Violence Against Women: The High Price of Women's Honor in PakistanSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Try measuring the scale of excesses and crime against women in Pakistan, and you are sure to emerge more benumbed than bewildered. Early this year, Zainab Noor, a young rural woman, was brutalized by her husband in a manner that shocked people across Pakistan and the world. Since he was an imam in a mosque, the crime acquired a particularly sharp dimension. Doctors treating Zainab Noor said her husband subjected her to vaginal electrocution, a new term in the lexicon of criminology. What did she do to be thus punished? It turned out that she wanted to escape a life of endless physical abuse, so her husband tied her to a bed and shoved a metal wire with 220 voltage in her. Miraculously, she survived.
Samia Imran, another young Pakistani woman, though spared this particular bestiality, did not survive. In 1999, she was shot in the head at her lawyer‘s office. She had sought a divorce from her husband against her family‘s wishes. The fact that her husband was a drug addict was perhaps not reason enough for her to seek a life of her own. She was only 27. The same year a man killed his daughter and her lover after finding them in a “compromising situation,” the euphemism that the Pakistani media uses when they wish to describe a sexual act. The man initially received a life sentence, but was subsequently acquitted by an appeals court. In his verdict, a high court judge observed: “A father can't see his daughter in such a situation.”
The spurt in crimes against women has shocked liberal Pakistanis. The statistics of a leading human rights organization show that, on average nine women are killed daily across the country in what are termed “honor crimes.” The ratio is higher in the northern tribal areas, with cultural affinity to Afghan tribal practices. Not only that, two women are raped every hour. The suicide rate among women is spiking alarmingly. Last year close to 500 women committed suicide. This is just one indicator of the depression characterizing the lives of women.
Pakistani imposes upon women a virtual textbook of morals. A woman is born to obey, not question. Her success lies in practicing an “exemplary life.” She is subservient to men, tradition, and honor. Women in Pakistan are encouraged to pursue domestic roles. Procreation and docility are the basic traits of any “good woman.” The family determines the course of her life, ultimately her destiny. Therefore matters of education, marriage and even reproductive rights are often determined on her part by those around her—parents, husband, etc. Those who object to these edicts are considered rebellious, unruly and often morally wrong. A streak of independence prompts chastisement and punishment from the family or system. This involves more often than not violence, ostracization and at times, murder. The punitive action is aimed at teaching women a lesson and discourages the future generation from challenging conformity.
Women in Pakistan are not considered part of the body-politick. Talking about their grievances can bring many private matters in public and shame to the family. They are discouraged from participating in any decision-making exercise. The upcoming generation of literate Pakistani urban women may refute this claim and state that they are outnumbering men in grabbing better positions in college and school education. In large cities they are creating more competition for their male peers. This is true of a strong female class emerging in the urban societies, which is challenging the patriarchal agenda and voicing its distaste for discriminatory actions against women. But the fight is long and their number is still far from the right critical mass. Lack of education is still a big hurdle in the way of women‘s freedom. Illiteracy among women is pervasive in rural areas, whereas the situation in urban areas of Pakistan could hardly be termed encouraging.
A growing gender gap in male and female population—94 women for every 100 men—speaks of the gender discrimination that women face in areas of health and education. The economic disparity between genders does little to improve their situation. A male child is still preferred as an economic force and thus preserved and reared in a better fashion. There are no support mechanisms to improve life for the female populace. Women who work are largely employed informally. In this vast agrarian country they work as hard as men in the fields, taking care of the livestock and household. Their contribution, however, is not acknowledged by the feudal lords who control the land. These feudal acknowledge only the services of men, who collect on behalf of their family. Even in the cities women are encouraged to work informally, which does not bring them any confidence or self-esteem. Only two percent of Pakistani women are formally employed in the country.
Economic dependence often results in ignorance of their own well being. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, HRCP, identified a bizarre case recently. A man in the northern tribal area chose to get health services for his male child but left his wife unaided saying, “she is always sick.”
This ignorance is at odds with the awareness and enlightenment that women generally showed in the first three decades of Pakistani history. Their leaders were liberal and, more importantly, political leadership in the country at the time was driven by ideals of democracy and tolerance. In short, religious extremism was not in evidence as yet. The educated classes followed a British education model and inspired the younger generation with their intellect and courage. Women born in the 50s became educators, engineers, artists, pilots and players. These women hated being docile and meek.
Given the stranglehold of conservative feudal lords on the rural areas, we run into more and more violations of human rights, especially with respect to women. Women‘s desires and instincts are suppressed to keep money and property within the family. Hence marriage to a younger cousin is a normal thing for a woman from a feudal family. This tradition makes a mockery of religion and tradition. On the other hand, vendetta is an ongoing theme of feudal life in Pakistan and can impact two or three generations. “Honor killing” is also another perplexing phenomenon. It is resorted to as a pretext for liquidating one‘s enemies. Some feudal lords have been known to kill their opponents in the name of “honor killing.” They would argue before the court that since the victim had an illicit relationship with one of their women, the family honor had to be retrieved by avenging the insult. It would not be too far-fetched to actually see such men kill their own women to prove their point. A woman‘s honor and dignity are tied to that of the men in the family, i.e., husband, father, son and brother. A crime of passion often goes unpunished, and courts, would let the criminals out with minimal punishment.
Laws that govern rape cases have invited both domestic and international censure. Proving rape is mostly a woman‘s responsibility. The Sharia laws introduced in 1979 require the presence of four witnesses to an act of rape or adultery before the crime can be established. This law obliterates the distinction between adultery and rape, criminalizing a private offense (adultery) while, in effect, making rape a private matter in which the burden of proof lies on the victim. Close to 50 percent of female prison inmates in Pakistan are charged under adultery for rapes they cannot prove. The words for rape in Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, (ismat dari or izzat lutna)can be translated as “robbed of dignity.” Victims of rape, therefore, are not seen as victims but ones deprived of their honor. Lack of witnesses and medical examination in proper period of time make these women culprits of adultery; a shame that few families are prepared to bear. The backlog of cases in the courts makes speedy process almost impossible, as women languish in jails for years before their case can be decided.
Many see honor crimes as a consequence of efforts to impose a puritan version of Islam. This discourages the feeble-hearted from mounting a spirited campaign against them. The perception is that in going against these crimes one will confront religion. Political leaders have done little to confront these laws despite pressure from human rights groups and the victims. Clearly, women‘s emancipation is not a popular theme as yet. It was profoundly frustrating to see Ms. Bhutto, Pakistan‘s twice-elected prime minister, disregard the need for reforms aimed at the emancipation of women in Pakistan. It was dispiriting to find Pakistan‘s charismatic woman prime minister marrying a feudal lord, thereby reinforcing the stereotypes and an entrenched obscurantist class.
Can Pakistan once again become a place where women may live a life of equality and freedom? As things stand, the low status of women is closely linked with the ascendant religious right. How the on-going struggle between the liberal elements and extremist groups shapes up in the next couple of months will largely determine women's fate. Women are waiting to see whether the Musharraf government will fulfill its promise to increase the number of women's representatives in the assembly to an impressive 33 percent. Five hundred women are serving as lawyers in the city of Lahore alone. But no woman has been made a judge since 1994. The fight for the gender equality is about to take on a new urgency. Should Pakistan regress further into medievalism, blood-chilling stories of Zainab Noor and Saima will become commonplace happenings.
Ameera Javeria, a journalist from Pakistan has focused extensively on human rights and crimes against women in her writings. She worked for The Frontier Post and, recently, The Friday Times, front-ranking publications in Pakistan. She is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender currently working on her book about crimes against women in Pakistan.