November Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

Zaman, a resident of a squatter settlement in Peshawar, did not bother even to have a glimpse of his only daughter, Sara, born after four sons. Neither did he decide on a name, as the very future of the newborn girl seemed bleak, at least in the father’s mind.

On Friday afternoon, when men were thronging the mosques to offer prayers, Zaman entered the small courtyard of his house where his wife was nursing her newborn child. Pulling the child out of the mother’s lap, Zaman barged out of the wooden door, expressionless, without uttering a word.

Swiftly, he carried the huddled infant to a secluded area, away from people. Squatting on the ground, he frantically placed the newborn in his lap, while his huge coarse hands tried to get the perfect grip of a fragile neck that was still warm and soft. Aggressively, he squeezed the life out of his own daughter — a fragile, powerless soul, who could neither plead for her life nor struggle against the physical prowess of her father. Eventually, his strength triumphed over the silent pleas of a nameless child.

On returning home, without any sign of remorse, he placed the limp body back into the mother’s arms, declaring, “I was too ‘weak’ to protect her ‘honour’ for the rest of my life!”

The only sign of feeling expressed by him was when he ordered a tombstone for her tiny grave, with the name ‘Ayesha Bibi’ etched on it.

Zaman was powerful enough to take his four-day-old daughter’s life, but powerless in front of a giant named ‘honour’. He snatched from her the right to live, out of fear of not being able to live up to the high expectations of honour set by his people and society.

‘Honour’ and ‘ killing’ are contradictory terms, yet in a Pakhtun society they go hand in hand, complementing one another. The merciless killing of a girl in the name of ‘honour’ can actually make an individual ‘honourable’ in the eyes of society.

‘Honour’, according to rawaj (the set of rules practiced by Pakhtuns), knows no boundaries, age or class. Being born a Pakhtun is enough to enforce compliance with the rules and regulations stipulated by Pakhtunwali, according to which honour is to be protected at any cost. Numerous killings take place in the name of honour throughout the rural areas, but most of them go unreported as an honour killing is seen as a private concern.

Pakhtunwali, which is the code of conduct practiced by Pakhtuns, is predominantly based on preserving honour and conforming to the culture’s behavioural expectations. Although men are considered to be the custodians of honour, the burden of upholding it lies on a woman’s shoulders.

Practicing it could be so trying, that people prefer not to have daughters — they are perceived as the embodiment of the honour of their family that needs to be guarded and protected. The birth of a boy is welcomed in most rural areas as a Pashtu proverb goes, ‘Day haluk zairay khog eee dhroon eee kaanrey bootee pay khoshaala ee ‘ (The news of a boy’s birth is sweet and respectable, even stones and trees rejoice upon hearing it).

Bus Bibi (stop lady), Balanishta or Naurina, which is sometimes deliberately pronounced as ‘Noray-na’ (literally meaning, ‘No more girls’), are names sometimes given to Pakhtun girls by their families to symbolically ward off the birth of yet another girl.

While the birth of a boy is marked with gunshots, the birth of a daughter goes unmarked. No matter how tiny she is, she is perceived as the family’s sharam (honour) and purdah (shame) that needs to be guarded against any outside threat.

At the birth of a girl the parents receive greetings like ‘Khuday day sharam parda o satee’ (May God preserve your honour), ‘Sar toray mashay’ (May you never lose your veil or purdah) and ‘Naik bukhta day shee’ (May she grow up to be pious).

In the Mahmund tribe, two friends, Hashim and Sahibzada, made a pledge that when their children were born, and if one of them was a boy and the other a girl, they would be married to each other. After having a son, Hashim went to inquire about the sex of Sahibzada’s newborn. Having second thoughts about the pledge, Sahibzada denied the birth of his daughter, and said that he too had had a son. Suspecting that his friend had gone back on his jabba (word), Hashim went to the zaango (cradle) of the newborn to confirm Sahibzada’s statement. The moment he unwrapped the baby girl’s suzni (swaddling cloth), Sahibzada, considering it a shameful act, shot his friend, who, however, managed to survive. Later, the jirga gave a verdict against Hashim by stating that he had no right to touch or probe a female infant, even if she was just a week old.

Right from her birth a girl can conveniently be used as an instrument in building alliances or ending age-old animosities. As a child, she might be betrothed by her father to someone as a part of a move in family politics or as part of an exchange deal known as swarra.

As a child she enjoys freedom — but for a very brief span. Referred to as someone’s daughter, sister, wife or mother, she soon learns the art of modesty and endurance. Muffled by the code of honour, she is expected to be demure and retiring.

