The Many Faces of Honour
Bibi, these days everyone is trying to commit suicide and girls have nothing to do but marry for love,” complained some of my village women recently. Speaking with them, I found that the reasons for suicide attempts were a rich mix — from poverty to dejection in love. It had become an everyday occurrence to hear about someone drinking pesticides or similar poisons readily available in agricultural areas. This trend is not limited to my village in South Punjab, but one I heard repeatedly in upper Sindh, where lawyers talked about the generosity with which judges allowed court marriages. Yet, we don’t hear of a proportionate increase in honour killings. Indeed, such brutal murders were not a known historic phenomenon in South Punjab. Women have eloped and settled or even returned home but with no lethal repercussions. Of course, there is the use of abusive language and beating up but no killing. So, I was surprised to hear about ‘honour’ in the context of Qandeel Baloch and her brutal murder by her brother. I wondered if the investigation should stop there and take the drug addict brother’s words as the only truth.
Qandeel Baloch came from a lower-income household in DG Khan where the concept of honour emanates from the saeen, the sardar or the ‘gooda,’ as the master is referred to in the local Seraiki dialect. The bulk of South Punjab, especially the southwest, has large land ownership that sanctifies a feudal culture. In fact, the region of southern Punjab is where large land ownerships and the associated culture are found, though far less than what we can observe in Sindh. In such societies the division between the ruler and the ruled or the elite and the have-nots is very clear. In most cases, the elite stem from a combination of political, economic and spiritual/religious power. Despite that, over the years a new class of capitalists has emerged in this region and a new religious narrative is gaining popularity. Yet the traditional power paradigm largely remains the same. The gooda is often the pir and the people’s representative in the Parliament.
I am reminded of the reaction from the Rabbani Khar family to a piece I did in which I had talked about the maltreatment of a few local people, including some educated youngsters, by Hina Rabbani Khar’s father. It was a punishment for contacting the minister for help. Her father was angry and was being protective of his daughter’s honour — how could local nobodies try to speak to her directly — and had these men beaten up. The reaction to my piece was a twitter message with a picture of male genitalia. This was clearly meant as a threat, to intellectually and visually violate my honour. Sadly, twitter didn’t take any action despite my reporting the message.
But the more important point is that the concept of honour in this region has been historically and traditionally quite different, especially when it comes to revenge and bloodletting. In such feudal societies, honour of women who go and work in his household is often violated by the sardar or the gooda. An understated joke in many of these households is that housemaids are seen by the sardars as fit for sexual experimentation, particularly by those entering adolescence. Are the male members of her family not aware of the risk? Most likely they are and will ignore it and prefer to shut their eyes to this inconvenient truth. Sadly, poverty acquires its own norms and logic. Equally damning is the promiscuity of the elite households.
Honour then becomes an opportunity that will sometimes get willingly exploited, and at other times, without the woman’s will and through the use of force. Killing only comes with violation of some other code that relates to social power rather than social norms. Unlike the housemaid, who may have less of a say in an act of socially perceived dishonour, there are others from lower-income households who would use themselves to gain access to resources from either men of their own class or relatively higher classes. The sight of men sitting on charpoys or benches smoking hukka or beeri while the women work hard is not a rare one in either South Punjab or Sindh. When she brings in extra cash or goods the man/men of the house often accept it. This is an act of not wanting to know troubling details while keeping the sense of honour intact in the mind.
This is the class of men that Qandeel Baloch’s brother belonged to. He had turned into a drug addict, a habit he fulfilled by getting or perhaps forcing money out from his sister. In this respect, he was one of those average young men in South Punjab who are caught between drug addiction, puritanical religious trends and nothingness.
The author, Daniyal Mueenuddin, tells tales of rich/feudal households in South Punjab, where he comes from, in his anthology of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. To someone unfamiliar with the area, this book gives a sense of how the concept of honour works there. The stories challenge the linear, orderly and puritanical concept of how honour is perceived. For instance, in one story, a maid, Saleema, who has an abusive drug addict husband finds a lover in Rafik, the old driver of the landlord-cum-bureaucrat’s house where she works. Her heart breaks when Rafiq finally abandons her to rejoin his old wife. This story is typical of south Punjab which offers a complex maze of the view of honour and dishonour. Saleema’s honour is almost like a commodity that can be disposed off at will. But she doesn’t have agency and when Rafik abandons her she loses all emotional power, turning into an addict and beggar. The fictional Saleema’s death is conceptually not very different from the tragedy of Qandeel Baloch, who thought she was trying to empower herself but became a victim of a warped sense of honour in society.
The fruits of globalisation in the form of greater access to visual images of the world and its economic power are present in the electronic media but the reality of very little socio-economic opportunities does not bode well for men of this region. A subject worth greater analysis is the issue of rising drug addiction in South Punjab, especially injected drugs which may also mean a higher incidence of HIV. Also, as stated by a senior police official in a South Punjab district, the issue of increased suicide in the area is hardly talked about.
So what are the chances that Baloch’s brother was not necessarily motivated by a sense of violated honour at watching his sister in a cosy posture with Maulvi Qavi, exposing his hypocrisy? Interestingly, in one of his statements he mentioned not taking too well to his sister’s attitude towards the mullah. Her sexually provocative music numbers on YouTube certainly did not provoke him. After all, wasn’t this how she brought money home? I wouldn’t be surprised if after a thorough investigation the police were to discover that someone intentionally built up his anger and encouraged him into killing her.
The debate about honour killing is as warped as its entire concept, particularly in these societies. Men like Maulvi Qavi, who also comes from South Punjab like many of his ilk, are as shameless as they consider the women they engage with and use for pleasure to be. People like Qavi are the emerging feudal who now have more money and credibility due to their position in state religious institutions, and through the electronic media. Men of his kind will also be seen watching provocative dances of women in the commercial theatres found in every city and town in the Punjab. Interestingly, the smaller the town the more profitable the venture, as resourceful men sitting in the audience use the opportunity to pickup women not just for a one-night stand but for a longer relationship which is beneficial for the theatre company. These rich men then finance the company and its shows. The concept of honour and its perception is therefore not as linear as we consider it to be. As mentioned earlier, women have eloped and returned and not been killed. It is also worth noting that despite the growing reference to South Punjab as a hub of Deobandi terrorism and despite the rising number of madrassas, there is very little knowledge about the lifestyle of the early Muslims. There are always far greater numbers of people who do not understand religion or even know how to pray.
Equally wrong is the sense that honour killings occur a dime-a-dozen or that they are connected with people’s religious instincts. It is a region with a largely feudal culture in which a woman’s honour is defined by her relationship with power and opportunity. She is seen as much of a tool as the man/men used to kill her whenever there is the need to dispose of her. Qandeel’s sin, hence, was not how she sought to seek opportunities to popularise herself on social media, but challenging a powerful mullah and, through him, the concept of male-feudal-authoritarian power. All she tried to do was seek self-empowerment and opportunities both financially and socially. Perhaps she thought no one would ever notice once she became a celebrity and a rich woman.
May Qandeel rest in peace along with all the women who became victims due to the folly of thinking they could beat this system of power and fake honour.
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter