The recent strangling of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star, by her brother has revealed the widespread issue of honor killings throughout Pakistan. Despite Baloch’s controversial publicity, her fame helped to illuminate the growing problem of abuse against women, particularly honor killings, in a deeply divided Pakistan.
Pakistan’s independent Human Rights Commission last reported that honor killings are increasing. Nearly 1,100 women were killed in honor killings last year, slightly fewer than the year before, and up from about 900 in 2013. In addition, almost 900 committed, or tried to commit, suicide. But the majority of acts against women, such as sexual abuse, gender discrimination, and even honor killings, still remains unreported. In the province of Punjab, the numbers add up: it’s estimated that every day, six women are murdered or face attempted murder, eight are raped, 11 assaulted, and 32 abducted.
Honor killings usually occur when one, as in Baloch’s murder, or a number of a woman’s family members believe that she should be punished for inappropriate misconduct. “Misconduct” can be interpreted in vastly differing ways to include a myriad of actions, such as a woman choosing to marry someone other than or refusing to marry her family’s choice for her, or even helping a friend elope.
The rise in honor killings is also related to Pakistani women’s increased exposure to outside cultural norms and more opportunities to work outside the home. These result in greater possibilities to make independent choices, which means that the range of ways a woman could defy her family’s honor has multiplied.
In addition to the publicity surrounding Baloch’s murder, the media reports of the three following stories help reveal the common marginalization and violence which Pakistani women face. In early May, a teenage girl, Ambreen, was drugged, killed, and lit on fire in a bus in Abbottabad. Police investigation revealed that a Jirga, a community jury which included her mother, had sentenced the girl to her punishment and death. Ambreen’s crime: assisting her friend to flee with her boyfriend.
In June, Maria Sadaqat was attacked by a group of men, beaten, and set on fire. The young schoolteacher sustained burns on 85% of her body, dying three days later at a hospital. Sadaqat had refused a marriage proposal by the owner’s son of the school where she taught. Her brutal murder resulted, even though the son was already married and had children. The rural village placed extreme pressure on her family to keep silent and not press charges. Though her village has a relatively high literacy rate of 69%, the large proportion of illiteracy contributes to the continuation and increase of violence against women.
A week later another girl, 18-year-old Zeenat Rafiq, was beaten, strangled, and burned by her own family in Lahore. She had eloped to live with her husband’s family without the consent of her own family. When they promised her a wedding reception, she returned to visit them but was instead tortured and murdered.
A short film entitled “A Girl in the River: the Price of Forgiveness” has also helped illuminate Pakistani women’s plight. The film, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short last year, follows the story of Saba, who survived an attempted honor killing. Hours after marrying someone against their wishes, her father and uncle shot her in the head and dumped her inside a sack in a river.
After watching the short film, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stated he wanted to end the practice of honor killings. The government has indeed been taking steps to curb this violence against women. In Punjab, the Women’s Protection Bill gained strides by giving women recourse against abuse. By law, all violence against women is now considered criminal. Women can access shelter and protection officers, and can even file a complaint in the court system.
Yet the Punjab law only has effect in one province of Pakistan and has undergone considerable controversy. The prevailing public opinion still often supports the protection of a family’s honor before the rights of a woman. Some believe that the only thing that will bring an end to honor killings is a reshaping of what is considered honorable.
Part of RAM Foundation’s mission is to empower and help these women who are victims of abuse. The CosmoVision Center will provide a safe haven for women suffering violence. It will allow for these women to learn skills including cosmetology, such as cutting hair. These skills will give them resources to gain greater self-sufficiency, becoming less dependent on their male relatives.
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