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“Punjab tops in cases of honour killings”

BBC Urdu journalist and presenter Aliya Nazki and Planning Editor Asif Farooqi talk about the new three-week long BBC Urdu series, Qatal-o-Ghairat (Murder and Honour)

“Punjab tops in cases of honour killings”
Asif Farooqi (L), Aliya Nazki (R).

The News on Sunday: Let’s talk about the BBC’s series on honour killings. Is it focused on cases with ties in the UK alone or the ones that happen in India or Pakistan?

Aliya Nazki: The whole point of this season was to shine a spotlight on honour killings in the region — the subcontinent with the focus mostly on Pakistan because that’s basically where our audience is. We have also looked at bits of India and bits of Afghanistan too. We haven’t done any of this for the UK at all. The whole idea with the series of programmes that we’ve commissioned and executed was to shine literally a spotlight on this underreported crime which, when we look at the figures, is quite alarming. These are only the reported figures. 1,000 women are killed in the name of so-called honour in Pakistan every year; so that is 3 women a day. So that’s quite horrific. And you have to factor in the fact that most of these crimes are not reported so the actual numbers are probably much higher.

TNS: What would you say are the main questions related to honour killings that you explored in the series?

AN: We just wanted to explore what this meant and what the reasons are so we sent our reporters to different parts of the country to gather information. Obviously, we are only looking at cases that were reported and finding out what happened. We’re looking at things like what is the break-up in different provinces in Pakistan? Where are the most number of cases being reported from? Where are the least number of cases being reported from? What does it mean for women who survive — who actually manage to come out of this and are still alive? As a result, what we have now is a series of in-depth reports from different parts of the country; some from India and some from Afghanistan as well. We have lots of content on our website bbcurdu.com. We also had stakeholders write for us — for example Farhatullah Babar who was actively involved in the new bill. We have what is essentially a resource on our website and you can look up a lot of the things that have happened around honour killings.

In KP, there was no record of honour killings — ‘it just didn’t happen there’. When honour killings happen, they are labeled as suicide cases instead. For instance, they throw away the victim’s body in the river and say that she committed suicide but everyone knows that she was killed.

On top of all of this what we’ve tried to do is have a debate where we’ve gone to local universities and had conversations with students. For example, we had a debate on a Karo Kari case in Sindh in Khairpur University exploring whether Karo Kari is really part of the culture in Sindh — asking young people what they think. We have had debates in Khairpur, Peshawar, Swat and Karachi and we’re having debates in Islamabad and one in Quetta. The idea was to start a conversation.

TNS: With respect to the different cases of honour killings that you’ve explored where you look at themes and patterns, what are your findings?

AN: One of the things that I was shocked by was that Punjab tops the number of cases of honour killings. Most women killed in name of honour were from Punjab. More cases of honour killings were reported from urban centres and villages — most of these, you can say, are from the middle class. So that shocks you a little bit. For me, intuitively, I was expecting more cases from tribal areas and villages where I thought that it must happen more. But when you look at these cases and try to analyse them, you also realise that these are reported cases! Does that then mean that in Punjab they are reported more than elsewhere? Does that mean that in urban centres people are more likely to report them than in villages?

Asif was just talking about how in KP there was no record of honour killings — ‘it just didn’t happen there’. We thought that that was interesting and so explored it. We found out that in KP when honour killings happen, they are labeled as suicide cases instead. For instance, they throw away the victim’s body in the river and say that she committed suicide but everyone knows that she was killed in the name of honour. But the crime is not reported as an honour killing or recorded as such. I think that the underlying cause or theme generally is that when you consider women as second-class citizens they become dispensable. So, if you know that you murder your daughter or sister or wife and you will not be held accountable because she’s a woman and you can just say that it is an honour crime and you’ll get away with it… if there is no consequence to your action, a certain impunity sets in and that perpetuates a patriarchal mindset and culture that feeds into a vicious cycle. Apparently, that is what is at the bottom of all of this — it takes different shapes, people may call it different names and have different reasons for it but if you look at the foundation of all of it, it is that kind of mindset. At least, that is what it looks like.

TNS: How many of these crimes are related to forced marriages?

AF: This has happened in many cases. For example, when we went to Khairpur University and later to Swat, during our panel discussions, the female students there said that their parents force them into marrying people that they don’t want to marry and when they rebel, things take an ugly turn. I wouldn’t say that there is a direct link of honour killings with forced marriages but like Aliya said the idea that women are dispensable dictates how they are treated — they are denied their own agency while men are given the freedom to say yes or no to a match.

AN: You as a woman cannot make your own decisions, they are made for you.

TNS: In documenting and reporting on honour killings, what kind of difficulties did you encounter?

AN: Well, there are issues around access — how you actually find out what has happened in a certain case of honour killing. Who are the survivors of the victim? Most likely, if it is an honour crime, her own family killed her. They’re not going to talk to you. Police records are also limited because these cases are not even registered as crimes half of the time and the police will not get involved. So, there are difficulties logistically. There is difficulty with respect to access. But, we’ve got a team of excellent reporters who have done a great job.