It is not easy to penetrate the high walls guarding the lives and honour of a Pakhtun woman, who remains inaccessible and obscure, living a culturally demanding life behind the four walls of her home.

Outside the walls of her home — unless it is for gham (sorrow) or khaadi (joy) occasions, or for her daily household chores such as washing clothes at a nearby stream, collecting water etc. — she has no status of her own. She is subject to someone else’s authority in order to gain acceptance.

Home, whether her father’s or her husband’s, is the place where her honour rests. The more out of sight she is of strangers, the more out of trouble she stays. As a Pashtu proverb says, ‘Khazay la , ya kor, ya gor’ (For a woman, either home or grave).

In a tribal society, the criterion for survival does not depend on a woman’s biological fitness, but solely on her morality, which truly assures her existence. A woman with a blemish-free character is the one who can live her life fearlessly in a tribal society.

As an old proverb goes, Day khazay chay poza pa makh na ee, no pa kando kay ba mordaree khoree. (One who does not have a ‘nose’ — honour — will die of misery in desolate places).

A woman’s honour is seen as a family or qom’s (community’s) honour, and she must control her behaviour at all times, as it is judged harshly by the community. The woman’s honour is, in fact, linked not just to her immediate family but to the whole clan or tribe. Only culturally appropriate behaviour assures success in a society where others are constantly interpreting one’s actions. This self-awareness and self-control continues throughout the life cycle of a woman. Even a small blemish on one’s code of honour can have an exaggerated effect.

Ideally, a woman is expected to be ajuza (helpless/powerless) in her behaviour. To quote a Pushtu proverb: Khaza kho ajuza daa (A woman is helpless/powerless).

Tore is an offence in which a woman or a man are either proven or are suspected of a sexual liaison or relationship, and even mere suspicion can lead to tragic consequences. ‘Honour’ and Pakhtu are seen as synonymous. Whoever fails to act according to the Pakhtun code of conduct is seen as not worthy of being called a Pakhtun. Tribal Pakhtuns accept no law but their own. According to the rawaj, seeing a woman speak to, or hearing of her association with a stranger, is enough to arouse a man’s passion and saritob (manhood).

Whether the existence of a liaison can be proved beyond doubt or not, the accused have to be killed in most cases.

Evidence of an illicit relationship or even flirtation is not required. Perceived violation and disrespect of rawaj is enough to invite dire consequences.

women-2-jun03In a tribal agency, most disputes are decided in accordance with rawaj (Pakhtun code of conduct). Although the civil administration can, in certain cases, intervene directly with the use of force, the role of the jirga (tribal assembly) remains undisputed.

In the case of ‘moral’ crimes, all matters are decided according to the rawaj by a group of elders of strong lineage or the spingiray (white-bearded), whose social status and experience entitles them to an honourable place in the council.

The tribes of Bajaur have their own degrees of punishment in a tore case. Some straight away kill the sinner, even for an unintentional mistake, whereas some are ready to acquit the accused, provided they atone in the form of a nanawatay (refuge/repentance), jora (reconciliation), naik or bakhana (forgiveness).

In the Utmankhel tribe, if a woman is accused of tore, not only she, but also all those who act as abettors are to be put to death. The number of individuals shot dead in a single tore case, could range upto six or seven individuals. For instance, if a woman elopes with a man and later due to certain reasons marries someone else, the second husband would also be considered an enemy.

Amongst the Mahmund tribe, despite serious consequences, tore cases are on the rise, one of the reasons being the unaffordable amount of sar paisa (bride price) which has gone up to 80,000 to 100,000 rupees, making it improbable for a lot of young men to find brides. In the Mahmund tribe, not only the wrongdoer, but his entire family have to leave their native land. Except for the accused persons, the rest of the members of their families may return one by one after paying a heavy fine. In Swat and Dir, swarra (the exchange of women) and naik (monetary fine) are both accepted in tore cases.

A woman accused of tore can rarely get away with it. As Bizarjana states, “Killing a girl is easy because she is like a kukra chargha (a hen sitting on eggs).” According to a tribal tradition, a woman accused of tore is to be shot by her father. Before being shot, a woman kneels down and asks for forgiveness by uttering the following words in a faltering voice, ‘Zama day salaam wee’ (a ‘salaam’ cum apology). The father is expected to carry out the execution in order to uphold his and his family’s honour.

In case he shows any sign of hesitation or mercy, the woman’s in-laws put an end to her life, as their honour is at stake too. The funeral is attended only by a handful of relatives, in order to deprive the deceased of respect and funerary rites. Nobody goes for laas niwa or condolence. In fact, the girl’s father is congratulated by everyone for having preserved his honour.

