Pakistan : 2 Women Unite To Take ‘Honour’ Out Of Killing
Islamabad, Oct 31: So much divides two women who fought in the battle to take the “honour” out of killing in Pakistan.
Naeema Kishwar shrouds herself in a burqa, showing only her eyes. She belongs to a political party that has been linked to the Taliban. And she comes from deeply conservative tribal lands where girls have been killed for going to school.
Sughra Imam sometimes wears a scarf draped lightly on her hair, but often her head is bare. She belongs to a liberal party whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of this predominantly Muslim nation, was assassinated by extremists. She comes from a prominent Pakistani family and was educated at Harvard.
But at least one thing unites the two: they have spent their political careers fighting for women. Although they have never met, and usually are on opposite sides of the aisle, Kishwar and Imam became unlikely allies in the battle to pass a historic law to protect women from murder by members of their own families.
In this country with a complex legal system that is a tapestry of Islamic Sharia law and British common law, legislation passed decades ago has allowed many of those who kill in the name of family “honour” to go free.
A family’s honour can be “tarnished” by something as innocent as sitting next to an unknown man, or helping a friend elope with the man of her choice. Invariably the “honour” of a family is tied to a woman’s chastity.
The law decrees that relatives of a murder victim can forgive the killer; they can even take money in exchange for the killer’s freedom. Human rights groups argued that in the case of “honour” killing, this granted immunity to killers, because both victim and perpetrator are usually family members. Hard-line Islamic groups, however, defended forgiveness as a religious edict from the Quran.
But the mood in the country began to shift in the last year with the rise of social media and a proliferation of television channels featuring dramas about girls who find love and fight back against sexual assault.
The new channels started covering “honour” killings, and Pakistanis grew outraged over a series of grotesque murders that happened with such regularity they could no longer be seen as isolated cases: a daughter burned alive by her mother, a social media star drugged and strangled by her brother, a teenage girl ordered by a tribal council to be bound and burned like Joan of Arc for helping a friend elope.
“There are changes in Pakistan,” says Imam. “Most of the people in Pakistan are young. They are searching for change.”
After Imam became a member of Parliament’s upper house seven years ago, the poor who tilled the land in her constituency in Punjab province started coming to her with stories of a man who had killed his wife after seeing her talking to another man, or of a brother who killed his sister for having “illicit” relations.
“These were women whose names I didn’t even know,” she says. “They had received no media coverage, and I thought: ‘How do we protect these vulnerable women?'”
She saw that the men who killed showed no worry of even going to jail.
“No one was ever afraid. They never felt they would be punished. They knew they would be forgiven,” Imam says.
She insists that Islam’s provision of forgiveness wasn’t intended to apply to premeditated murder.
The provision was meant to end feuds, “to bring peace. It was not meant to be able to kill with impunity,” she says. “The law has been perverted.”
When Imam began to craft her bill three years ago, she wanted the killings removed from the Islamic law known as Qisas and Diyat, which allows the family to forgive a murderer.
She spent hours poring over religious texts. The only solution she could find was to have killing in the name of “honour” removed from Islamic law altogether, making it impossible to forgive the killer, even if the sentence was death – the common penalty for murder in Pakistan.
“I didn’t want even the mention of forgiveness in the law,” she says. “I wanted someone who killed in the name of ‘honour’ to know he could be sentenced to death.”
Because her party was in the majority in the Senate, she didn’t need a consensus to get her bill passed. But she wanted an agreement with the religious parties, because their support would make it more likely that the police and judges would implement it.
She refused interviews on local channels, shunning publicity that might have raised hackles. Instead, she quietly negotiated with religious leaders.
There was a precedent. Pakistan’s religious parties had made an exception once before when Pakistan passed its anti-terror bill. According to that law, a culprit cannot be forgiven even if sentenced to death.
Imam, whose slight stature belies her tenacity, wore her fellow lawmakers down until finally they agreed to her wording. Even senators from Kishwar’s hard-line Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam Party were among the Senate’s 104 members who passed Imam’s bill unanimously last year.
But the legislation never came to a vote in the more powerful National Assembly, dominated by the Conservative Pakistan Muslim League, a traditional ally of the religious parties. Imam’s bill was dead.
It would take an extraordinary moment in Pakistan’s history, and help from Kishwar, to bring it back.
Kishwar’s hometown of Mardan is in a deeply conservative region of Pakistan’s northwest, where women are rarely seen on the streets without the all-enveloping burqa, and suicide bombers have killed scores of people, many of them children, in attacks this year targeting schools, police, a courthouse and minorities.
