An essay on honour killing from a human rights activist and lawyer in Pakistan
By Sana Ullah
Challenging outwardly ethical political beliefs is always difficult, especially when they have acquired the status of taboo in society. Being a lawyer who often encounters men who have killed their own mothers or sisters in the name of “honour”, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to defend the western, liberal way of life that promotes a sexless-role allocation and a refusal of gender-based stigmatisation to them. Room for debate is non-existent; the men, some of whom are educated, show an utter inability to question their taboos. Education is a general term, what may be needed in these situations is effective education. Perhaps the most reliable test of an effective education is if it encourages its subjects to question even their most fundamental beliefs and prevents any set of ideology from getting implacably engraved into their psyche. But then this definition might not even admit as many liberals as I’d like to think.
Society is to be blamed because it provided the stage for honour killings, not because it directed the show. When there is no room for dissent against heinous violence within society, people forget that an unquestioning allegiance to any particular set of beliefs may be the root cause of violent problems.
The “honour” killing of Pakistani model, Qandeel Baloch, sparked condemnation from across the world. Qandeel, a poorly educated young girl from a hopelessly poor family, was from a part of the world where people live somewhere between tribalism and Medieval-ism. She was trying to climb up the greasy pole of showbiz with “revealing” pictures, controversial statements, and behaving nonchalantly with religious figures in the ultra-conservative society of Pakistan. On one occasion, she went so far as to offer to strip for the Pakistani cricket team if they won a match against India — this too in a society where “obscenity” is a criminal offence.
Still, none of this justifies murder, right? Of course it doesn’t! This was the response from Pakistani liberals and human rights activists in the international community. But passing judgment is an easy business.
Honour killing is an increasingly popular subject in the media not only in Pakistan but also outside the country. Last year, Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won an Oscar for making a movie on honour-based violence against women. She then lobbied the government to pass the Women’s Protection Bill in 2016. After Qandeel’s death, there’s hardly any mainstream media in the world that didn’t discuss it with unreserved condemnation of the “heinous“, “barbaric“, and “sick” men who carry out this most inhumane and disgusting act against women in their own family. In Qandeel’s family’s case, she was also their breadwinner.
But what was wanting in the coverage was an understanding of the problem. Facts and figures were abundant, but these statistics reflect the scale of the problem, not an understanding of the root cause — patriarchal society itself.
Don’t get me wrong, there was copious condemnation of society by the international community. Most of it in the sense of reproaching people for tolerating this theatre of savagery. Much of it sounds like typical western, right-wing “Paki-bashing” that sneers on Pakistanis as a whole. Many would not even be aware of the fact that honour killing is not limited to Muslims. A 2011 BBC news report noted, “Correspondents say cases of “honour killings” are regularly reported from the states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh which are deeply conservative and patriarchal regions… In the last couple of years, many cases of brutal honour killings have been reported from the national capital, Delhi, too.”
The trouble with this kind of denunciation, which is pretty much the same regardless of whether it originated inside or outside the country, is that it reeks of the same shallow, upper-class, self-righteous reasoning that motivates honour killing in the first place — honour killing is bad because it’s out of line with our (modern, Westernised) way of life. Replace the variable in the “way of life” equation and you get their counterparts — men who did it because it was against their (tribal, patriarchal) way of life. Society is to be blamed because it provided the stage for honour killings, not because it directed the show. When there is no room for dissent against heinous violence within society, people forget that an unquestioning allegiance to any particular set of beliefs may be the root cause of violent problems. It may be that to be brought up in a fashionable, liberal ideology is our saving grace. But this article is not meant for ‘men of civilization’, it’s for the likes of you and me, who prefer to reason rather than come to conclusions; who imagine themselves as tolerant, understanding, and enlightened.
By any standards, Qandeel’s life did not reflect Pakistani society; but her death did in every imaginable way. The news of Qandeel’s murder triggered universal condemnation, from a former Prime Minister’s daughter (perhaps, also Prime Minister-to-be) to political commentators to talk show hosts to showbiz personalities. But in most of these tweets was a pattern. The reprobation of the ‘honour killing’ was prefaced with a statement that they didn’t approve of Qandeel’s actions prior to her death. A tweet from a liberal politician, Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States, and a supposed women rights champion read, “Qandeel Baloch was no role model but she deserved a better life and death.” Almost everyone coming out in condemnation of the barbaric act felt bound to first distance themselves from Qandeel’s controversial past.
Why would so many Pakistanis feel the need to express their disapproval with what she stood for before mentioning her murder, an independent act worthy of censure (and punishment) with no regard to one’s lifestyle? The fact that the condemnation did not come no-strings-attached reflects the macro-reality of the society. Pakistani feminists have bravely highlighted this hypocrisy and the contradictions of victim blaming statements in the media before and after Qandeel, but this by no means represents a majority view in Pakistani society.
The pressure to conform to existing norms (in this case, not behaving as Qandeel did) is so severe that even the most vicious criminal acts against a controversial individual cannot be criticised without incurring the risk of being associated with the victim’s ‘questionable’ activities. In this way, society shirks from granting justice to the deviant.
