National Assembly in Pakistan passes a Bill on ’honour killings’.
It declares that anyone committing such a crime will be guilty of "intentional murder". The government says that this Bill is an historic step forward in eliminating crimes against women. But the reality is completely different.
This Bill is in fact a response to international pressure from the western imperialist powers. These countries, which have given full support to the Musharraf dictatorship as an ally in the ‘war against terror’, feel the pressure of public opinion in their own countries. As a result, they have demanded a face-saving response from Musharraf. The new Bill against honour killing is in no way meant to stop this heinous crime. It is a window-dressing exercise, which does not address the real issues of how women are socially and economically subjugated and oppressed in Pakistani society.
What is ’honour killing’?
Honour killing is a tradition and practice that has existed in the sub-continent for many centuries. It is a barbaric and inhuman custom, a legacy of tribalism and feudalism which still exists in its worst form in Pakistan today.
This traditional custom gives parents, brothers, husbands-in-law, cousins and other relatives the right to kill women in their family or tribe on suspicion of sexual relations with a man occurring outside marriage. Relatives can also kill the suspected man on this charge.
When British imperialism was the colonial master of the Asian sub-continent they introduced a law, which existed up until recently, stating that honour killings fell into the category of "unintentional killings". This law also gave the family of these women the right to pardon the murderer.
Today, this inhuman custom is widely practiced in Pakistan. Marriage without the consent and approval of the family is also treated as an illicit relation and couples considered deserving of being killed. No girl or woman has the right to marry the man of her own choice. Last year, 1,900 women were killed by their close relatives.
In Sindh, this custom is called karo kari and has been on the rise over the last few years. In many cases, the tribal chiefs and feudal lords gave orders to tribal men to kill couples, even when the families had accepted the marriage.
Such acts also have economic advantages for the feudal lords because they get money from the families of both the accused and the deceased. In many cases, people use an honour killing to eliminate enemies. They will murder their opponent and then kill their sister or wife afterwards and declare both crimes an honour killing. The law will leave them without any punishment.
Some female MPs put forward a Bill to ban this practice but the ruling party and opposition MPs, hand in hand, voted against this Bill as most of them are feudal lords from different parties, including the Pakistani Peoples Party. This shows that they have not been interested in fighting violence against women in the past
The military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, introduced the barbaric Hudood laws in 1979 under the guise of "Islamic Laws". The main aim was to suppress women, especially politically active women. These laws are completely anti-women and discriminatory. A victim of rape needs the evidence of four males to prove the rape, otherwise she will be prosecuted for adultery." This means that if a woman was being raped in a room she would have to invite four more in to prove this rape! 1,300 women are in prison because of these measures.
Some couples have been arrested on suspicion that they were preparing for sexual intercourse outside marriage or were planning to do so. Even now, the government accepts that these are the most widely misused laws in Pakistan. But nothing has been done to repeal these laws, because they don’t want to offend their fundamentalist allies. These laws allow the police to enter any house or place where they think that adultery is taking place. The working class and poor rural women are the victims of these draconian laws and they should be repealed without delay.
This law is also used against couples who marry by choice but without the permission of their families. The police can arrest couples on the complaints of parents, brothers, or sisters especially if their sister or daughter runs away with a man. Both will be punished and imprisoned. The Higher Court took hundreds of decisions to try and stop the police from practicing this law but they still keep on doing so. The Higher Courts also declared marriage of choice to be legal.
But it is not only repressive laws which women in Pakistan have to deal with. Domestic violence is not a crime in Pakistan. Every man has the right to beat his wife, daughter or sister. Every year, 5,000 women die from domestic violence. Thousands are badly injured, many become disabled. According to a survey conducted by some NGOs and DAWN (the leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan), nearly 90% of women face domestic violence. Generally, violence against women is increasing, but domestic violence has significantly risen over the last decades.
Last year, 857 women were brought to hospitals being having partly or completely burnt by acid attacks – and these are just the official figures. A lot of women get acid thrown on their faces or bodies for different reasons. Many women lose their eyes, ears and get their faces disfigured as a result of these violent attacks.
It is generally accepted that men are allowed to beat their wives or daughters because Islam gave them the right to do that. These ideas are reinforced by the sermons of the Mullahs who preach them regularly. Victims of domestic violence have no way of getting legal protection. This is because the police are never prepared to consider domestic violence as a crime and they always refuse to register cases on this issue. Normally, the police put pressure on the victims to force them to make a compromise with their families.
The Socialist Movement and the Swair women’s organisation (a community organisation campaigning on working class women issues) has jointly launched a Campaign against Domestic Violence.
The main aim of this campaign is to organise women on a community basis and also to develop the awareness of working class women on this issue.
We have been able to organise some very successful activities, such as two seminars in shanty town areas, and three awareness-raising work-shops, in which more than 100 young women participated. We have also produced many leaflets and posters on this issue, clearly linking this issue with capitalism and feudalism and with the transformation of society on the basis of socialist ideas. This campaign is getting momentum, so we are planning to do more activities in the future.
One thing is certain – women can only be freed from all shackles and repression on the basis of socialism. Socialism will give them full freedom and equal rights. Laws are not enough to get rid of exploitation, discrimination and oppression and the bad conditions created by capitalism. It is necessary to overthrow this rotten oppressive and hierarchical system to get full freedom and liberty.
This country’s ruling elite is so conservative and anti-working class that it would be wrong to think they will make progressive legislation in favour of women. That is evident from the fact that the present military regime, which presents itself as ‘moderate, enlightened and progressive’, has failed to change or repeal the most barbaric, draconian and discriminating laws against women. Only a decisive struggle against capitalism and the successful overthrow of this decaying system and the establishment of a workers state will guarantee the full rights and freedom of women.