When she was a child, Kishwar says, parents discouraged their girls from attending school, but she was allowed to go all the way through law school.
As a teenager she swore to fight for change, and when she first was elected to public office in the provincial Parliament in Pakistan’s northwest in 2002, she advocated for girls’ schools and colleges.
But women faced other problems. In her province, tribes have long abided by a custom known as “sarwar,” in which families settle a dispute by marrying a young daughter to a rival family, often to a much older man.
Kishwar, who has been in politics for 24 years and is now a member of the National Assembly, lobbied against the practice, calling it an “inhuman custom.” As a result of her efforts, Parliament passed a law making sarwar illegal.
“I have been raising my voice in the Parliament for the rights of women, and I will keep doing it,” she says.
But Kishwar’s activism is shaped by her strict interpretation of her religion. She says Islam demands women cover from head to toe, and she adheres firmly to segregation of the sexes.
Like Imam, she wanted “honour” killing punished, but unlike Imam, she defends at least some forgiveness, saying Islam gives families the right to reconcile.
“Because I wear this veil and love my religion doesn’t mean I accept this,” she says of “honour” killings. “No. But it’s complicated.”
The legislation proposed by Imam could be revived only if the government called a joint session of the Senate and National Assembly. That seemed unlikely until a heart-wrenching documentary about the murderous practice won an Academy Award this year. “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” trained an international spotlight on the killings, and public outrage over the gruesome toll. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally vowed he would work to change the law.
In search of a consensus, the government sent the bill to a committee, whose members held a potentially disastrous mix of views ranging from secular to hard-line religious.
Imam was no longer a senator at this point, but she wasn’t sidelined: her party and the government’s law minister consulted her often as the bill was shepherded through the committee. She had to see it through.
Kishwar, a member of the committee, knew that Imam’s language was a nonstarter for her hard-line party and its leader, Fazlur Rahman, who told her the party would never take “honour” killing out of the Islamic law that allows forgiveness of a crime.
“It was very difficult for me. I was the go-between between the government and my party. Fazlur Rahman was following it closely and was continually in touch with the ulema (clerics),” she says.
Farhatullah Babar, a soft-spoken, silver-haired senator with Imam’s party, tried to find a compromise outside the committee.
A proponent of a secular Pakistan, Babar says he spent hours trying to sway the Rahman to support the new legislation. After all, even the Council of Islamic Ideology had recently issued a statement calling “honour” killings un-Islamic, he said.
But eliminating forgiveness raised the danger that the Federal Shariat Court could rule that the legislation violated the tenets of Islam. Still, Babar says the religious leader clearly wanted to find a middle ground.
“The environment was right,” Babar says. “The entire Parliament was incensed, and those opposing it would have felt vulnerable in the public opinion.”
In a unanimous vote, the committee finally agreed on a compromise bill: a mandatory 25-year sentence for a convicted “honour” killer. But the final wording allowed forgiveness of the death sentence.
On the day the legislation came before Parliament this month, the vote almost didn’t happen.
The cavernous National Assembly Hall, dominated by a giant portrait of Pakistan’s secular-leaning leader, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who promised equal rights for all Pakistanis regardless of religious beliefs, was half-empty. The day had been long, most of it spent railing against India over the disputed Kashmir region.
As the vote neared, lawmakers, several of them women, walked around the hall whispering to one another. Party lines were crossed. Kishwar placed her copy of the Quran on her desktop. Babar, who would introduce the compromise bill, was huddled with a dozen female lawmakers.
Some within Imam’s party threatened to vote against the bill, saying it had been watered down too much. An independent lawmaker railed that Parliament was being hijacked overtaken by a Western agenda, accusing the United States and Israel of wanting to impose itself on Pakistan.
On the floor, a member of Imam’s party, Sherry Rahman, said the bill was too important to allow it to be defeated, pointing her finger accusingly at the members of the religious parties.
Knowing her party’s line in the sand, Kishwar stood up, waved the Quran and read a verse from it. She warned that no bill that removed forgiveness completely would pass.
Finally, in a move that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago, lawmakers passed the law by a majority voice vote. The nays were a barely audible whisper.
Kishwar was triumphant. She got the compromise she wanted – the middle ground that protected women but didn’t infringe on Islamic law.
Imam welcomed the vote as a good first step.
“Laws are a guiding hand for how a society evolves,” she says. “People will generally move in that direction. We can become more just over the years.”
She’s philosophical about the concessions involved in the process. Now, at least, those who kill in the name of “honour” know they will have to pay a price.
“Now when I see that there is fear in the family,” she says, “that gives me hope that it will make a difference.”