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Pakistan: Reconciling Ancient Traditions With Modern Values Proves A Struggle

  • Ron Synovitz

Each year, scores of women in Pakistan are killed by their male relatives for marrying without the permission of their families. In areas where arranged marriage is a centuries-old tradition, Pakistani women who take husbands without family consent are thought to bring disgrace upon their relatives. In this report, we look at the challenge that "honor killings" present to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as he tries to present his country as a moderate and progressive Muslim country.

Prague, 14 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistani Doctor Amnat Solangi has received numerous death threats from her relatives since she fell in love and married a man without the consent of her family.

The threats have prompted Amnat and her husband to flee their town of Moro in Pakistan's southern Sindh Province. Like many conservative communities in Pakistan that adhere to tribal traditions, almost every marriage in Moro is an arranged one.

Amnat fears that if she returns, she will become one of the hundreds of Pakistani women who are killed each year by male relatives who claim to be defending the honor of their family name.

"I received information from my family that my brothers had threatened to kill me and my husband," Amnat says. "We tried reconciliation and sent some of our close relatives to convince them not to do this, but [our relatives] told us that we were not safe even in Karachi. Their people were chasing us and had been aware of some of the places where we stayed with my husband's relatives in Karachi. [Our relatives] asked us to leave Karachi because we had no place to hide there."

Amnat says she and her husband have been forced to hide and repeatedly change their residence for most of the two years they have been married.

"The main condition of my brothers is that I should get a divorce from my husband, and that my husband's family should give them two women and 2 million rupees [about $44,000]," Amnat says. "Otherwise, [my husband's family] should pay 20 million rupees to [my brothers]."

Amnat's husband, Doctor Ghulam Mustafa Solangi, says the couple is physically and emotionally exhausted by their predicament. He says men in his wife's extended family kidnapped and tortured two of his female relatives for more than two weeks and have attacked one of his nephews.
"There are many [people like us in Pakistan] who are facing similar tragedies." -- Doctor Ghulam Mustafa Solangi

Since those attacks, he says about 35 of his relatives also have left Moro in fear of being killed to avenge his marriage. Meanwhile, Solangi says the couple has fled to Islamabad to seek protection from the government.

"All this is happening with us, [people] who are professionals and highly educated citizens of Pakistan. So imagine what is happening to those who are ordinary illiterate people," Solangi says. "Such incidents would not even be reported. There are many [people like us in Pakistan] who are facing similar tragedies."

The couple's ordeal illustrates a social dilemma in Pakistan. Since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, Musharraf has tried to present his country as a moderate and progressive Muslim state. But centuries-old tribal traditions sometimes conflict with the modern values Musharraf is urging.

Honor killing is already illegal in Pakistan. But Musharraf says existing laws need to be strengthened by stringent, more specific legislation.

An honor crime is an act of violence that usually is committed by male family members against a female who is perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family. Women are targeted for refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, for committing adultery, for seeking a divorce -- even from an abusive husband -- or even if they become the victim of rape or sexual assault.

Officials in Islamabad say there have been more than 4,000 honor killings across Pakistan since 1998.

The privately funded Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says honor killing is just one of many forms of domestic violence against women in the country. The group blames honor killings on "the supremacy of the male and subordination of the female [that is] assumed to be part of the culture" in Pakistan and which has the sanction of some conservative religious leaders.

Kamila Hyat, a spokeswoman for the group, says crimes against women continue unabated in Pakistan despite Musharraf's calls for change.

Human Rights Watch spokeswoman Urmi Shah notes that honor crimes occur across the globe -- including in communities of South Asian immigrants in the United Kingdom and Sweden. Shah says few of those responsible for honor killings are brought to justice.

"Honor killings are indefensible, illegal murder under any law,” Shah says. “You cannot murder or threaten to murder somebody because you don't happen to approve of their actions. If they are two adults who are wanting to marry each other, to murder or threaten to murder somebody just because the families do not condone the relationship is totally unacceptable."

Shah concludes that support for honor killings by some conservative Islamic leaders has damaged the reputation of Islam.

"It unfortunately shows a very unpleasant side of Islam,” she says. “But it is not Islam as Islam is. This is Islam as it is interpreted by conservative men."