'No Honour' uses fiction to draw attention to real-life crimes against women

Pakistani author Awais Khan's latest novel takes on disturbing perspectives still held by many men across South Asia

Honour killings is the subject of Awais Khan's latest novel 'No Honour', which releases on August 19. AFP
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“My father says all men beat their wives”, says a young schoolboy nonchalantly to his classmate. “They need to be beaten or they can end up forgetting their place.”

This line, uttered early on in Awais Khan’s novel No Honour, not only builds the foundation for the alarming ideologies underpinning his fictional tale, but also reflects a deeper, real-life perspective that’s still quite popular among men in some parts of South Asia.

According to the report, State of Human Rights in Pakistan, there were 430 reported cases of honour killings in 2020, though the real number is speculated to be much higher, as many cases go unreported. Pakistani activists have helped raise international awareness about these horrific crimes – from Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's Oscar-winning 2015 documentary, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness to Hani Taha’s BBC 2019 documentary Qandeel Baloch: Honour, Murder and her Selfies.

In 2016, popular Pakistani social media influencer Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death in a so-called “honour killing” by her brother, who claimed she was tarnishing the family’s reputation.

“Her murder triggered a media frenzy and a series of protests that brought the issue of honour to the forefront, thereby allowing the Parliament of Pakistan to pass a law prohibiting honour killings,” Khan tells The National. “However, that hasn’t really made a dent in the number of women that still die from honour killings in Pakistan. Qandeel’s case inspired me to dig deeper into rural life in Pakistan and try to understand what drove these men to such a heinous act.”

Khan, who founded The Writing Institute in Pakistan and has given talks on creative writing at UAE universities, says that No Honour wasn’t intended to be an entire book when he first started working on it in 2018.

“It initially started as a short story that I’d submitted to a literary magazine. My literary agent took one look at it, and told me that I had to expand it into a novel,” he says.

No Honour, published by Orenda Books and releasing globally on Thursday, is gripping from the very first page, as readers witness a young woman on the brink of being drowned after giving birth out of wedlock. She is led to her inescapable death by none other than her brother, aged 16.

Khan paints an at-times terrifying picture of a world where a woman’s worth is measured by her fertility, domesticity and obedience. In this world, women are to be commanded and controlled, lest their fathers and brothers appear weak. It might sound archaic, but this mindset is predominant in many present-day village communities in South Asia. Yet, Khan carefully treads the waters of this contentious topic. Wife and daughter battery may be commonplace in this environment, but Khan calls it out as “assault”, by no means trivialising it as an acceptable practice.

He skillfully depicts the female psyche, getting into the skins of the women who are raised to be second-class citizens to men.

“She had lapsed into the world of dreams, most of which had remained unfulfilled,” he writes in one instance, and “she had learnt to act like a living ghost,” in another. When pregnant, one unmarried character likens the baby growing inside her to “a ticking bomb”.

The way death and murder are discussed so casually is jarring and disturbing – women are resigned to the fact their lives are seen as expendable, and that this is the reality they live in. However, Khan does not create meek female characters – many of them are emboldened with strength and resolve.

“While men may successfully hold women back in several areas, they can never kill their spirit, their desire and ability to fight back,” Khan tells The National.

Readers experience the story from two distinct perspectives – a format that Khan was determined on using from the very beginning of this project.

“When I started writing, the one thing I knew was that this novel would have a dual narrative, switching between Abida and her father, Jamil’s points of view,” he explains.

Jamil is the village butcher, under the sway of the powerful “Pir” – the decision-maker and leader behind many of the community’s honour crimes. Jamil is torn between what his male peers demand of him, what’s best for his family and what truly "honourable" actions might entail.

“For me, one of the most profound things about writing the book was seeing the complex emotions experienced by Jamil. He feels the need to conform to expectations, but his upbringing and his love for his daughter help him to take a different path. This is brave and heroic, and he achieves it all despite the pull of tradition,” says Khan.

“I believe that if you're using your writing to explore the abuse of women and to try to fight it, you need to explore the feelings and thoughts of men – and demonstrate how men can transcend the misogyny ingrained in their societies. I didn't want to create a stereotypical or cliched scenario in which all men were bad, and all women were trampled and subject to abuse.”

While honour crimes are, for the most part, perpetrated by men, there are males who emerge as heroic in No Honour – an outcome that Khan hopes could inspire male readers.

“My hope is that some men will see themselves in these characters and understand that there is no shame – indeed quite the opposite – in taking a stand against a heinous practice,” says Khan. “The message is that it takes strength to create change and that choosing a different path doesn't mean being weak.”

No Honour takes place across villages and cities, dilapidated houses, sketchy apartment blocks and stately mansions on private estates. The plot twists come frequently and unexpectedly, starting out as a seemingly straightforward tale of a village grappling with honour crimes, and ending as a less-realistic action-thriller oozing with drugs, weapons, clandestine operations and heroic antics.

“I love to plot ahead and draw up elaborate outlines, but when I actually sit down to write, all of that planning goes out of the window, and my raw imagination takes over,” says Khan. “As much as I tried to plot No Honour in advance, it was ultimately written as the ideas came to me.”

However, it's clear that unshakeable questions about ethics and gender remained vital for Khan, who deplores cultural misogyny throughout the book. He speaks through his characters when they voice thoughts like, “I wish I could change our culture” and “How long would women in Pakistan continue to suffer like this?”

“Usually, when writing fiction, it is important to put some distance between your beliefs and your writing, so that you can do full justice to the characters. However, in this instance, the subject matter was very close to me,” he explains.

“I truly believe that this culture of killing for honour and silencing women must end. I think a lot of people lament over the grave injustices women face every single day – what better way to speak out about it than through writing?”

Updated: August 17, 2021, 4:31 AM