Human Rights

MURDERED FOR LOVE

Treated like property, Pakistani women fight futilely against ‘honour crimes’

ADNAN R. KHAN May 23 2005
Human Rights

MURDERED FOR LOVE

Treated like property, Pakistani women fight futilely against ‘honour crimes’

ADNAN R. KHAN May 23 2005

MURDERED FOR LOVE

Human Rights

Treated like property, Pakistani women fight futilely against ‘honour crimes’

ADNAN R. KHAN

THERE IS NO ESCAPE. That’s the lesson Shazia Mungi has learned in her two years on the run from her previous life in Sindh, Pakistan’s anachronistic southern province, where ruling feudal lords still refer to their indentured farmers as peasants and women are little more than property. “My life is over,” says the 16-year-old Shazia, eight months pregnant and on the verge of collapse. The hopelessness in her words is disconcerting, given the strength of character that has brought her this far, farther than most woman in

her situation. She is, after all, still alive—no small feat for a girl who has defied centuriesold customs and challenged the very fabric of her male-dominated society.

And survived, with the man she loves still at her side and a new life growing inside her. Shazia and her husband, 18-year-old Ehsan, made a fatal mistake two years ago: they fell in love, and in Sindh love stories often end in tragedy. Their life on the run began

with a secret encounter eight months into their clandestine relationship. Shazia was desperate—she had run away from her family’s home after her father announced she was to be sold to a man 10 years her senior and a known criminal.

“He was a savage,” says Shazia,

14 at the time and dreaming of becoming a doctor. “I knew I could never marry him. I’d rather

Ehsan and Shazia, on the run and expecting: they made one huge mistake

kill myself.” When she reached Ehsan, she gave him an ultimatum: marry her or she would jump in the Indus River.

Two hours later they were husband and wife. Four hours after that they were running for their lives from Shazia’s father, spirited away by Ehsan’s family to a safe house in another village. Ehsan’s father, a contractor working with the local government, had cursed and screamed when his son called to ask for help, railed against his impudence, denounced him for the damage he had done to the family honour, and contemplated leaving the young lovers to their fate. But in the end, he acquiesced. “He is my son,” says Abdul Ghafoor, 43. “What could I do?”

The alternative was almost certainly death for Shazia. Upper Sindh, the region of Pakistan she and Ehsan call home, is the honour crime capital of the country, with the highest rates of murder, rape, acid burning, kidnapping and enslavement of women. It is dominated by patriarchal traditions dating back thousands of years, and remains for all intents and purposes a prison for women, where they are bartered and sold, traded and murdered. In one high-profile honour crime that horrified the world, Mukhtar Mai was gang-raped in June 2002 by a group of men from her village on the orders of tribal elders—because her brother allegedly had an illicit affair with an older woman from another tribe (that story had, in fact, been concocted to cover up the boy’s rape by three men from that tribe).

But thousands of cases go unreported, and underscore the truly insidious side of honour killings in Pakistan: they’re big business. “It has become the dominant industry in Sindh,” says Shabbeer Shar, a lawyer at the Sindh High Court who has fought for the past 15 years to protect threatened women. Sometimes as much as 500,000 rupees ($10,000) may change hands, he says—“a significant amount for poor, landless farmers. It’s become commercialized.” The driving force behind this murder-forprofit business are the landowners who rule their domain with iron fists. The scam is simple: in Sindhi culture, disputes are settled through a tribal meeting called a faisla. It is presided over by a feudal lord who listens to arguments from both parties before announcing his decision, which is irrevocable. Typically, a faisla involving an honour crime goes something like this: a man and a woman have been declared karokari—“black man-black woman”—perhaps because they were seen walking together, or someone had a vendetta against one of them. The woman is quickly killed by her family, while the man usually escapes and goes into hiding. The woman’s family then demands compensation for her death (which, of course, they themselves carried out). In the vast majority of cases, the feudal lord fines the man’s family. He is forgiven and returns to the community fold, while the woman is buried in a special cemetery set aside for those deemed kari and never spoken of again. The feudal lord naturally gets a cut, up to 25 per cent. “So you see,”

says Shabbeer, “it’s in the feudals’ interests to keep the system going.”

