The socio-cultural belief that has perpetuated the “Khandan Ki Izzat” concept bandied about across much of South, West and Central Asia continues to take the form of “Karo-Kari”, meaning “blackening of face” by a man and woman, in Pakistan that accounts for a fifth of all the “honour killings” worldwide.

Women’s advocacy groups suspect the global figure is likely to be closer to 20,000 victims per year. But available data records 5,000 such killings annually of which Pakistan accounts for over a thousand. Experts dealing with this phenomenon concede that these figures reflect only a part of the ground reality.   

Ceaseless campaigns at home and abroad, the former working under considerable risks, despite legislation and executive actions have failed to deter families — essentially menfolk with women in connivance — from punishing their members — mostly women – for transgressing the set norms of social interaction.

Social media that is supposed to inform and educate has unwittingly played the villain in the latest incident. Two teenage girls have been murdered in north-west Pakistan following a video recorded a year ago being circulated on the internet.

Three girls were seen on the video being recorded by a man, apparently unrelated to them, in a secluded area. They are said to have been shot dead by family members earlier this week, as per international media reports.

 Of the two men reportedly arrested on Sunday (May 17), one is the father of one of the victims and the other, brother of the other victim.  The police have now scrambled to save the third girl and the man before they can bring the perpetrators to justice.  

Pressure group Human Rights Watch says the most common reasons are that the victim refused to enter into an arranged marriage, was the victim of a sexual assault or rape or had sexual relations outside marriage, even if only alleged. Assuming there is scope to prove innocence, the man needs two witnesses to prove innocence, but the girl would need four – an almost impossibility.

But killings have been carried out for more trivial reasons, like dressing in a way deemed inappropriate or displaying behaviour seen as disobedient. They are done in front of other family to set a strong example.

Although a 1990 law exists, the men, who see themselves as ‘protectors’ of womenfolk and of family traditions, get away. Even if convicted, pressures are brought upon the victim’s family to forgive the convict and compensation, if offered.

The most-talked case in Pakistan is of Qandeel Baloch, a poor girl- turned-celebrity with high media profile. She scandalized the society till her brother, at behest of the family elders, killed her in 2016. Under pressure, the victim’s parents have forgiven their son, but the court has so far refused to accept it.

The same year, filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won Pakistan’s first Academy Award for her documentary A Girl in The River: The Price of Forgiveness, telling the story of an 18-year-old girl pressured into forgiving villagers who attempted to kill her.

Also the same year, Pakistan’s parliament unanimously passed legislation against killings linked to the concept of “honour”, or “izzat”.

Women lawyers-activists, late Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani have worked hard to secure fair treatment to women. The two founded Pakistan’s first legal aid center in 1986 and a women’s shelter called Dastak in 1991 for women fleeing from violence.

Honour killing has been part of the traditions in Pakistan’s tribal society, but not necessarily confined to it. Killings have been reported in Lahore, Karachi and other places as well.

Ironically, the law has its roots in the colonial law of 1860 enacted in Britain that condones killing carried out “under provocation”. It was probably part of the British rulers’ approach to leave the tribals to their traditional norms.

The 1990 law rejects the provocation plea and has brought this offence close to Shariah, the prevailing jurisprudence. The Council of Islamic Ideology, an advisory body, has termed “honour killing” as un-Islamic. Yet many courts acquit the killers citing the earlier British-enacted law.

In Pakistan’s tribal areas, “rivaj” – or tribal custom – is codified without being defined. This could be interpreted to provide a legal basis for a killing.

Perpetrators have sometimes tried to justify their actions on religious grounds – but none of the world’s main religions condone honour-related crimes.

In some countries, these tribal customs have been codified into law, which may constitute legal grounds for killing a family member.

The notions are deeply rooted in society and reasons for the crime can be bizarre when viewed in the present-day context. In 2014, three women were killed in Pakistan after being captured on video “smiling and laughing in the rain outside their family home”, as per a BBC report.

It is a collective failure by the authorities to prosecute such crimes, and the tacit endorsement by local clerics. But above all else, they are a feature of deeply patriarchal societies where there is a belief that a woman’s actions reflect on the men around her.


Mahendra Ved is a veteran journalist who has served with the Times of India, Hindustan Times and United News of India. The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

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