Yet another murder

On May 27 Farzana Parveen was beaten to death in broad daylight as she was about to enter the gate of the heavily guarded Lahore High Court. She had come to challenge a case of abduction filed by her father against her husband. Her father and brothers batter her with bricks and police and security personnel posted near the court failed to intervene before it was too late.

The chain of events behind each murder is unique. The circumstances of Farzana’s murder killed on her way to seek legal assistance bring to mind the assassination of Samina Sarwar fifteen years ago.

Samina had tried in vain to get support from her family to break up from her abusive husband. She was threatened on life by her family but to meet her mother for a last discussion before bringing her case to court. Her mother, Sultana, however, arrived together with a male who shot her point blank on the 6th April 1999 in the office of the lawyer where she had come to seek legal help to divorce.

The BBC broadcast documentary “Licence to kill” made Samina an icon for global campaigns against honour killings. There was no official condemnation from the political leaders but the pressure brought on the Pakistani government result in the first official acknowledgement of honour killings as a national problem.

The United Populations Fund estimated in 2000 that approximately 5000 women fall victims to honour killings worldwide. Pakistan a country of 180 million people is not the only state where honour-killings occur, but has the disgrace to be quoted as the country with unvarying high numbers of this crime where the murderers have an easy escape.

General Musharraf who took power in October 1999 promised executive action against honour killings in his address to the Convention on Human Rights and Dignity and ordered the police to register First Information Reports (FIR) on all ‘honour’ crimes brought to their notice.  The overwhelming majority of victims are women but as the local terms show the murder of a ‘black’ man (Karo) or a ‘black’ woman (Kari) men may also be targeted.

Five years later Musharraf signed a special law that defines against honour killings as “an offence committed in the name of honour” (Ghairat) and directed the police to investigate and punished Honour Killings as premeditated murder (Qatl-i-Amd).

Pakistan has oscillated from dictatorship to democracy and back again several times since independence and by an ironic accident several important laws protecting women’s rights have been passed as presidential Ordinances by Generals turned Presidents. Women’s legal rights and protection in marriage were enhanced when General Ayub Khan (1958- 1968)  passed The Muslim Family Law ordinance (MFLO) in 1961. The MFLO strengthened adult women’s right to enter marriage and restricted the male prerogative to unilateral divorce. The third military dictator Zia Ul-Haq (1977-1988) ushered in so–called Islamising of legal system, leaving a misogynist legacy on the interpretation of women’s rights. The Woman protection bill passed in 2006 sought to remedy the gender-injustice caused by these laws.

Murder is of course already a crime under the Pakistan Penal Code. Female activists and lawyers critiqued the law for adding to a bewildering patchwork that distorts lines of legal responsibility creating loopholes and inertia in the judiciary. Laws given by the parliament are parallel and interpreted according to intervention from religious experts (Ulema), and presidential ordinances.

The police received an average of 500 First Information Report (FIR) about honour killings per year, the first five years after the new law. The Pakistan human rights commission and women activists basing their counts on reports in the local media counted 1000 killings per year. More than 51 per cent of the cases investigated found that female victims were killed by their fathers, brothers or uncles.  The number of honour killings in 2013 was 869 according to the Pakistan Human Rights commission.

The National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2012 is the last addition to the growing body of legislation aimed at protecting and empowering women. All these laws will, however, be a toothless mechanism if the state is negligent in implementation and administration. The judicial inquiries about the murder of Farzana are not concluded but the circumstances at the scene of the crime repeat a pattern where women claim their rights under national law, lacking patriarchal authorization – do so at the risk of her life.

Sharif was prime minister at the time of the assassination of Samia. The government he headed failed to agree on a statement condemning the killing. Expecting the Sharif government to bring about major changes in the ingrained patriarchal importance given family honour in one year is unrealistic. However, one year is certainly enough to move deliberation on how to safeguard women rights according to national law to the top of the agenda in the national and provincial legislative assemblies. The litmus test for the  democratic transition is to move ahead  on promises of gender justice, instead of reiterating  the situation described in the book published nearly thirty years ago Women of Pakistan: Two steps forward, one step back.