In Shazia and Ehsan’s case, local lords have been pressuring Ehsan’s family to settle the issue in a faisla (the system was

THE driving force behind the murder-forprofit business are the feudal landowners who rule with iron fists

ruled illegal by the Sindh High Court in the spring of 2004, but that has had little effect). And abuse is so rampant that even the local police and judiciary have become involved. “The police show up at our house at least twice a week,” says Ehsan’s father, who has already spent two weeks in jail on a kidnapping charge filed by Shazia’s family. “They demand we turn over Shazia, but we refuse and have to pay a bribe.” So far, the family has managed to keep the authorities at bay, paying them more than 200,000 rupees over the past two years. But their resources are fast being depleted.

“THERE ARE no real options for women,” says Ambreen Nawaz, founder and director of Pirbhat, a grassroots NGO in the village of Shahdad Kot. “Women are the property of men. When a woman is declared kari, she becomes damaged goods; her family will dispose of her and then seek compensation.” Ambreen, who set up her NGO eight years ago when she was just 16, is frustrated by the lack of government action. “NGOs are so afraid of working in this environment that virtually nothing is being accomplished,” she says in her small office in a crumbling section of the village. Pirbhat, which means “dawn,” has been on the forefront of the fight against judicial and police corruption, regularly visiting local police stations to ensure cases are being properly investigated and offering legal services to women in need. The group’s office has been firebombed and defaced, and Ambreen’s life has been threatened, but she is determined to continue the fight. “Honour has very little to do with these despicable acts,” she says. “Honour is simply a cloak for what are essentially commercial squabbles between sex traders. The fact that the victims are daughters and sisters is meaningless: they are sexual property, period.”

Some human rights workers admit to a sense of hopelessness. “Frankly, I don’t know what to do,” says Tahira Syed, coordinator for the Program for the Advancement of Gender Equality, a women’s rights initiative headed by the Canadian International Development Agency. “The issue is so complex it needs a multi-pronged approach, but there simply isn’t the political will to do what’s needed.”

Most rights workers agree that what’s needed most in the short-term are shelters for women seeking safety, but no one is willing to risk the wrath of the feudals by setting them up. And the only governmentfunded shelters, the Dar ul Aman network (meaning “Place of Peace”), are currently embroiled in a scandal involving sexual abuse and human trafficking. The shelters themselves are little more than prisons: locked from the outside and devoid of any facilities. A group of six women who managed to “escape” from one Dar ul Aman in February told human rights groups chilling tales of sexual abuse and forced prostitution. But the shelters continue to function, with a government inquiry into the allegations against them going nowhere.

“The time has come to mm up the pressure on the Pakistani government,” says Tahira, who calls on the international community

to make honour killings a global issue. Western countries are directly affected by the practice, she argues: in Britain, an honour killing made headlines in 1999 when a woman was strangled to death by her mother and brother for having an extramarital relationship. And while the murder and dismemberment of five-year old Farah Khan in Toronto in December 1999 was not an honour crime per se, it had direct links to the culture of ownership of women in Pakistan. Her father, Muhammad Khan, currently serving a life sentence in Kingston Penitentiary for the gruesome slaying, believed the child was the illegitimate product of what Khan viewed as worthless property—his adulterous wife. The young girl was, in his mind, not even human.

For Shazia and Ehsan, dreams of emigrating to another country keep them going.

WHEN a woman is declared kari, she’s damaged goods; her family will dispose of her and seek compensation

But the paradox for asylum seekers is that they must already have escaped the country of persecution before they can apply for asylum. That, for a poor couple from the rural backwaters of Pakistan, is next to impossible. And the reality most women face in upper Sindh is living half-lives in a world restricted to four walls. Some of those things we take for granted, small pleasures like a sunset stroll or meeting a friend for coffee, are completely alien to them. Women like Shazia deserve even more respect for trying to break through such barriers. They are being exposed to a world their mothers and grandmothers could never have imagined: even in the poorest regions, through things like the Internet and satellite television, they see the world “out there,” although they still have no access to it. A1999 Amnesty International report, which found honour killings on the rise in Pakistan, partly attributes the increase to that psychological factor: women’s awareness is increasing, even as the system is still rigidly in place. More women are now able to dream of escape, and more are trying. Sadly, all too often they discover there is no way out. lî1!