Gender dynamics vary in Pakistan based on socioeconomic status, region, and the rural/urban divide. Generally, women in Pakistan still struggle to assume their rights as full citizens due to both social and legal barriers. The community-based honor system is a hurdle that continues to victimize women across the nation.
Honor is an abstract concept that permeates the structure of familial, societal, and gender relations within communities in Pakistan. The honor of a family or community is largely contingent on the perception of society, and whether a person’s actions fall within the scope of “acceptable” social behavior. The community largely places the burden of honor on the shoulders of women, and though abstract, honor can have tangible and harrowing consequences for them. Under the system of honor, relatives or community members can kill women, and less frequently men, for deviating from what the community considers “appropriate” behavior in order to restore honor to their families or to the communities.
A woman’s so-called deviant behavior can include anything from marrying someone her family does not approve of, to running away from an abusive husband. On May 31, 2016, a nineteen-year-old schoolteacher in Murree, Punjab was tortured and burned by family members for rejecting a marriage proposal. On May 5, the body of a sixteen-year-old girl, Amber, was found in a burnt vehicle. The local tribal council, consisting of 15 men, ordered her death after she assisted a friend in marrying someone of her choice. Amber was kidnapped, sedated, and strangled. Allegedly, her body was burnt in the vehicle, but other sources report she was still alive when the vehicle was burnt. These cases represent only a few examples of the approximately 500 women who die each year from honor killings.
Pakistan did not criminalize honor killings until December 2004, but The Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 2004 still contained an important loophole. Under the forgiveness provision of the law, families of victims could waive punishment for the murderer. About eighty percent of honor killings are committed by relatives of the victim, so family members are more likely to forgive their relatives for their actions under the law to prevent them from suffering punishment. This made the practice of forgiveness under the law commonplace. In some cases, the community pressured the surviving victims to forgive the perpetrator even if they did not want to. The forgiveness provision ultimately granted most people who committed these crimes impunity, making the law ineffective.
Furthermore, police and lawyers were not aware of the 2004 Amendment, so the law could not be effective in practice. Even in cases where the police did have knowledge of the law, oftentimes, the perpetrator’s and victim’s families would conspire to weaken the case to prevent prosecution. The community posed another barrier to the law’s effectiveness. The community’s role in these killings largely stems from the overwhelming acceptance of the practice, and its condemnation of women who act outside of the social code.
This year, Pakistan’s federal government faced significant pressure to remove the forgiveness provision. It began with the Oscar award-winning documentary, “A Girl in the River,” which portrayed the story of an honor crime survivor. The public outcry compelled Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Shareef to make a statement on the matter. Then, the murder of Pakistani celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, caused widespread anger within the country and around the world. Her brother strangled her after his friends ridiculed him, saying her publicity and work were bringing their family dishonor.
In the wake of this unrest, Pakistan passed reforms to the law on October 6, 2016. The law now provides a mandatory life sentence for perpetrators of honor killings. It still maintains a forgiveness provision, which allows the victim’s family to waive the death sentence, but the sentence to life in prison is automatic when the court finds the perpetrator guilty of an honor crime.
Honor killings are condemned under United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/RES/59/165, entitled “Working towards the elimination of crimes against women committed in the name of honour.” This resolution directs states to reduce honor-based violence by properly investigating cases and prosecuting perpetrators, and making efforts to prevent crimes against women by using legislative measures. Pakistan’s removal of the forgiveness provision from the penal code demonstrates this. With the removal of the forgiveness provision, Pakistani law now partially complies with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)’s standards. Under Article 2(g), states are required to repeal penal provisions that discriminate against women. The forgiveness provision inherently discriminated against women because they are the primary victims of honor-based violence.
However, Pakistan will remain incompliant with CEDAW under Article 5(a), which requires states to take measures to eliminate cultural patterns and practices that are based in the idea of the inferiority of women. Gender inequality permeates the social fabric of Pakistan, and it manifests itself in extremes on both the civilian level and within the government. Baloch’s brother does not express any shame for killing her, and a conservative senator argued that the legislature should be more concerned with women’s behavior that leads to their murders when Parliament debated the recent reforms. Failure of the Pakistani government to address these issues of bias means that it will fail to act with due diligence in addressing the violence that women face.
The failure of the Pakistani court system to interpret the law to bring about justice for women may also make the state incompliant under CEDAW Article 2(c), which requires legal protection for women against discrimination through competent national courts. Proper enforcement by the justice system is necessary because communities can be biased due to their acceptance of the practice, and they may want to protect the murderers. Women’s rights activists in Pakistan express concern over the way courts will define honor killings and rule on the issue. The bill still allows a judge to decide whether a murder qualifies as an honor killing, and in trial courts, the judges may be biased towards the perpetrator as they are members of the community. The courts may define honor killings narrowly, making conviction for an honor killing difficult; thus, they may prevent justice from being administered. Better judicial oversight or removal to the federal courts could help to curtail this problem.
Though the removal of the forgiveness provision is monumental for the women of Pakistan, laws alone will not protect them. If it is enforced properly by the justice system, the law may create an effective deterrent to perpetrators of honor crimes. The threat of honor crimes has stifled the women of Pakistan for generations, and has presented a major obstacle to their freedom and rights. Potential exists for the rate of honor killings to drop significantly, and for a great barrier to women’s freedom to crumble.