Accessibility links

Pakistan: Lawyer Fights Islamist 'Honor Killings'

By Elena Nikleva

In Pakistan, when violence is committed against a woman or even when a woman is killed, the chances are that the perpetrator is not a stranger, but a father, brother, or husband. Pakistani society is often accepting of this brutal form of domestic violence as a way of punishing women for deviating from tradition, marrying without the permission of the family or disobeying a male member of the family. The issue has only recently caught the world's attention.

Prague, 30 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Asma Jahangir is a Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist who has represented several victims of so-called "honor killings" of women by family members. She spoke with RFE/RL's Elena Nikleva in Prague recently to discuss the roots of the problem and efforts to curb this type of domestic violence against women.

She says courts and law-enforcement agencies in Pakistan are at least partly to blame by creating a climate where these types of crimes are tolerated:

"Our judicial system almost exonerated people who committed those crimes and therefore emboldened people to follow what they call 'tradition.' I think a crime is a crime -- whether you wrap it up in the name of tradition, or custom, or whatever. The law-enforcement agencies continue to exonerate people, the courts continue to give them a sympathetic hearing. In fact, [they] put it down in their decisions that they have to honor something called 'traditional thinking.' And plus now, unfortunately, we have a law where a murderer can be forgiven by the family, so if a man murders his daughter, the rest of the family [can] forgive him. It is really impunity at a state level."

Jahangir is asked how familial violence against women can be tolerated in a country that recently chose a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as its prime minister:

"Yes, there are these contradictions because despite the fact that there are people who would kill, there are a number [of people] who would protest. They are very silent, voiceless people and they would not hesitate to elect a woman. But then there are [traditional] forces [in society] that are very organized, who are orthodox, who are traditional, who have the backing of mafia groups and Islamic militants, and governments are very scared of them. So there is a dichotomy in our society, which is a very sad situation.

Jahangir was asked as a follow-up question whether anything changed for the better for women under Bhutto's two-year government, which ended in 1996:

"[Bhutto] could not change the situation of women, though in retrospect we all recognize the fact that while she was prime minister things were beginning to change...She [appointed] women judges for the first time, she opened up the media policy for women, gave women free access to television, where they could go and educate people. And she did go out to women who were victims of violence and did give a very clear indication to the administration that she would not stand for it. So there was a kind of confidence that women were beginning to gain while [Bhutto] was [in office]. But she was there for a very short period and needed much more courage, and the forces, unfortunately, they are very strong against any progressive initiatives."

Jahangir was then asked to explain the obvious dichotomy in Pakistani society. On the one hand, the number of professional and educated women is rising, while on the other hand, many women continue to be endangered even within their own family and homes.

"Absolutely, that's true. It is changing in the sense that there are more highly educated [women] and that there are also equally repressed women. When I started working as a lawyer, there were hardly four or five [women in the field of law]. It was not considered a woman's profession. Now, fortunately, there are more [women] coming [into the profession]. But the fact remains that the ones who are very vulnerable are still very vulnerable. And it is a dichotomy. It's cruelty. I would just say that, it's very cruel for women...Plus the fact remains that we are sitting at the border of the [conservative] Taliban [militia in Afghanistan]. And that itself has had some influence on parts of our society where they feel this is the right way of life. And political uncertainty makes people go back, withdraw to the roots [of tradition] so to speak. And while the men go back to religion, and will flout some of the religious tenets because they don't suit them, they will make sure that they repress women in the name of religion or custom or tradition..."

So then, Jahangir was asked, is the situation getting worse or is it improving?

"It is worse. We do not have [the government of officials] like we used to have in the 1960s or '70s -- of at least a neutral, benign government. Now we have a government which is very much hostage to Islamic forces. And one of the primary things on [the Islamists'] agenda is the subjugation of women. Women's issues are really big in the sense that they are interconnected with the politics of the country. So we can't divorce women's issues from the mainstream political issue.

Jahangir was then asked what the future holds. Will the forces of technology and globalization eventually triumph in Pakistan to change the lives or women and girls for the better?

Jahangir says she believes the Internet holds hope for the future. She says the power of the Internet was seen recently when both Pakistan and its south Asian rival, India, exploded nuclear devices. Jahangir says the Internet quickly became a medium for the forces of peace to communicate with each other:

"It has to change. This is one of the positive points of globalization. It must change. You know, like we have the India-Pakistan problem, and I felt very strongly that at a time when India blasted its nuclear bomb and Pakistan did too, there was a kind of euphoria in the two countries. But those forces that were for peace were able to quickly get on the Internet and talk to each other. And very soon there were processions both in India and Pakistan to say 'roll back, we don't want nuclear war, we don't want hostility, we don't want this place to be fighting with each other.' So I found that this was an amazing experience for us that suddenly this group is talking about something against the whole crowd and they managed to get in touch with each other within of hours over the Internet."