Honour or horror?

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The concept of women as the property of men is so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of some communities that they routinely ignore the daily occurences of women being killed and maimed by their families,says Sarajun Hoda Abdul Hassan.

In Jordan, Lina, a 24-year-old girl became pregnant after being raped by a neighbour. Her family decided to kill her. On 24 September 1998, her brother drove her to a nearby football field, pounded her with a rock, drew a knife, slashed her throat and stomach, left her by the side of the road, and turned himself in. His family treated him like a hero. After posting bail, they got a decorated white stallion for him to ride home with much festivity.

In Lahore, Pakistan, Samia’s mother entered a renowned human rights lawyer’s chamber with a male companion, Habib-ur-Rehman, who grabbed Samia, put a pistol to her head and shot near Samia’s eye. He then stood over Samia’s body and fired again. The mother never even bothered to look whether the girl was dead before walking away.

Are these isolated scenarios? Not really.

In the first part of this article (Vol.25 No.11/12), we looked into the ongoing trials and tribulation of 33-year-old Pakistani illiterate, Mukhtaran Mai, who went from being a victim of rape – adjudicated by an indiscriminate and illegal ‘tribal system’ – to become the latest icon for women’s struggle against relentless and systematic but widely tolerated abuses and discrimination, the impunity for which is wrongly attributed to God.   

In this article, we will go a step further, looking into the primordial ‘tribal systems’, where it is practised, how it came about, and – however myopic and obnoxious it may seem – how it continues to dispense ‘karo-kiri’, ‘honour killings’ and other immoral adjudications.  

Such pre-Islamic tribal systems, erroneously ascribed to the teachings of Islam, are commonly found in the areas of the Indian Sub-Continent extending towards Arabia onwards to Africa, and they got exported to Europe and the West through migration.  Such beliefs and traditions are still embedded deeply in some scattered communities, despite their being in modern societies.

Tribal diktats

It is claimed they originated from Shariah, Islamic law on the basis of three ideas: punishment, prevention by example, and retaliation. Although these practices flourished in pockets of pre-modern societies, in some countries, they had their own official legal system, giving them a secure lifeline.  In some Arab communities, they are considered part of their way of life.

In Pakistan, for example, Article 247(7) of the Constitution specifies that the jurisdiction of the higher judiciary does not extend to the Tribal Areas.  So, the lack of a principal enforcement apparatus such as the police and other serious shortcomings left people in these Provincially Administered Tribal Areas little choice but to have their own legal and judicial regime and other generous forms of tribal diktats (a statement or order that cannot be opposed).

The law in Egypt protects from prosecution men who kill their wives for engaging in extramarital affairs.

In Jordan, Article 340 of its Penal Code stipulates: “He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives committing adultery (with a man) and kills, wounds or injures one or both of them, is exempt from any penalty.”

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Another clause states: “He who discovers his wife or one of his female relatives with another in an adulterous situation, and kills, wounds or injures one or both of them benefits from a reduction in penalty.” While there have been attempts at eliminating that provision, The Jordan Times discovered that 62 per cent of Jordanians oppose amending Article 340. Most respondents claimed that it would lead to “moral corruption”.  

Another contributing factor is the official justice system that became expensive, very inefficient and slow over time. The police seriously lack motivation and policing skills, their investigations are hopelessly poor, witness buying ever so rampant, securing of false evidence easy and the backlog notorious.  Finally, it becomes incapable of delivering justice and appears so ambiguous that even state officials sometimes take recourse to tribal justice system for their own grievances!

Imagine, Pakistan’s police officers in 1998 reportedly whinged to the media, saying that due to the ease with which criminal suspects could get off their crimes or be released, they had taken to killing rather than arresting criminal suspects in order to curb crime.

Now, what is this karo-kiri and honour killings? Known as ‘Sardari’, ‘Pancayat’ and ‘Jirga’, these tribal courts are the remnants of the oppressive feudal and tribal system that are appallingly derogatory and repugnant to human dignity.  Almost always serving men, more so the rich and powerful, this system deems a women’s chastity as nothing more than the property of her family.  

"A man's honour that lies between the legs of a woman"

So says a crude Arabic expression. The notion actually describes the rule of thumb that is pivotal to the tribal system. This morality, however absurd it may seem, originates from the fact that men in those cultures feel that everything a woman does in their families directly reflects on their ‘manhood’.

The ‘honour’ killing of a woman, for instance, is an act in which “a woman is killed for her actual or perceived immoral behaviour”. Such “immoral behaviour” may be a marital infidelity, refusal to submit to an arranged marriage, demanding a divorce, even simply flirting during phone calls from men, failing to serve a man a meal on time or “allowing herself” to be raped.

A young Sudanese girl was recently shot dead by her brother because an unrelated male admirer had dedicated a love song to her.

Safia Bibi, a blind eighteen year old Pakistani was pregnant from rape. Since there was insufficient evidence to prove rape (“sufficient” evidence being eye-witness testimony of four adult Muslim men), the pregnancy itself was evidence of her immoral behaviour. Thus, she received a three-year jail sentence and 15 lashes for having sex outside marriage. She was very lucky she got away with a much lighter sentence. Under normal circumstances, she would have been sentenced to death if not pelted with stones while half-buried in the ground.

