Honour killings in post flood Pakistan
Pakistan is grappling with an increase in honour killings amid the recovery from a monumental natural disaster.
What are Honour Killings?
Human Rights Watch estimates that over 1000 people are murdered in honour killings in Pakistan each year. Honour killings refer to the murder of a person, usually by a close family member, due to that person’s alleged dishonour. The victims are usually women and girls. One can bring dishonour through clothing choices, refusal to accept an arranged marriage, being sexually assaulted, and seeking a divorce. The action only needs to be alleged for a killing to occur. It is estimated Pakistan leads the world in the number of honour killings per capita, with one-fifth of the world’s total occurring there.
Women often have little means or ability to report violence against them or go to the police if they fear for their safety. In times of crisis, such as during natural disasters, it is even harder to access authorities. As a result, post-disaster situations are often rife with domestic violence and many unreported killings.
Pakistan’s Laws on Honour Killings
Pakistan only began efforts to ban honour killings in 2004. The Honor Killing Act was passed, making any killing in the name of honour a punishable crime. However, a legal loophole existed that aligns with common Islamic legal practice. The Islamic legal practice of Diya is written into Pakistan's Penal Code. This practice allows relatives of a victim the right to forgive the convicted. If forgiven, the punishment for the crime is not imposed. This practice led to situations where family members killed a woman, only for other family members to forgive them. Effectively, there was often no punishment for the perpetrators of these murders.
In 2016, the Anti-Honour Killing Bill was passed in response to the highly publicised killing of Qandeel Baloch. Qandeel, a Pakistani social media model, was murdered by her brother in 2016. Her brother has admitted to killing her due to the ‘shameful’ images she posted on social media bringing dishonour to the family. Qandeel’s death was highly publicised across Pakistan, resulting in pressure on the Pakistan government to act on the issue of honour killings. As such, the Anti-Honour Killing Bill was passed. It mandated life imprisonment for those convicted of honour killing, closing the previous loophole. The Council of Islamic Ideology, a powerful religious group, called the law change ‘un-Islamic’, demonstrating the differing opinions that exist in Pakistan today and consequently present challenges to structural change towards female equality and empowerment.
This August, torrential monsoonal rains smashed Pakistan, resulting in the worst floods in recent history. Over 1500 people have died, with thousands more injured. Hundreds of thousands of houses have been destroyed or damaged, and millions displaced. As of October, flood waters are only beginning to recede, with immense damage seen across a third of the country.
Since the floods hit, over 33 million people have been impacted. Many are without shelter or necessities. The disaster disproportionately impacts women, with many at risk of violence, trafficking and slavery. There are few places displaced people can go, and many women reported feeling unsafe in humanitarian camps. When women experience violence, it is currently difficult to report these instances, due to the isolation from the floods, and the preoccupation of authorities. This two-fold situation means women are more vulnerable to violence and have a harder time reporting it. Due to the separation of families due to the floods, unaccompanied women are at a higher risk of facing allegations of dishonourable behaviour, such as walking alone or having to accept help from an unrelated male, undertaken out of necessity due to the disaster. This puts them at a higher risk of being a victim of an honour killing.
Given the scale of the flood disaster, many international aid organisations are on the ground providing support to Pakistanis. Hence, some are advocating for women's and children's safety and protection from violence. As seen in past cases, when the media highlights an honour killing, it usually gains international attention and condemnation. However, the capacity of the media and aid organisations to incite long-standing structural change is limited without the assistance of the Pakistani government.
The use of the media and involvement of NGOs is met with some dissent, as is common in Pakistan when foreign criticism of honour killings is publicised. The Pakistani government labels efforts by the media and NGOs to bring attention to honour killings in Pakistan as ‘Western-centric’ and tainted by a disrespect for cultural norms. In tandem with the Pakistani government, ultra strict patriarchal communities also posit that criticism towards honour killings are characterised by a culturally illiterate inability to acknowledge Pakistani cultural norms and respect their way of life and beliefs. Whilst this view is held by a minority, the influence it yields is pervasive as many honour killings occur within these communities. However, Pakistan is very diverse, and there are many communities and religious leaders who support the prevention of honour killings and regularly preach about the importance of women and ways to empower women.
The Pakistani government's current lack of action on this issue is alarming. The acceptance of this practice is seen through some officials' conduct, such as when a police officer victim blamed a woman when reporting her alleged gang rape in front of her children. He berated her for travelling alone at night. This mindset by officials results in a lack of reporting and, consequently significantly reduces prosecution for murderers, perpetuating a vicious cycle of gender inequality and discrimination against Pakistani women.The lack of progress towards decreasing the horrifying violence experienced women and children in Pakistan has constructed a society governed by gendered oppression and misogyny. Despite calls to protect women from violence during the flood recovery, there have been no additional measures or resources allocated by the government for this purpose.
What is next?
The lack of societal change regarding the oppression of women means honour killings are likely to continue. In ultra-strict communities, the complete lack of autonomy for women and children means any indication of an opinion or pushback against orders can be reason enough to be killed. If the Pakistan government is serious about decreasing honour killings, concerted efforts must be made to promote societal and cultural change and uplift the status and roles of women within communities. Further, during the flood recovery where women are particularly vulnerable, targeted efforts need to be implemented to protect them against horrific violence. Amid social and political turmoil, injustice and inequality, female empowerment and elevating the role of women will provide opportunities for Pakistan to build national resilience and strengthen its capacity to respond to emerging national and international threats.
Eliza Wilson is currently completing a Bachelor of Asian Studies at the Australian National University and is studying abroad at Kansai University, Osaka. Within her studies, she focuses on Indo Pacific Security Studies, Gender Security and Japanese language studies. Eliza is particularly interested in investigating international affairs through a gendered lens. Further, she focuses on intersectional studies such as gender security post-conflict, and gender issues that arise due to the impacts of climate change. She wants to raise awareness of these issues and promote effective ways for Australia to respond.