In late May, two Pakistani-origin Spanish sisters, Arooj Abbas and Aneesa Abbas, were tortured and shot dead in Pakistan’s Punjab province for refusing to take their husbands — cousins from forced marriages — to Spain. The two women were considering divorcing their husbands. Investigations confirmed that “the sisters were killed in the name of ‘honor’,” investigating police officer Muhammad Akhtar said.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, over 470 cases of honor killings were reported in Pakistan last year. But human rights defenders estimate that around 1,000 women are killed in the name of honor every year.
This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg. Few such murders are reported and rarely does anyone face trial.
This is because victims of honor killings are widely perceived in Pakistan to have brought shame and dishonor to their relatives. The killings are usually carried out by family members. Among those who have been arrested for the Abbas sisters’ murders are their husbands, an uncle, and two brothers.
Honor killings are often considered private family matters and are therefore rarely reported. The fate of the Abbas sisters made it to social media after several senior journalists and activists campaigned for justice to be done.
Another victim of an honor killing was Qandeel Baloch. Her case received much media and legal attention because she was a social media celebrity. Yet despite the wide media coverage her case received, her killer — her brother, who was awarded life imprisonment in 2016 — was recently acquitted for her murder.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the most common reason for honor-related crimes is the violation of social norms and what is thought to be accepted social behavior. A woman’s choice of clothing, employment, or education; refusal to accept an arranged marriage; getting married without family’s consent; seeking a divorce; being raped or sexually assaulted; having intimate or sexual relations before or outside marriage, even if only alleged — these are seen to be valid reasons for an honor killing.
According to Amnesty International, honor killings are “committed predominantly against women and girls.” But men too fall prey to this custom as was the case in the Kohistan video murders.
In 2011, a video emerged of a group of five young women and a teenage boy clapping hands, singing, and dancing. The video was reportedly shot by a male. Although the women and the boy were never seen in the same shot, it became an issue of honor for the families of the women. All five women were killed by family members in May 2012. The two boys were also killed subsequently by the women’s families.
The murders came to light when Afzal Kohestani, the brother of the two boys, campaigned for justice. His efforts prompted the Supreme Court to order an investigation into the murders.
The investigation began but soon the allegations were dismissed as false. Kohestani persisted with his quest for justice. His home was firebombed and with his life under threat, he sought protection. In 2019, he too was killed.
In a society where honor killings are justified and where family honor matters more to people than putting food on the table or the wellbeing of their own children, it is very difficult to enact laws in the first place against this custom, let alone secure court decisions against the perpetrators of the violence.
The first attempt to outlaw this custom in Pakistan was made almost two decades ago.
In 2004, Pakistan’s National Assembly passed the Honor Killing Act, which made any killing in the name of honor a punishable crime. But the law came with a loophole; it was passed as part of Section 302(c) in the criminal law (amendment) of the Pakistan Penal Code, which gives relatives of the victim the right to forgive the convict through an Islamic legal practice known as Diya. Heirs of the victim may forgive the convict and thus the penalties would not apply. This is an especially troubling practice in the context of honor killings, where often family members are the very ones committing the murder.
In 2016 following the killing of Qandeel Baloch, the National Assembly enacted the Anti-Honor Killing law. This legislation closed the loophole discussed above by mandating life imprisonment for the convict even when the victim’s relatives forgive the murderer.
The law that allows relatives of the victim to forgive the murderer is still in Pakistan’s rule books, however, and in practice. Qandeel Baloch’s brother was acquitted under this law. The mother was given the freedom to forgive her son after the judge ruled the case was not an honor killing.
This ruling and the fact that hundreds of cases of honor killings in Pakistan go unreported will continue to keep women and men vulnerable to being killed in the name of protecting the honor of the family.
Human rights and women’s rights groups continue to campaign to enforce the implementation of the Anti-Honor Killing law. They are raising social awareness about the true nature of so-called honor-related crimes. But it will be a long time before society wakes up to the fact that there is little honor in these killings.