Interview: Nafisa Shah
Your book on honour killings is currently under print. What aspects of this issue does the book cover?
My book is primarily a study of one particular customary practise of honour violence — karo kari — which is rampant in the northern districts of Sindh. The book deals with how modernity and a modern post-colonial state can create spaces for customary practices to reinvent themselves. There are many case studies of karo kari occurrences, and how they are handled within the law. I have also studied feuds over time, and many of these larger episodes of violence are also related directly or indirectly to the ideology of honour. Finally, I have looked at the institution of mediation in Upper Sindh, in which state institutions, civil society and politicians participate. Mediations occur inside the law, not outside it.
What, in your view, is the reason for the recent spike in honour killings in the urban areas?
The recent cases of burning of women and killing them for honour are not from the tribal borderlands of Pakistan, where they are known to occur as riwaj, pakhtunwali or Balochi mayar. They are taking place in the cities, among the labour, the working classes and even the middle class. My study also argues that reterritorialising and reinvention of cultural practices can and does occur but local contexts have to be understood. For instance, the case of hijab in Europe. Or karo kari killings in Upper Sindh, where they say they have travelled from Balochistan. We really need to go into the details of each case to see individual motivations behind this violence. Eventually, in most cases, honour acts as a mask for instrumental coldblooded violence.
How did your journey to become one of the leading voices against honour crimes begin?
As a journalist working with the monthly Newsline, I wrote a story many years ago, published in the January 1993 issue, on the practice of karo kari in Upper Sindh, a moral sanction through which men and women are accused for adultery and punished. In the local custom or riwaj, adulterous relations violate ghairat, part of the local honour value system, and ghairat must be avenged. This practice allowed the casting out of accused adulterers and even brutal killings on suspicion and accusation of adultery.
My story focused on this particular practice and investigated how the tribal system, which allowed fines to flow from the accused man to the accuser for honour damage, was used strategically by perpetrators, who after expelling their wives, or killing them, would be liable to be given a fine or a woman in compensation by the men they accused. This, I argued, encouraged accusations and provided an impetus to the practice of karo kari.
Since it was the first comprehensive story ever on the issue, it drew a big response. I continued my engagement with the subject matter even when I changed my field, first to academics and now politics. As an academic, I have made this the subject — of both my PhD and now my forthcoming book which is being published by Oxford University Press and Berghahn.
When I became District Nazim of Khairpur 15 years ago, I was able to experience first-hand, the local conflicts, particularly the disputes over marriages and resources and their link with karo kari. I engaged with the community, offered protection to women, and tried to bring warring tribes together after bloody feuds. I engaged with local ceremonies of peace-building. And as a bridge between the local norms and state responses to these norms, I realised that karo kari killings were as much a result of a cultural practice as they were about the state and legal responses that allowed these killings to go on with virtual impunity.
Now, as a parliamentarian, I am advocating and lobbying for legislation that would prevent mediations in murders on the pretext of honour.
What prompted you to write the Newsline story on honour killings?
To be honest, having lived in urban settings all my life, I was also unaware of this practice. A friend, who was an engineer and hailed from Jacobabad, told me about the practice of karo kari that, according to him, had become “a business” in his hometown.
This encouraged me to travel to Kashmore, which is the northern-most part of Upper Sindh, and part of the former tribal area. I visited Kashmore, where Chandar (my friend) was my host, and I interviewed women accused of being kari, tribal chiefs who mediated these accusations, and later also visited Darul Aman, to study the plight of runaway women — some of whom had escaped the clutches of death and were waiting out here to renegotiate their way back into the community.
Having been born and raised in a well-educated, rather liberal family, how did you realise that a problem as grave as honour killing existed in our society?
Belonging to a conservative Syed family from Upper Sindh allowed me to experience first-hand the subordinate position of women in our society, and perhaps that became the foundation of my feminist politics. I spent the first years of my life in our haveli in Khairpur Mirs where women observed strict purdah. Ours was the first generation of girls who went to school. Marriages were only allowed within the family, and when no men were available, women remained single and sometimes became ‘Bibi Sattis,’ teaching Quran to their nephews and nieces.
But our family, and even the haveli, has now moved on; many practices have been abandoned, and education is both encouraged and promoted. This is because my immediate family was the torch bearer of change, and my mother was the one who took the initiative of educating her girls. After her death, my father took up the challenge and being a political leader from a left and liberal party, he moved with the times, and ensured that we, as girls, continued to get the best and lived our lives as we wanted.
Many of my stories and my feminism was driven by this personalised awareness and experience of the subordinated status of women in our society. As a journalist, I explored, rediscovered and wrote about these cultural practices to create a greater awareness.
Apparently karo kari is the subject of your PhD thesis.