Pakistani social fabric is often able to sneak through scrutiny unnoticed. One of its hallmarks is close family ties and semi-tribal bonds. Even in this day and age, Pakistani politicians and academics are seen complaining of a culture of identity politics. There is not a politician or academic in the world who knows Pakistan and can say unreservedly that one’s clan does not play a major part in his choice of political representatives, spouse or family relations. Shame or pride, the family passes everything on to the individual.
In a culture that displaces the most fundamental givens behind social organisation and interplay, where the exact antithesis of liberalism defines social interactions, where the family — not the individual — is seen as the fundamental unit of the society, this is the result. Until recently, Pakistan was one of the rarest societies in which the family of the murdered can accept blood money and forgive the murderer, who then simply walks free. Your family can even forgive your murderer for free if they like and the law supports them. The flipside is, you are known by your family, and all the values they represent. You are also the representative of these values. Qandeel’s behaviour shamed society, which shamed her family, which shamed Qandeel’s brother. To her brother, Qandeel was the logical cause of the shame he felt.
But not everyone in Pakistan strangles their women if they grab headlines and create controversy. What was different in Qandeel’s case? Class.
Instances of “honour killing” may be rare in educated, urban, upscale areas of the country. Not because urbanites don’t associate the ‘sins’ (which may be seen as slight deviations from social norms) of one family member with the family as a whole, but because when they find themselves at the receiving end of social sanctions, their social standing and position may shield them. As a person successful in the upper classes of society, you’re less likely to be dependent on the people around you. As J.K. Rowling once said, the problem with poverty is that “you lose your individuality.” In the absence of the little liberty society affords to the rich, the poor and under-educated find themselves in the clutches of primitive tribal customs and restrictions which put great stock in honour and little in human life.
The dilemma presented by society to these individuals is clear: right the wrong and do what a man of honour is supposed to do, or hang your head in shame for not being man enough. Just to remind the reader, the sanctions of society are so unforgiving that even the most educated, liberated and powerful wouldn’t dare condemn a murder without a prefatory statement of disassociation. What would social sanctions mean for Qandeel’s poor, uneducated, socially dependent and shamed brother? Research conducted at Yale University shows that bullied people are more likely to commit suicide. How many studies have tracked how bullied people are also more likely to kill? Just because it goes against our public policy of protecting lives, we choose to ignore looking into what turns ordinary people into murderers – many of them were bullied (not the same as “provoked”) into the act. Where is the defence for them?
We may not like crime, but this shouldn’t blind us to the causes behind it. Not all criminals are born morally bankrupt degenerates. Most “honour killers” are poor, uneducated, socially dependent men faced with complex moral dilemmas. To deal with these dilemmas they have neither the critical thinking nor the liberty. I have often asked myself, what’s the difference between a man who hands over his felon son to the police and an honour killer? Both are acting out of a duty towards society. Both are (usually) informed of the content of their duty by society itself. Should it only be for the difference that the former is fortunate enough to have been raised in a more cultured, law-abiding society and the latter in a tribal setting where the legally indefensible tribal norms are sacrosanct? Should the difference between a hideous felon and a principled gentleman be merely of circumstances? Is it fair to expect an illiterate man to judge the values his has been taught? Should we place the burden of logical reasoning and moral philosophy upon an uneducated man raised in a far-flung tribal underbelly of the world?
“Honour killing” is grotesque, vile, and hideous in every sense, but our disgust won’t save the women who lose their lives to it every year, nor the men who turn from brave men of honour into objects of unqualified hate. For that, we need to solve the problem, we need to confront it head-on and address the root cause, which is neither defending the absolute innocence of the victims in their lives, nor damning the chauvinistic craziness of the killers, but recognising a two-fold reality: a relentless conformity-seeking, patriarchal society and its instrumentalisation of the unit of the family to enforce its norms.
Guilt by association serves as a powerful deterrent to many people in North Korea, who happily live their whole lives without sufficient food, clothing or liberty, but never dare to illegally cross into South Korea, because if they succeeded, their family members in the North would be executed. In this part of the world, guilt by association is being employed by society to enforce its norms, on which it admits no deviation. As long as society does not cede some space to the deviant and places limits on its actions to enforce its norms, there is no hope of change. The Pakistani Parliament has implemented stricter punishment for “honour killers”, but how will this deter a man who has already made up his mind to kill his own sister? Many men would happily throw away their own lives for their sisters. In this part of the world, life is cheap and family is the main focus of the individual’s psyche.
Neither Qandeel nor her brother ever undertook to take responsibility for the actions of each other. Still, here we are. After all, there are parts of the world where abstract philosophical debates play out in real-life. Should we pick sides in this knee-jerk reaction and condemn the killers, who may well be the victims themselves, unheard?
Sana Ullah is a human rights lawyer and activist who takes particular interest in people caught up in complex judicial and legal procedures with little awareness or resources to protect themselves from lawmakers, judges or bureaucrats with no understanding for their lives or circumstances.