Pakistan slumps to a new low over ‘honour killing’

The morals of Pakistani society are in an ever-accelerating downwards spiral, writes Tom Hussain.

Powered by automated translation

There is no adjective that can adequately describe the bludgeoning-to-death of a pregnant woman, Farzana Parveen, by a mob of relatives outside the Lahore High Court on May 27.

Over the years, the term “honour killing” has come to represent the murders of around 1,000 Pakistani women each year for somehow embarrassing their families by choosing to marry against their wishes, or for supposedly moral misdemeanours of far less magnitude.

Farzana’s case, however, does not fit into that category.

Instead, her marriage had been contracted with the wishes of her family, who were long-time friends of the groom, Mohammed Iqbal, a frequent visitor to their home.

They were thus well-acquainted with his previous conviction for throttling the life out of his first wife. They also knew that he had done so specifically to facilitate his union with the much younger Farzana, with whom he had been obsessed since she was just a teenager.

As far as Farzana’s family were concerned, it was all about the Dh1,800 he paid the family in return for her hand.

When that was spent, they demanded more money, and when they didn’t get it, they demanded Farzana leave him.

When she refused, they filed a false complaint of kidnapping with the police, which the pregnant Farzana countered by petitioning the high court to protect her marriage.

Even by the most skewed cultural interpretations of the term that Pakistan has to offer, Farzana’s family is anything but “honourable”.

The receipt of cash by a woman’s family in return for her marriage is not an acceptable practice in Pakistan, but it continues to be a fact of life in some areas.

Human-rights activists tend to point the finger at the primitive practices of rural tribal societies, where restrictions on women are sweeping, and minor alleged violations of social codes often result in so-called honour killings.

In reality, however, most poor rural families are quick to abandon such practices as soon as their income status rises, usually as a consequence of the men gaining employment in urban centres and the subsequent relocation of their dependents.

The first priority of those who can afford it is to send their children, irrespective of gender, to English-medium schools because it greatly improves their social standing, as well as the employment and marriage prospects of their children.

By the time the third generation graduates, such families have become modern urbanites and all thoughts of “honour” have disappeared without trace.

The problem is that the number of Pakistanis who succeed in attaining that rise in income status is far lower than those who fail. Inevitably, those left behind resent that and some of their number have become inclined to take ­cruel and unusual measures to keep up with the rest.

Prostituting daughters, whether to employers or suitors, is practised by some members of the urban poor, as is the involvement in violent crime of their sons.

When their children rebel, violence in the supposed name of honour follows, although their actions completely contradict even primitive tribal definitions of the word.

In truth, it’s all about avarice and ego.

Why, then, hasn’t Pakistani society moved to eradicate such dishonour? The answer: hypocrisy – and it comes right from the top.

The suppression of women was first institutionalised by Gen Zia-ul-Haq, the military dictator from 1977 to 1988, who used it both to undermine the challenge of his female nemesis, Benazir Bhutto, and to secure the backing of extremist, supposedly Islamist political parties.

With a straight face, Gen Zia also legalised tote betting on horse races to secure a political alliance with Bhutto’s main rival in Sindh province, Mardan Ali Shah of Pagara.

Zero thought was given to the consequences of twisting the Almighty’s words. Democrats were considered to be spreading haram and dictators were leaders of the faithful.

Never mind the parts of the Quran that warn against delivering summary judgement on any individual’s faith and the promise of an eternity in hell for individuals who use religion to pursue personal agendas.

Ever since, the morals of Pakistani society have been in an ever-accelerating downwards spiral. Honest civil servants, once the backbone of the country, are now, it would seem, a rare phenomenon.

A religious scholar who warns Pakistani Muslims that they’ve been misled into betraying the message of Prophet Mohammed is liable to be murdered in broad daylight. An elected politician who criticises the military for the abuses committed during dictatorships is a traitor. And a woman who speaks up for her rights, such as Malala Yousafzai, is a spy.

Common morality having been turned on its head, cruelty has become the defining factor of Pakistani society. Thus it’s little wonder that bystanders and even police guards stationed at the Lahore High Court did not intervene to save the pregnant Farzana Parveen, or attempt to apprehend her murderous family as they fled the scene of the crime.

Why should they? There was nothing in it for them. And she probably deserved it, anyway.

Tom Hussain is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad

On Twitter: @tomthehack