By Rafia Zakaria
The road leading to the Charprote Valley in Gilgit-Baltstan is narrow and winding, often only wide enough for a single vehicle. Boulders and rocks threaten to roll down and the threat of a sudden avalanche looms large. Fresh streams, a startling blue from the glacial silt of even higher altitudes, flow down below. Viewed from above, the valley is stunning, a picture of paradise complete with pine-scented air and the muted light of cold lands.
Tragedy, it would seem, would be far away from such a magical place but, as in much of Pakistan, the way things look is not always the way they are. In the last week of March, in the village of Charprote in the Nagar District, a young woman, only 23, was killed. The assailant was none other than her cousin, a man by the name of Iran Ali. According to local reports, the woman had given birth to a child a few weeks earlier. After killing the woman, Iran Ali allegedly took the baby into the forest and killed it too.
According to the Superintendent of Police in Gilgit, the murder was an honour crime and several family members knew that the woman and child would be killed. A case has been registered against the murderer, but as in many such cases, it is unknown whether it will ever result in justice. And even justice, of course, will not bring the lives already taken.
The entire story, sad as it is, is horribly routine in Pakistan, where women and sometimes men are routinely killed in the name of honor. Sometimes, as in the case of actress Qandeel Baloch, there is outcry and outrage; in others there is not even that. This particular case was reported only in the local press; the woman’s name was never mentioned. Anonymous and undervalued in life, she was also unnamed in death.
What continues are the killings themselves, one or two or three, occurring nearly every week without fail. Just weeks before the killing in Gilgit, a woman named Hayatan (which, ironically, means life) was killed in Sheikhupura in Sindh province.
A mother of three, Hayatan was shot by her husband, who suspected that she was having an illicit relationship with another man. That man was also shot dead by the perpetrator, who then absconded and has not yet been caught. Around the same time as this, in Badin Sindh, another woman, a mother of 10, was axed to death by her husband. After he killed her, he put her body in a sack and buried it in a shallow grave.
It is not that the government has not tried. The Anti-Honour Killing Bill passed in October 2016 tried to plug in the loopholes that would prevent perpetrators of honor killings from being pardoned by their families (who had often supported the murder itself). The law stated that the perpetrator would face the death penalty for honor crimes. However, the law as passed still fails to take into account two things: First, perpetrators and their families may insist that the murder took place not owing to honor issues but because of some other reason, hence evading the death penalty and the non-pardon provision; family members can still pardon the crime without the perpetrator suffering any consequences. Second, the law does not provide for the fact that special efforts must be made and resources allotted for honor crime investigations, where proof of motive is crucial, as opposed to other murder cases where finding the perpetrator is often the main goal. Because this is not what is currently done, there is little proof of motive and murderers can, say, make up a motive with nothing to do with honor and get pardoned by their families. Such weaknesses leave the verdicts, even when they do punish the murderer, open to being overturned on appeal for evidentiary failures. Pakistani women deserve better than this. They deserve better than being murdered by their cousins and axed to death by their husbands, better than being stuffed into a sack and thrown out. Culture and social mores must sometimes be transformed not simply by passing laws, but also by enforcing them.
As Pakistan’s various political parties vie for votes, maybe some of them can consider making a commitment to Pakistani women, to fixing the loopholes that allow honor murderers to get away.
(The author Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” and “Veil.” She writes regularly for The Guardian, the Boston Review, the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. Twitter: @rafiazakaria. Article courtesy Arab News.)
By Rafia Zakaria