They kill women, don’t they!
Amir Hamid Jafri, whom I salute for spelling his last name in the simplest possible form, considering some very strange ways in which it is seen spelt, is truly a man of many parts. He trained as an engineer, played cricket for the Engineering University, Combined Universities, and Combined Services XI in Pakistan, joined the EME Corps of the Pakistan Army, left to travel the world, drove a cab in New York for over a decade while he studied theatre in the cityâ€™s bohemian district, Greenwich Village and moved on for another gig at graduate school at the University of Oklahoma, where he completed his doctoral work in communication. Since then he has taught a variety of subjects under the rubric of rhetoric, communication, culture and gender.
Now, drawing from sacred texts and eminent philosophers and theorists from various traditions, and extending on his doctoral research, Jafri has written a scholarly book titled, Honour Killing: Dilemma, Ritual, Understanding, being published by Oxford University Press. Sensational as it is, the subject has been covered at length in popular national and international media, but this work is a first of its kind, a seminal research and systematic exploration of the gruesome practice in certain cultures where male agnates of a family kill their women in order to restore what they consider their family honour.
What propelled Jafri into the research was the cold blooded murder of 29-year-old Samia Sarwar on in Lahore April 6 1999 by her family in the offices of her lawyers, the admirable sisters, Asma and Hina Jilani. Samia had reluctantly agreed to a meeting with her mother and her attorney, Hina, Jafri recalls. Samiaâ€™s mother, a Western-trained gynecologist, had brought with her a gunman who, in Jafriâ€™s words, accomplished the task without much fuss. Samiaâ€™s father and her maternal uncle were also accomplices to the murder. Surprisingly, in spite of the relentless press attention, nobody was arrested. Even more surprisingly, people actually demonstrated on the street to arrest Asma and Hina as facilitators of besmirching the â€œfamily honour.â€ It is important to note that at the time of the murder, Samiaâ€™s father was president of his hometown chambre of commerce and a model citizen.
Samia was killed by her parents because she was said to have brought “shame to her family and tradition.” A mother of two, Samia had been seeking a divorce from her husband Imran, a doctor, on grounds of domestic violence and his drug abuse. Since the family wanted no such thing, Samia had sought help from lawyers Hina and Asma. In various quarters of Pakistani culture, the killers were praised since they were said to have killed in accordance with their tradition, which exempted the killing from the realm of crime. Remarkably, Sen Ilyas Bilour, a senator from Samiaâ€™s home province of NWFP, opposed an attempt on the Senate floor to pass even a condemnatory resolution, arguing that the resolution went against a hallowed custom specifying the place of women and the limits placed on them in their culture. He added, “We have fought for human rights and civil liberties all our lives but wonder what sort of human rights are being claimed by these girls in jeans.”
In the several languages and dialects spoken in Pakistan, according to Jafri, the act of honour killing has historically been mentioned in ways that directly brand the victims of the act “black.” In other words, it is the victim who is blamed. The whole notion is inextricably linked with the idea of male ghairat, or honour. In Pakistan, honour systems derive from tribal traditions that are often in conflict with other traditions of national life, such as religion and liberal democracy, similar to the interface between mythic and rational realms of consciousness. Jafri demonstrates that, since 9/11, the culture and society of Pakistan are in the throes of an unprecedented upheaval. Religious faith is flaunted and there is no tolerance for religious or ethnic differences. Radical violent groups have flourished with the connivance of the government under the exhilarating notion of jihad.
With meticulous interpretation of texts, data analysis and other evidence, Jafri proves that, as viewed in the West and claimed by certain “discourse communities” in Pakistan, honour killing is not an Islamic custom but one that has often been co-opted as a rallying point by the fundamentalists in their bid to rid Pakistan of “foreign ideological influences.” Jafri writes that the inability of the enforcing agencies to arrest the audacious perpetrators and the paralysis of the national judicial system to enforce the law are powerful messages to fellow citizens and the world about the “true” identity of the state. While a segment of the population perceives the act as pure and simple murder, others view it as an honest and dutiful attempt at the re-ordination of the universe, a re-balancing of the cosmos that can only be made possible by purging a family of profanity and restoring its sacred nature.
For those who view it as their sacred duty, killing for the sake of individual and collective honour is not a crime but a heroic act because only under circumstances restored by such killings could an honourable life â€“ the only life worth living â€“ be possible. Honour killing is not a clandestine activity but a loud public proclamation in Pakistan. Men, who are arrested after their act, proudly display their handcuffs, declaring them to be marad kaa zaiwar - a manâ€™s adornment. They typically do not go about creating alibis to deny the act. On the contrary, they feel vindicated in living up to what was expected from their manliness as the man-members of the family.
Jafri notes that honour killing continues to some degree in certain Latin American and Mediterranean countries, but is more common in some Muslim countries. The few cases of honour killing in Europe too have occurred in Muslim immigrant families. Future research can explore the persistence of such crimes in Islamic societies in spite of clear injunctions in the sacred texts against all vigilante responses to real or perceived breaches of personal or collective honour. Jafri rightly points out that not only does the Quran make it clear that man and woman stand absolutely equal in the sight of God, but also that they are “members” and “protectors” of each other. In other words, the Quran does not create a hierarchy in which men are placed above women nor does it pit men against women in an adversary relationship. They are created as equal creatures of a universal, just and merciful God whose pleasure it is that they live in harmony and righteousness. The symbolic definition of masculinity drenched in violence and propagated by the bearers of the fundamentalist agenda in the political fray of Pakistan can be neutralised only from within, through the re-interpretations of the sacred texts.
Demonstrating the interruption of an oppressive and hegemonic discourse in Pakistan, among other evidence, Jafri reproduces Attiya Dawood’s translation of the Sindhi poem about a young girl that says it all:
What is there to my body?
Is it studded with diamonds or pearls?
My brother’s eyes forever follow me.
My father’s gaze guards me all the time,
Then why do they make me labour in the fields?
All day long, bear the heat and the sun,
Sweat and toil and we tremble all day long,
Not knowing who may cast a look upon us.
We stand accused, and condemned to be declared kari