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Keep quiet? I don't think so


We should all make a fuss about the women killed in Pakistan for the sake of 'honour' and 'tradition'

Cath Elliott,



Wednesday September 03 2008 11:00 BST

Article history

It's amazing the excuses some people will come out with. Take Pakistani politician Israr Ullah Zehri for example, who last week in Pakistan's senate tried to justify the so-called honour killings of five women by Baluch tribesmen by saying that: "These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them." Zehri allegedly went on to tell the stunned parliament that they could spare him their outrage, and that "We will not let anyone interfere with this." His message to another politician who tried to raise the subject was to "keep quiet".Keep quiet when five women have been beaten, shot, and then buried alive in a ditch? I don't think so.


It was back in July that the women were abducted at gunpoint from a house in the village of Baba Kot in Baluchistan province, driven to a remote area and then murdered. Their crime? They were about to leave for a civil court so that the three younger women, all teenagers between the ages of 16 and 18, could marry men they had chosen for themselves. The two older women accompanying them were apparently the mother of one, and the aunt of another.


According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, which launched an appeal calling for an investigation into the case early in August, the women had been in discussion for several days with tribal elders, seeking permission from them to marry. This permission had been denied, and when news of the plan to ignore the elders and go ahead with their weddings leaked out, the tribesmen decided to deal with these uppity women in their own unique "traditional" way.


So a group of men turned up at the house, dragged the women off at gunpoint, and drove them away in a government car. When they arrived at their destination the three younger women were lined up, beaten, and shot. Then, while they were still alive, they were thrown into a ditch and buried. The two older women were forced to witness this outrage, and when they couldn't manage to hold their silence any longer they too were shot and buried alive.


And Israr Ullah Zehri thinks we should all keep quiet about it, don't interfere, and just accept that this kind of barbarity is a tribal tradition. No doubt he'll be expecting us to "respect" this tradition next: after all, the deputy chairman of the senate, Jan Jamali does. Jamali refused to pass comment when the subject was being discussed in parliament, alleging that as it was "part of Baluch traditions" he couldn't say anything about it because one tribe doesn't comment on the actions of another.


This attitude doesn't seem to be unusual in Pakistan. In The Dark Side of Honour (pdf) Rabia Ali writes:


In the perpetuation of honour killing as custom and practice, the role of the local waderos or sardars (tribal chiefs or feudal lords, usually both) cannot be underestimated. For the most part, the sardars support the custom as an essential constituent of their tradition. Many of these gentlemen are well-educated and well-travelled; many sit in the country's parliament (when it is not 'suspended') as representatives of the people and serve in the government as cabinet ministers and advisers; they are all aware that the world beyond their fiefdoms has changed in the last hundred years. And they are not interested in changing the almost medieval world they themselves inhabit.


Thankfully this time the two men were alone in their view and, nearly two months after the crime, the Pakistani parliament has announced a high-level police enquiry into the "incident".


But I can't help wondering what would have happened if the Asian Human Rights Commission hadn't got hold of the story and launched an online campaign. Would this atrocity ever have been investigated? Or would these women's brutal murders simply have been ignored and passed over like so many thousands of others that have been commissioned in the name of honour?


According to the UN, over 5000 women and girls are killed every year for failing to live up to cultural and familial expectations of female behaviour, and some estimate that up to 25% of these murders happen in Pakistan. And it's not just women who are victims of the outdated patriarchal notions of ownership and control that lie behind these so-called honour killings. In May for example, 22-year-old Jasbir Singh was murdered along with his partner Sunita Devi, this time in India, after her family found out that she was pregnant. The couple were living together at the time, but as they were both from the same village they were regarded by their caste as brother and sister and thus forbidden from entering into relations with one another. Their strangled bodies were later laid out for display outside Devi's parent's house, while villagers boasted of the pride they felt in maintaining the community's honour. The double murder "was the act of real men" according to one of Devi's cousins.


But whatever the Balla villagers or Israr Ullah Zehri would have us believe, there is no cultural, religious or moral justification for these crimes: killing in the name of honour is quite simply an obscenity. Zehri thinks people should "stop making such a fuss about it". I think anyone with any sense of human decency should make as much fuss about it as they possibly can.



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