A girl who is accused of tore is deprived of mercy and forgiveness till the very end. The whole process of killing her mercilessly, sometimes publicly, is to set a precedent so that no one shows defiance when it comes to acting according to the code of Pakhtunwali. Depriving a woman of funerary rites is also symbolic. It is to show that even death does not put an end to the suffering of tore. As a curse, one can often hear people say, ‘May you die a death of tore.’

Amongst some tribes of Bajaur, reconciliation can take place if the tore issue concerns an unmarried girl. However, any moral issue, minor or major, regarding a married woman has to be dealt with sternly. If she is a matiza (one who has eloped), the woman would be hounded the world over, until her dead body is displayed, as proof that ‘honour’ was preserved. Unless she escapes and abandons her village, a married woman can rarely escape the fury of tore.

In Bajaur, if a malala (an unmarried girl) is teased by a stranger and the incident becomes known publicly, no one will marry her. There is a term, tekray agheestal, (snatching of veil) which men/boys carry out as revenge in order to symbolically make a girl ‘impure’ in the eyes of society. However, sharam or monetary compensation is sometimes accepted in moral offences such as insulting a woman, or not honouring the veil.

Although, the perpetrator after committing such offences might eventually get away with his head held high by giving away a goat or some money as compensation to the girl’s parent, the girl continues to experience social ostracism for a crime she had never committed.

Suspicion finds mercurial powers in tore. A woman must explain and prove the source of all her belongings. Anything that has not been given to her by her husband or her parents is suspect. She can be killed over a mere handkerchief or some fruit whose source cannot be satisfactorily explained. In order to emphasise the role played by suspicion, a story is often narrated. Not every family can afford a separate hujra (men’s section) in their house. Once, a guest was spending the night with a family in Barang Valley, in their single-room house, enjoying the hospitality showered upon him. In the morning, the host noticed a black louse creeping on the guest’s neck. After fabricating a story in his stirred-up mind, based on the groundless supposition that a black louse could only belong to a woman, he shot the guest and his wife.

In another incident, Naheeda Bibi of Kharkano was found guilty by her husband, of being in possession of a packet of dry fruit, which was suspected to be a gift from a paramour. Without hearing her side of the story, the husband shot her dead on the basis of mere suspicion. A famous Pushtu saying goes, Pa khaza, us, aao pa toora, sa itebaar dae? (How can one rely on a woman, a horse and a sword?)

Despite a verse from the Holy Quran that says, ‘Should any of your women commit to some sexual offence, collect evidence about them from four (persons) among yourselves,’ women are butchered by the husbands on the basis of suspicion alone and slaughtered over minor breaches of etiquette, in the name of ‘honour’ and ‘Pakhtunwali.’ A Pakhtun woman will always be judged from a Pakhtun perspective that is based on age-old cultural notions.

In the urban areas, some murders of women who had shown defiance to their cultural norms were conveniently camouflaged as ‘provoked murders,’ thereby justifying these as killings that were ‘deserved’ or ‘asked for’ by ‘women who were not in control.’

Judges pass lighter sentences where murders of women have been rationalised in this manner. Ironically, in most cases the murder is pre-planned and not at all sudden. However, there is not only a kind of complacence towards perpetrators of such crimes, they are, in fact, perceived as victims who at that particular moment, were ‘provoked’ or forced to resort to such an action.

Saz Mohammad Malik’s daughter Shazmin, mother of six, was emotionally traumatised by being reminded constantly by her husband of how much he abhorred her, and that his precious youth was being wasted on her. Weary of her presence in the house, he shot her dead during a domestic quarrel. It is a popular belief that if one is innocent, the face of the deceased glows — as did Shazmin, the villagers testify. She is still remembered by them as a shaheeda (martyr). Her husband, who later brought a nanawatay (apology) to her father’s house, stated that he shot her as he had become mad with rage during the quarrel. His apology was accepted by Shazmin’s father, as he had no other choice, belonging to a weak family.

Gulnaz, from Bajaur, was residing with her in-laws, as her husband was employed in Karachi. She wanted to visit her father’s house, but was denied permission by her brother-in-law. However, she continued to plead her case. Enraged, the brother-in-law emptied the bullets from his pistol into her frail body. The girl’s father protested against the atrocity but the jirga gave a verdict that in the absence of her husband, the brother-in-law was the master of the house. Thus, it was her primary duty to obey him. The murderer paid 3,000 rupees, a tin of cooking oil, a bag of wheat and a lamb as nanawatay and was ‘honourably acquitted.’

