti-foot binding groups cropped up in China, while reformer Raj Mohan Roy led the movement which proved to be the key catalyst in the abolishment of sati in India.

Hence, it is time to mobilise and engage with social groups and communities, particularly men, in order to challenge the narrative that honour is a currency and women its objects. Honour killing is patriarchal violence, and the patriarchy is not a product of nature but a set of constructed strictures that can be questioned, modified and abolished. It is time for the state and society to engage with communities at the grass-root level in order to eradicate this national disgrace.

Sadiq Bhanbhro

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University and holds a PhD in the political economy of honour and honour killings of women and girls in Pakistan and the UK. He is a trained social anthropologist and public health professional with an interest in gender, sexuality, violence, and global public health

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


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