My thesis is not just about the practice (of karo kari), as it exists in its cultural form, but also explores how the state, the law, and the power elite are jointly implicated in the immunity that the family and kin enjoy in taking lives of men and women accused of damaging family honour. It is as much a critique of how a culture of honour serves as a mask for instrumental motives of violence as it is a critique of the laws — both colonial, for instance the Frontier Regulations, and post-colonial Islamic laws, especially the Qisas and Diyat laws, that have provided a formal space through which the killers are either acquitted or given lesser punishments.
The rate of conviction was around three percent of the total cases registered at the trial court stage, and of the disposed cases, it was six percent. But many of these convictions would probably lead to acquittals even after conviction — since compoundability of an offence can take place even after the conviction.
What is the reason behind the poor rate of conviction? What role do the Qisas and Diyat laws play in the accused’s acquittal?
According to the Qisas and Diyat provisions in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), the relatives of the victim, defined as wali, who are the inheritors, specifically, father, mother, son and daughter, are legally empowered to exact qisas, or waive punishment by badle sulh, compensation, or forgiving the offender. Most violence against women occurs within the family in Pakistan, and with the legal empowerment of the family you have a curious case of both the executioner and the judge within the same family. So if the son kills the daughter, the father compounds the offence. With so much legal discretion in the hands of the family, the eventual course is to forgive the culprit.
Primarily, the law mirrors the tribal jirgas. Mediations are allowed both by the law and the tribal system. With such resonance between the two systems, the state effectively recedes and allows private forms of mediation. It surprises me, then, when judges react against jirgas, as they are doing what the law indirectly stipulates.
The Anti-Honour Killings Bill, which is soon to be presented before the joint session of Parliament, is said to be a complete solution to the problem. Do you agree?
No, it is not a complete solution. But it is a step forward. The bill by Senator Sughra Imam proposes that the wali or inheritors will not be able to compound the murder if it is done on the pretext of honour. This is not an ideal solution, as you cannot empower the families to compound one kind of murder and let them get away with another. But it is still a beginning.
The other proposal is to include honour crimes in fisad fil arz, which covers those crimes that create a scare in the society which can be non-compoundable but this is dependent on the discretionary power of the judge. Again this is not ideal, as honour killings might be reported as suicides or accidental murders. The ideal solution is to do away with the provisions of Qisas and Diyat and restore the earlier provisions of laws of the body in the PPC, but ensure that the provision of grave and sudden provocation is repealed, which provided for a lesser punishment in the colonial PPC. Presently, it has already been replaced by the newer Islamic provisions.
Is the tradition of murdering women for marrying without their parent’s consent a recent trend?
According to custom, karo kari accusations are strictly for adultery, but now women who marry of their own accord or elope are also considered kari women. The phenomenon of runaway marriages must be understood in the context of Family Laws, where a woman’s consent is necessary for marriage. Over the years, women have used this law to their advantage, used the courts, where they have submitted affidavits of free will and have married men they wanted to, against the wishes of the family and kin, which brings them into confrontation with local norms. There is a renewed push from the community to combat these, both legally and through force. So when women run away, communities register cases of kidnapping and through that, many of these couples are brought back into the system. And there have been several cases, when women are returned forcibly and killed. However, not all women who contract civil marriages are killed. Most do marry and survive, although they and their spouses are expelled from the community.
Even the case of Qandeel Baloch is an unusual one. In theory, men and women who engage in adulterous relations or sexual relations outside marriage or are seen to do so are liable to death. This did not happen in Qandeel’s case, as she was not involved with any man as such. Qandeel Baloch was using the social media to communicate her message, which often used sexually charged expressions and forms. But the social messaging was not to provoke sex in society, nor even invite or tempt men towards relationships with her, but to take political positions and postures. For instance, encouraging Pakistan to win a match against India, or exposing a hypocritical cleric, or opposing the Valentine ban. In my view, her messages were greatly political, but because her method challenged social norms, and exposed the social hypocrisy — the social outrage, as a result, may have become a trigger for her brother to act as the executioner. However, since there are no details of what motivated her brother to silence her, it would be difficult to draw a conclusion.
According to some researches, women are not only killed over adultery but to seize their part of the inheritance as well. What are the findings of your research?
I have shown in my research that there are many other conflicts over resources, marriages, and power struggles that may lead to accusations of karo kari. So communities or family members may use these allegations as a mask to settle scores. This may include fights over property as well.
What steps need to be taken to deal with the abominable practice of honour killings?
The first is to ensure equal rights for women in the social, economic and political spheres.
The second is to provide mechanisms for protection of women, independent of their husbands and families. So state shelters, anti-domestic violence legislation, social security for single women and rights for divorced women must be provided. And finally, the state and society must jointly resolve that there should be no tolerance for violence against women in any form.
All these require changes in laws, and an effective law enforcement system. Repeal of Qisas and Diyat provisions, and reforming the criminal justice system are foremost in any law reform. Anti-domestic violence legislation has been enacted in three out of the four provinces, but its implementation is still an issue. So as you see, there is a long road ahead, and much work to do.