On Monday, Pakistan opened an investigation into the honor killings of five women “who tried to choose their own husbands,” reported media outlets today. The BBC reported,
According to reports from Balochistan, three women between 18-20 years of age from the Imrani tribe were abducted by tribesmen who had heard about their plans to marry without family consent. Two older women who tried to help the would-be brides were also kidnapped. The reports say the women were all shot, thrown into a ditch and then buried, even though they were still alive.
Six weeks after the death, however, no one had been arrested, despite claims of a cover-up. The Guardian reported, “According to several accounts, Balochistan government vehicles were used to abduct the girls, and the killing was overseen by a tribal chief who is the brother of a provincial minister from the ruling Pakistan People’s party.” The news agency cited statements by Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch, who asserted, “This is a heinous criminal offense…We have corroborated it and cross-corroborated it, but the second the police admit that it happened, it would trigger an investigation.” He added, that, “with a presidential election on September 6, one in which Balochistan’s provincial parliament would be strongly relied on to deliver votes, action that would antagonize the region’s politicians was highly unlikely.“
However, the issue was brought to the government’s attention when a female senator raised the case in the Parliament Friday. The BBC News reported that this was followed by, “two senators [who] caused uproar by suggesting that the killings were a matter of tribal tradition.” One of the lawmakers, Israrullah Zehri, an MP from Balochistan, asserted, “These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them.”
Despite their protests, the Senate passed a formal resolution on the deaths, stating, “This house condemns the brutal murder of five women in Balochistan’s Naseerabad district and calls for strong action to be taken against the culprits.” The resolution ultimately called upon the Senate’s human rights committee “to produce a comprehensive report on the incident in one month.” According to CNN, a provincial court official said Monday that “the police have been told to investigate the crime and that their work has already begun.”
Why are these developments significant? In Pakistan, (and other societies with strong tribal identities) the concept of honor has been heavily entrenched in the cultural psyche. In Honor: A History, author James Bowman cited the NY Times’ Nicolas Kristoff, who said, “On average, a woman is raped every two hours in Pakistan, and two women a day die in honor killings.” Although the United Nations Population Fund has approximated the number honor killings worldwide each year to be five thousand, the punishments we’ve seen occur in cases like in Balochistan [see above] or with the infamous Mukhtar Mai [the Pakistani woman who was gang-raped as part of honor revenge but spoke out and had her rapists charged and arrested] have occurred “in a cultural context where it made sense, at least to some people – just as it made sense to others to keep the matter quiet…” Bowman added,
…In honor cultures, a woman’s honor normally belongs to her husband or father, and the dishonor of any sexual contact outside of marriage, whether consensual or otherwise, falls upon him exactly alike, since it shows him up before the world as an incapable of either controlling or protecting her (pp. 18)…
Because such perceptions are so heavily embedded in [mainly] tribal cultures, changing them becomes an enormously difficult task. They cannot be countered by imposing Western viewpoints of gender rights and equality, because it does not translate well in this society. Change must instead come from within Pakistan. It must come from Pakistanis.
A recent article in the Washington Post noted, “Increasing numbers of Pakistani women are becoming aware of gender inequities, a trend emerging in many other parts of the developing world as the communications revolution brings cellphones, satellite television and the Internet to the poorest villages.” The aforementioned investigation into the Balochistan case, regardless of its outcome, is also significant. Moreover, the remarks by the Baloch senators defending the incident, (more so than even the incident itself) are notable because they sparked outrage among fellow lawmakers and rights organizations alike. The AP reported, “About 60 activists demonstrated outside the federal Parliament in Islamabad on Monday, shouting ‘Burying women alive is no honor!'” Mohammed Ibrahim, an MP from the Islamist political party, the Jamaat-e-Islaami, further emphasized, “We condemn this barbaric act…This is against Islam, against humanity and against civilized culture.”
Although Monday’s development may only be a small victory in light of the numerous honor crimes still occurring throughout Pakistan, it is nevertheless a baby step towards progress. That in itself is worthy of recognition.