Counciling Pakistan: Honor Killings in the Subcontinent
“Sar pe dupatta toh pehen ne wali main hoon nahin.”“I am not someone who wraps a scarf around my head” were the reportedly the infamous last words of Qandeel Baloch: a Pakistani actress, social media superstar, and arguably the most divisive civilian in Pakistan until her death by asphyxiation at the hands of her older brother. Baloch’s life was curtailed in the name of familial honour and the “disrepute” she had reportedly caused her family through her controversial social media presence. Citing figures like Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus and Kim Kardashian as inspiration, Baloch pushed the envelope in popular Pakistani culture by bringing issues of sexuality and female health to the forefront of conversations occurring in Pakistani homes. Her presence created a rigid dichotomy within Pakistan: more conservative regions of the country decried Baloch for attempting to destroy the inherent modesty of the Pakistani woman, while the other faction extolled her for catalyzing Pakistan’s movement towards the global conversation surrounding women’s rights and empowerment. The country was rocked by discord after vigils for Baloch and celebrations of her death were held simultaneously in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. Junaid Akbar, a famous Pakistani stand up comedian, weighed in on the issue via Facebook, where he aptly observed, “Why is it that our entire nation’s shame rests between a woman’s legs? We’ll publicly engage in corruption, cheat and steal and face no consequences for it. But if a woman engages in something without understanding, her punishment is death. Qandeel was not only killed by her brother. Qandeel was killed by every person who visited her page and wished her evil. Everyone who cursed her. Everyone who openly prayed for her death. Your prayers have been answered, and you are now culpable for the consequences of your actions.” In his viral video, Akbar uses Baloch’s death to comment on the greater issue surrounding Baloch’s death: honor killings that transcend both national borders and faiths.
Honour killings, or karo-kari in Urdu and Hindi, are defined as an act of murder, in which a person is killed for his or her actual or perceived immoral behavior. Deep rooted patriarchal society with a special emphasis on women to preserve their modesty, sharam, or their familial respect, or izzat, places women under a microscope from their birth until their death. Any deviation from this rigid set of rules and expectations is seen as succumbing to immoral desires, and selfishly seeking happiness without considering the ramifications of these actions on family, friends and society. Philosophical discussions all tend to revolve around the same point: opening the floodgates of dating and relationships before marriage will undoubtedly lead to engagement in inappropriate behaviors, and defile familial honor in addition to normalizing romance. Honor killings of this nature are on the rise in both Pakistan and India. Kolo-kari has become a national conversation because of its prevalence, and was also the subject of Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar-winning documentary, “A Girl in the River”. Facing intense pressure from the success of the film and the murder of Qandeel Baloch, Pakistani parliament amended its Penal Code of 1860 to better address the issue of honour killing: namely, by making its punishment death. The law has a caveat, though, whereby victims of honor killings (or, as in most scenarios, the girl’s family) can forgive the perpetrator for his/her murder. The Council of Islamic Ideology ruled the law without the caveat un Islamic, as the faith always makes provisions for forgiveness to avoid propagation of violence by any means necessary. This loophole has worked against many families of victims (and victims themselves, as seen in the documentary), who are forced to once again repress their own desires for justice and instead work toward a harmonious community. Understanding this, the need for reformation of the Council of Islamic Ideology is more urgent than ever.
The Council of Islamic Ideology was formed to assure The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was passing legislation in accordance with Islamic doctrine and practice. Given the diversity among Pakistan’s Muslim population, a standardized version of Islam to serve as a metric of legality seemed riddled with issues since the beginning. Additionally, of the current council’s twenty members, one female is expected to adequately portray the wants and desires of 48% of the nation’s population. The representation of the Islamic sects that Pakistan is comprised of is nonexistent. The majority of men on the council have been Islamically educated in Wahhabi schools of thought and practices, making them more conservative than the mainstream Pakistani. Through their validation in the eyes of the law, the conservative practices and teachings that these men profligate through their judgements have drastically shifted popular Pakistani thought. Without serious reformation to address the issues that underlie the Council’s selection and the demographics it represents, Qandeel Baloch promises to be just another name in the list of grievances of Pakistani women.
When Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy screened “A Girl in the River” for an audience of older Pakistanis, some rejoiced at the daughter’s murder. The theater echoed with the applause of men who believed action to be justified and swiftly executed. The same mindset took to their social media accounts at the apex of Qandeel Baloch’s popularity to berate her and damn her to hell in the most explicit language possible. Though these actions are not a direct consequences of the rulings of the Council of Islamic Ideology, citizens must hold the Council responsible for the contentious decisions they have made, or threaten the stability of a nation that seems to be coming apart at the seams.