Pakistan Fights to End Senseless Honor Killings: an unsolvable barbarity?

In October, Pakistan repealed a legal loophole which allowed those guilty of honor killings to walk free if they sought the forgiveness of a family member. Whilst some commentators argue that the Pakistani government is still nowhere near giving women the protection they need, and ensuring that murderers receive their just deserts, it is at least a step in the right direction.

Pakistani women have become more vocal in their protests against honour killings, in itself a brave act
Pakistani women have become more vocal in their protests against honor killings, in itself a brave act

This barbaric practice is particularly prevalent – and indeed receives most global attention – in Pakistan, although it remains commonplace throughout the Islamic world. The warped belief that a man can defend his family’s honor by killing a female relative is sadly not a phenomenon deposited in medieval times.

The causes for such retributive killings are many; adultery, refusing an arranged marriage, disobeying the family, religious indiscretion.

Some scholars have attributed religious motives to the practice, perhaps another archaic and selective interpretation of Islamic teaching, a further testament to the unenlightened nature of some of its followers.

Others, however, staunchly oppose such theories, rejecting claims that honor killings are condoned by the Qur’an or have been encouraged by the Islamic rulers of history.

Of course, men (and women) kill spouses, partners and family members worldwide, sometimes for the same reasons stated above. Yet these tend to be crimes of passion, angry, violent outbursts that are not overlooked thanks to some legal technicality.

Honor killings proliferated throughout the Ancient World, from Rome and the Mediterranean, to the Amerindian empires of the Aztecs and Incas. Often it was a punishment to satisfy the Gods as much as serving as a sweet elixir of revenge. Yet it was readily practiced, to the extent that male family members in Rome were subjected to abuse should they fail to smite down their adulterous siblings.

Adultery was punishable by death under the Aztecs, with the resulting execution serving as a sacrifice to the Gods as well as a restoration of honour
Adultery was punishable by death under the Aztecs, with the resulting execution serving as a sacrifice to the Gods as well as a restoration of honor

Outside of Islam, this procedural, planned and rigorous method of execution is now rare, the law affording the perpetrators few gimmes.

Perhaps the root cause is related to the age of Islam compared to Christianity and other global religions? The Christian Enlightenment began in the 17th century and a steady process of secularisation has encroached upon life in the subsequent years, so that church and state are now far removed from one another, with religious doctrine subordinated in society to liberal morality.

Yet honor killings are not restricted to the rural backwaters, where it could be argued that people have no access to the trappings of modern life and the channels of information and communication that accompany it.

Earlier this year, the renowned Pakistani social media star Qandeel Baloch was herself the victim of an honor killing, strangled to death by her brother in Punjab province having lived in Karachi. This is not a geographical issue.

Qandeel Baloch: her social media posts provoked the ire of her family who killed her
Qandeel Baloch: her social media posts provoked the ire of her family who killed her

Indeed, honor killings amongst Muslim families occur in the West as well, with notorious cases in the UK and the USA in recent years for instance. Exposure to more tolerant and compassionate cultures does not eradicate an inherent extremist piety.

So, is this simply another form of Islamic extremism? In a word, yes. The Puritans of 17th century New England are comparable for their adherence to religious stricture, yet even they seldom resorted to such cold-blooded machinations. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter exemplifies the Puritan retribution of an adulterous woman; perpetually shaming her, not murdering her.

Hester Prynne and her scarlet 'A'
Hester Prynne and her scarlet ‘A’

Islam is a young religion compared to many others and it has yet to begin the secularising process through which it must pass to reconcile many of its belief systems with the modern world. That Islam is inherently violent is an extremely dubious premise, yet it is certainly patriarchal, some of its core tenets susceptible to abuse.

Whatever the reason, the practice of honor killing is a shameful and senseless one, irreconcilable with the honor and righteousness it claims to uphold. A practice abandoned centuries ago in some cultures claims the lives of thousands each year in others.

To be a Muslim woman today remains an undoubted challenge, in some countries more than others. The root causes of many honor killings are themselves flagrant abuses of women and girls, child marriage being an obvious case in point.

The Pakistani government would do well to remember that its latest triumph is merely a tentative beginning.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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