Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

5,000 women a year are still being killed in the name of ‘honour’

Members of civil society and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan hold placards during a protest in Islamabad

'There's no honour in killing.' Human rights campaigners hold up placards in Islamabad Image: REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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She was Pakistan’s first social media celebrity, the country’s answer to Kim Kardashian. Bold, outspoken and controversial, Qandeel Baloch challenged the idea that a woman’s role was to marry a man of her family’s choosing and be an obedient wife. In doing so, she called into question archaic but deeply ingrained social norms.

For that she was punished. Last week, Baloch’s brother drugged and strangled her, in what he would later describe as an “honour” killing. “Girls are born only to stay at home and follow tradition, but my sister never did that,” he told journalists after the murder. “I am proud of what I did.”

 “Masculinity, so fragile, a woman only needs to breathe to hurt it.” An image depicting Qandeel Baloch
“Masculinity, so fragile, a woman only needs to breathe to hurt it.” An image depicting Qandeel Baloch

Her death led to protests across Pakistan, made international headlines, and once again brought attention to a practice that advocacy groups estimate claims 5,000 women’s lives each year. How, in 2016, are women still being murdered for “offences” as innocuous as falling in love with the wrong person?

A community affair

It’s hard for most people to comprehend how someone could ever be driven to murder their own daughter, sister, niece or cousin simply to restore what they consider to be their family honour. To understand, you need to look to the wider community in which these families live, says Deeyah Khan, whose 2012 documentary on the issue, Banaz: A Love Story, received an Emmy.

“The ideas around honour go beyond any individual family: they are expressed by the whole community. Policing the behaviour of girls and young women is central to the maintenance of order and hierarchy within these extremely patriarchal communities, and those families that are seen to be failing in this duty face extraordinary pressures. They can be excluded, even harassed, until they take some kind of step to restore their ‘honour’.”


It’s this communal aspect that has made the crime so hard to root out, points out Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. A member of the Forum’s Young Global Leaders community, she won an Oscar in 2015 for A Girl in the River, which told the story of Saba Qaiser, whose father attempted to kill her.

“From its origins to its execution, ‘honour’ killing is entirely community sanctioned. It is difficult to change a mindset in a society where people feel it is acceptable to punish a woman for transgressions against perceived codes of honour, even if it results in the death of a person.”

No honour in murder

Difficult, but not impossible. In places like Pakistan, it starts with a change of law.

“The law in Pakistan views honour killing as an offence against the individual and not the state, making it possible for a victim’s family to ‘forgive’ the perpetrator. If a father kills his daughter, the wife can forgive her husband. If a brother kills his sister, the parents can forgive their son,” Obaid-Chinoy says.

It not only means murderers go unpunished, it also creates a society where “honour” killings are not seen as crimes. That’s what Obaid-Chinoy found when she interviewed Saba’s father for her film. “He was adamant that Saba was in the wrong, and he felt justified in trying to kill his own daughter. He felt it was his duty as a father and husband to protect his family from the ‘dishonour’ Saba brought on them by falling in love and getting married.”

In 2011, 4 in 10 Pakistanis said ‘honour’ killing is sometimes justified

There have been moves towards legal reform in the country. Two years ago, Senator Sughra Imam introduced the Anti-Honour Killings Laws, which attempted to make the crime non-compoundable – essentially preventing families from forgiving perpetrators. “Passing this bill would right a long-standing wrong in Pakistani society,” Obaid-Chinoy argues. “Victims need to be protected and perpetrators need to be punished, otherwise what acts as a deterrent for future cases?”

Until recently, the law had been blocked by parliament, but in the aftermath of Qandeel Baloch’s death and the uproar it caused, it looks like it might pass within weeks. “We have finalized the draft law in the light of negotiations,” the daughter of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said a week after the social media star’s murder.

Just as importantly, though, broader attitudes towards women need to change. According to Khan, that is starting to happen.

“Certainly there are extremely regressive attitudes in our communities. At the same time, there are very many progressive voices pushing for change.” But the reaction to Qandeel Baloch’s death – with even liberal-minded people condemning her life choices, as though this in some way justifies what happened to her – shows how much work is yet to be done.

 Deeyah Khan on honour killings:

“Some people seem to understand that freedom for women is important in theory, but still women’s behaviour is scrutinized, as if the concept of freedom were conditional,” Khan notes.

“Freedom is meaningless unless women can do what they want with it, whether its twerking or getting a doctorate. As well as challenging violence against women, we also have to work towards understanding a wider range of behaviours as being acceptable.”

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