AF: It is not like honour killings are novel incidents in this region but when you get the details they are often quite shocking. About two to three months ago, a father killed his daughter and nephew in Lahore and got arrested. In court, during the third or the fourth hearing perhaps, the judge (a female) received a document stating that the father (the accused) had forgiven himself. The blatant misuse of the law here is quite astonishing. Another case was from Landi Kotal in the tribal areas, where a man approached a political agent with a problem — he said that his brothers had killed his wife while he was abroad. The political agent called for the Jirga to investigate the case. The brothers revealed that the victim had had an illicit relationship with their uncle and so they had murdered both the woman and their uncle to preserve the family’s honour. The man said that his brothers were lying and that this was actually a property dispute over a shop and he had all the details. So, the poor woman was killed to turn this into an honour crime because of the idea that you can get away with an honour crime. The Jirga, however, maintained that since the woman had supposedly jeopardised family honour and this was an honour crime, the men were let go. And obviously, you cannot go to any Pakistani court for appeal. The man is still waiting to get justice from the commissioner’s court.

It’s a different thing altogether when you are not just listening to such incidents but you’re interacting with people who are suffering because of these; it is quite shocking.

TNS: How is the UK government dealing with the issue in case of people from the diaspora falling victim to such crimes? In the recent past, there have been a few instances.

AN: The UK government is looking out for its own citizens. There has been a campaign against forced marriages. Most of the time, these girls are vulnerable. They don’t feel safe enough or they are surrounded by their families all the time so they are not able to get in touch with the authorities. Last year, there was a whole campaign against forced marriages that I just mentioned. The idea was that look if you’re being taken against your will to your parents’ country, just hide a spoon in your underwear or on your person because the metal will set off the detectors and security will take you to a separate room to check you. Then you can tell them that you’re being taken against your will. I think they saved some girls because of this. But, the problem is that half of the time these girls don’t even know what is going to happen to them. They are only going for a vacation and they are only 15 or 16 years old and they haven’t even thought about it. Then they get married off to a cousin.

The BBC did a panorama on this some time back where they were embedded with the high commission team. They were trying to rescue this one girl in Mirpur, Pakistan who had made contact with them and wanted to be rescued. But obviously they couldn’t force anything and they had to go through the British High Commission. So there is this awareness but their interest is only in safeguarding their own citizens’ rights.

TNS: Are trends changing with times vis-à-vis women’s rights and agency? Are women asserting themselves more?

AN: The fact that we’re having this conversation and the government passed a law in November — however small a step — it is encouraging. The reason that they’ve passed this law means that they recognise that there is a problem here and there is a huge gap between what is happening and what should happen. Women need more legal protection and the fact that there is a law is a step in the right direction — it may not be enough because there are certain loopholes in this law. From the kinds of conversations that girls are having today in the different cities that we’ve been to and the kinds of questions that they are asking today, we can say that it is encouraging. Because once you realise that as a woman you’re not being treated equally and that this is not how it should be, things start changing.

There was a time when women knew ‘their place’ — they weren’t supposed to laugh loudly, let their hair down and they accepted that — but when you start questioning it and saying that this shouldn’t have to be the natural order of things, then you start thinking about how things should be instead.

TNS: Do you think that women questioning ‘their place’ in society and asserting themselves has led to a violent backlash?

AN: There probably has been a backlash — particularly in urban centres and among the middle class where women are more aware of their rights whereas 20 years ago, they might not have questioned society’s plan for them. There is probably some truth in that. See, you can’t go back into a world where women did not know — these smart phones have revolutionised the way we see ourselves and the rest of the world. Because of increased connectivity, women are also forced to accept that this is not the case everywhere, that they can have opinions. We cannot turn back the wheel of time.

TNS: In a society which is becoming increasingly intolerant and violent against women, what is the importance of legal reform which is often full of loopholes?

AN: It’s one thing to say that the law is not perfect or maybe that society needs awareness or tolerance or a change in attitude but without legal protection there is no hope. If, for example, I know that I will not be punished for murdering my sister, there is no redress or accountability or even an attempt at justice. If you have a legal framework in place, then you work on everything else. The first thing any society is supposed to do for its citizens is to give them that legal framework. I’m a big believer in legislation — at least then there is a process, if you’re being victimised, then you can take the issue to court. Without a framework, you have nothing.

AF: Law is a basic remedy. That is not to say that this law has no loopholes — it does. For instance, for a case to qualify as an honour crime, it has to be registered as such. Now, let’s say, if someone kills their sister in the name of honour, when the police arrests them they will say that it was a property dispute then it is back to square one and the whole cycle of forgiveness etc is repeated. A lot is left to the police’s discretion — whether the officer thinks it was a property dispute or an honour crime. There are several areas for improvement in this law.

TNS: Are you solely focusing on honour killings or also addressing other forms of violence against women in the series?

AN: There are various forms of violence against women but this series focuses only on honour killings. Although the basic underlying theme is that women are not seen as human beings or they are seen as people who should do what you say. But violence against women is too broad a topic and we wouldn’t have been able to squeeze it in a three-week series so we decided to focus on just these so-called honour killings. We tried to do it in a way that gives it the time and space that it deserves and explore it fully instead of doing a bit of this and that and cramming it all in one place. So, we decided to just give our reporters time to go and do these stories and focus fully on that. There are some reports from Indian Punjab, Haryana and some from Afghanistan, but the focus is on Pakistan.

TNS: Do you have future projects related to violence against women where you might expand on other forms violence or honour crimes can take up?

AN: Hopefully, we’d like to. But Pakistan is such a news-heavy country — in fact the region is too. The news agenda dictates what we do and do not do — that’s what day-to-day journalism is. We do try and commission special reports from different parts of the subcontinent every now and then and this is a big one. Before this, we did a series on Gwadar and a series from India.

AF: We are, however, planning a few series on issues of interest for the younger generation. Women’s rights will be something that we are planning to explore. But, these are still in the pipeline and being discussed.

Enum Naseer

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The writer is an assistant editor at The News on Sunday.

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