In Yemen on learning that his daughter had eloped with a man from another clan, a father gathered sons, brothers, uncles and cousins, and headed in a convoy of 20 cars to storm the bride’s new home. After retrieving her, she was taken back to the edge of her village, hurled by her father on to the asphalt and had every car driven over her.

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In Jordan, a man received a six-month prison term for stabbing his younger divorced sister 30 times. The murder, termed a misdemeanour by the tribunal, was minimised because the father of both brother and sister dropped charges against his son.

In Palestine, a 16 year-old was raped by her younger brother. Once her pregnant condition became known in the wider community it fell to her older brother to kill her in order to avenge the family honour. “She made a mistake,” said one of her male cousins.  “She had to pay for it.”

In Afghanistan, as recently as April 2005,  29-year-old Amina Aslam from a north eastern village was rajm (stoned to death). Her alleged lover was given 100 lashes. Her husband was away for some time in neighboring Iran and did not support her. She demanded divorce and went to seek help from a sympathiser, Karim. Karim’s father locked them in the house, called the village, dragged them out and an ulama swiftly meted out the punishment.

 
Honour in hurting and killing

‘Honour killings’ originated from the early tribal life of Arab Bedouins that preceded both Christianity and Islam.  The concept goes way back to the 1752 B.C. Code of Hammurabi and the Assyrian legal code of 3000 B.C., under which men who committed rape punished themselves (indirectly) with the rape of their own wives.

“Islam granted women a considerable amount of rights, but the ingrained patriarchic tribal order remained and men wanting to remain powerful, chose not to grant the rights to women, thus leaving them in ignorance both of their rights as well as their religion,” says Dr. al-Ashmawi, Professor of Arab-Islamic Culture, University of Geneva.

The origins of such a regime

The pervasive redresses are ‘karo kiri’ (honour killing of women to remove any blot from the family name)’ ‘honour killings’ (revenge for honour), vani’ (the ‘handing over’ of women to the aggrieved party as a means of settling a dispute through compromise), ‘swara’ (to settle a dispute between two families) or Ramj (means stoning to death). Death for death, honour for honour, rape for rape, zina (fornication) for zina,  – usually announced within the same day. No fees. No charges.  This, to the ignorant mind, is justice – cheap, effective and fast.    

Sirhan, a 35-year-old murderer, was euphoric and proudly described the efficiency with which he shot his young sister Suzanne in the head four times. Three days earlier, the 16-year-old girl had reported to police that she had been raped. “Even if it was against her will, she has committed a mistake” exclaimed Sirhan. “Anyway, it’s better to have one person die than to have the whole family die from shame.”

The judge set him free after six months saying Sirhan’s “great anger when he learned that his sister was no longer a virgin was justification for a short sentence”. At his cousin’s bachelor’s party the next day, he was a celebrated member of the family.

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Muslim authorities in northern Nigeria in early 2001 delivered 100 strokes of the cane on the buttocks of a 17-year-old mother, Bariya Maguzu, for zina before a large crowd in front of the Islamic Sharia court in Gusau, Zamfara state.

Muslim immigrant communities in Europe practise ‘honour killings’ too. In Berlin, where about 10 per cent of the 2.5 million Turks in Germany live, they often talk about a 23-year-old single mother, gunned down near her Berlin home by her three brothers. Of Turkish-Kurdish descendant, she was married off to her cousin at 16. She fled her abusive husband and attempted some form of emancipation. She stopped wearing a veil and trained as an electrician. Her brothers killed her because her lifestyle was ‘a slight to the honour of the family’.

The case of Samia Imran mentioned earlier is one of the most notorious “honour” killings of recent years. In April 1999, Samia Imran, 28, a young married woman, was shot in the office of renowned Pakistani human rights lawyer Hina Jilani, who was helping her to seek a divorce from her violent husband.

What kind of custom is this where they reward families for killing their own daughters and where fathers and brothers stalk the women in their own families whom they claim to love and then kill them? It is a strange world where men take “honour” in hurting and killing daughters and wives.

Blood feud is yet another phenomenon common in small villages. These involve ‘compensation’ given for some crime against another village or tribe. It could involve the rape or mutilation of a woman, a girl being forced to marry a boy from the tribe calling the blood feud or the whole family being killed.

In cases of robbery or other property crimes, the guilty are made to repay the stolen property and to pay a fine; in cases of murder, compensation is to be paid to the family of the victim for the loss of a relative. For murder, compensation ranges between Rs. 200,000 for a man to Rs 2 million for the murder of a family member of a tribal leader.

In the case of ‘honour’ crimes, compensation can be either in the form of money or a woman given in compensation for damage to ‘honour’. The use of women as compensation is based on the notion that women are objects owned by men, whether they be fathers, husbands or even sons.

The concept of women as property and compensation for lost honour are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of some Muslim communities that daily occurrences of women being killed and maimed by their families are customarily ignored. Unfortunately, women either out of ignorance or fear of retaliation, continue to endure the custom, while legal establishments continue to tolerate or condone such cruel practices.

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