No matter how unbearable a woman’s marital life is, the word divorce remains taboo in the rural setting of the NWFP. A woman will repeatedly be maltreated by her husband in front of her children, who, bearing in mind the Quranic verse that, ‘Paradise lies underneath the feet of a mother,’ watch in desperation the desecration of this venerated creature of God. An option given by the Holy Quran is, ‘If a woman fears ill-treatment or desertion on the part of her husband, it shall be no offence for them to seek a mutual agreement, for agreement is best.’ However, the sole choice granted by the rawaj is endurance. Lifelong separation or even polygamy is seen as a practical substitute for divorce.

Scared of pighore (taunt), the parents accept an abandoned daughter with reluctance. In Bajaur, some women are left with no choice but to take refuge with some of the influential families and offer their services as marawaray (maid-servants, literally meaning ‘unhappy’) for the rest of their lives.

Zarmin belonged to a village called Manoo Derai. Her husband would mistreat her, but would not divorce her. Eventually, he claimed that he could no more put up with a mentally ill wife and sent her back to her father’s house. Living with her parents, she used to help with the household chores, which included fetching water from a nearby spring. A post of a certain security force overlooked the spring. The security guards of the post also used to fetch water from the same spring, but at a different time of the day. Once, Zarmin disappeared for almost 24 hours. Stories started circulating, linking Zarmin with the incharge of the security post. Finally, when Zarmin did come home she did not say a single word in reply to all the questioning that took place. The men of the family, asked the authorities to hand over the security guard to them. The guard was soon transferred to South Waziristan agency. However, Zarmin could not escape the fate in store for women in similar situations.

Villagers will tell anyone who might ask that a naked electric cable was wound around her body and she was given electric current shocks for half an hour. She pleaded with her brother to put an end to her agony, which he finally did. She was shot for a ‘sin,’ which till today no one knows for sure whether she had committed or not.

Since divorce is not common in the tribal areas, on numerous occasions a clever stratagem is employed. A man would simply shoot his wife dead and announce that she had a liaison with a certain person, who, in actuality, had to be eliminated. Since no proof is demanded in such cases and mere allegation suffices, the enemy or rival falls unawares into a trap.

For a girl or woman to choose a marriage partner for herself is not only seen as undesirable but also as an act that brings shame to the family. It is common for the male relatives to bring charges against daughters who have married or are intending to marry a partner of their choice.

Most of the women lingering in the jails of NWFP have been convicted because their family or parents have brought criminal charges of zina against them.

Samia Sarwar, daughter of Sarwar Mohmand, a prominent industrialist of NWFP, was killed in the name of honour at her lawyer’s office in Lahore. Samia’s family felt their honour was being threatened by her disobedience in seeking divorce from an abusive husband.

The blatant murder of Samia passed by like a swift wind, leaving the perpetrators untouched and guiltless of a grisly crime. A precedent had been set by the state, judiciary and civil society that ‘honour killings,’ would continue to remain above the law, human rights and religion.

In the dingy barracks of Peshawar jail sat Noreen, still unaccustomed to the hostile environment around her. Her parents filed an F.I.R against her under the Zina Ordinance as she had refused to marry the partner her family had chosen for her. She had expressed her desire to marry someone else instead.

Her disobedience has not only landed her behind bars but also shattered her trust in her own family members whom she always looked up to. She knows that if she steps out of jail, they would kill her for the defiance she has shown. To her, the soiled bars of the prison symbolise life whereas freedom for her could actually mean death.

The deputy superintendent further confirms, “Many girls/women convicted of zina, are killed by their own family members, once they leave the jail premises.”

Another girl, Shahida, from Matanee, refuses to step out of jail with her brothers because she knows that beyond the large iron doors of prison, the only thing that awaits her is death. Her husband, who mistreated her, refused to divorce her. She developed a liking for an Afghan boy. Once, while talking to him outside the door of her house, she saw her brothers and other male members of the family heading towards her with guns in their hands. She was forced to run away with the Afghan boy out of fear.

She and the Afghan boy have ended up in jail. However, the penalty does not end here. The brothers are trying their level best to secure her release, so that they can take her back and kill her in order to regain their lost honour.

The stigma associated with such crimes is, by itself, a heavy penalty. Most of the women prisoners, not having any legal awareness, are unable to provide surety. Mostly, girls/women who have been imprisoned at the instigation of their own family have no other choice but to ask the complainants for surety. Therefore, even if they are freed, and the family decides to spare them, they would continue to live a life of misery and social ostracisation.

The community or society at large act as partners in crime by standing by as spectators, and not protesting the fact that someone is setting a precedent that would encourage other potential ‘criminals of Pakhtunwali.’