In Pakistan, Women Pay The Price of 'Honor'
Washington Post, Monday , May 8, 2000
By Pamela Constable
GUJAR KHAN, Pakistan –– Zahida Perveen's head is shrouded in a white cotton veil, which she self-consciously tightens
every few moments. But when she reaches down to pick up her baby daughter, the veil falls away to reveal the face of one of
Pakistan's most horrific social ills, broadly known as "honor" crimes.
Perveen's eyes are empty sockets of unseeing flesh, her earlobes have been sliced off, and her nose is a gaping, reddened
stump of bone. Sixteen months ago, her husband, in a fit of rage over her alleged affair with a brother-in-law, bound her hands
and feet and slashed her with a razor and knife. She was three months' pregnant at the time.
"He came home from the mosque and accused me of having a bad character," the tiny, 32-year-old woman murmured as she
awaited a court hearing last month. "I told him it was not true, but he didn't believe me. He caught me and tied me up, and then
he started cutting my face. He never said a word except, 'This is your last night.' "
Perveen's disfigurement is extreme, but her case is standard in its basic elements. Thousands of Pakistani women and girls are
stabbed, burned or maimed every year by husbands, fathers or brothers who believe they have brought them dishonor by being unfaithful, seeking a divorce, eloping with a boyfriend or refusing to marry a man chosen by the family.
If a victim dies, the crime becomes an "honor killing," a term that has come to symbolize the cruel irony of a conservative
Islamic society that purports to shelter women, yet often condones savage violence against them in the name of male and family
The problem of honor killings in Pakistan, while far from new or unique, has aroused international attention since April, when
Samia Sarwar, 29, was shot dead in the law office of a leading human rights activist. It turned out that her parents had ordered
the killing because she had shamed the family by seeking a divorce.
In the past, elected Pakistani leaders have resisted taking action against honor killings, but last month military ruler Gen. Pervez
Musharraf launched a national human rights campaign, singling out honor killings for special denunciation. Government officials
said they are hoping to reduce Pakistan's isolation abroad as well as increase domestic awareness of the issue.
"The government of Pakistan vigorously condemns the practice of so-called honor killings," Musharraf declared. "Such acts do
not find a place in our religion or law. Killing in the name of honor is murder, and it will be treated as such."
Such crimes occur in countries across the world and among societies of all faiths; a jealous husband in the United States may be driven to the same act of rage as one in Pakistan or Portugal. But such attacks tend to be taken more seriously by authorities in developed countries, where women are more educated about their rights.
Moreover, because the concepts of male honor and female subservience are deeply ingrained in Islamic and Asian tribal
cultures, honor crimes including killing have occurred for years in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and other Muslim countries,
including Pakistan, without provoking widespread outcry.
"The concept of honor killing does not exist in Islamic law, but conservative tradition is very strong in our culture. Islam gives
rights to women, but society snuffs them out," said Nayyar Shebana, a lawyer with the Aurat Foundation, a women's advocacy
group in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
Only sketchy statistics are available on honor crimes, but the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that
in 1998 and 1999, more than 850 women were killed by their husbands, brothers, fathers or other relatives in Punjab,
Pakistan's most populous province. In many of those cases, the commission said, the woman was suspected of what was
considered immoral behavior.
Another common form of domestic violence against Pakistani women is burning. In 1998 and 1999, the commission reported
more than 560 cases of women burned at home in Punjab. In 1998, nearly half the victims died. Many cases were suspicious,
but there were only a handful of arrests. The Progressive Women's Association, which assists attack victims, tracked 3,560
women who were hospitalized after being attacked at home with fire, gasoline or acid between 1994 and 1999.
"We deal with these cases every day, but I have seen very few convictions," said Nahida Mahbooba Elahi, a lawyer and
women's rights activist who represents honor crime victims. "The men say the wife didn't obey their orders, or was having
relations with someone else. The police often say it is a domestic matter and refuse to pursue the case. Some judges even justify it and do not consider it murder."
Since the outcry over Samia Sarwar's killing, dozens of other cases have come to light, largely as a result of pressure and
publicity by women's groups. In recent interviews, victims or their families described the following incidents of extreme
* Perveen Aktar, 37, was severely burned in September when her husband, a fruit peddler in Rawalpindi, threw acid on her.
According to Aktar, whose face, chest and back are badly scarred, her husband wanted to return to his first wife, and she
refused. She said she went to the police, but that her husband paid them a series of bribes and they did not investigate. He has
since fled to another city.
* Zarina, 40, fled her home in Kashmir after her 20-year-old stepson shot her younger sister dead; the girl had wanted to marry a boyfriend whom the stepson did not like. Zarina said her husband sided with his son, beat her and threatened to kill their 2-year-old daughter when Zarina asked for a divorce. Zarina and her daughter are now in hiding in a private women's shelter.
* Kousar Perveen, a 32-year-old mother of four from Talagang, about 100 miles south of Islamabad, was allegedly beaten and burned to death by her in-laws in February. According to her parents and sisters, the in-laws had forbidden her to leave their house, even to visit her ailing parents or attend a cousin's wedding, and she had quarreled bitterly with them.
"They killed my daughter. God help me," sobbed Manzour Hussain, 75, his limbs shaking violently with palsy as two neighbors
carried him to a protest organized by the Progressive Women's Association at the Talagang courthouse in April. The in-laws
reportedly claimed she had been burned in a kitchen fire, but Hussain's family said she had been tied up and murdered. Two
people are under arrest, but no trial date has been set.
According to lawyers and women's rights advocates, many such cases are never brought to trial. They say police are easily
bribed or persuaded by the men's families to dismiss the complaints as "domestic accidents." Many victims, especially
uneducated women confined to their husband's homes, are too intimidated to press charges. Moreover, under another Islamic
legal concept called qisas and diyat, a blood relative of a victim can formally "forgive" a crime in exchange for payment, with
specific sums prescribed for damage to each body part.
Police officials say that many domestic crimes are never brought to their attention, that the complaints are often without merit
and that they prefer to settle minor ones informally. But they insist that they pursue all violent crimes and murder charges with
equal vigor, no matter what the motive.
"We want to punish the man who has done this, and the authorities are committed to doing all we can to help," said Ikramullah
Niazi, a police magistrate in Talagang who reassured Kousar Perveen's relatives outside the courthouse. "But it is difficult to
collect evidence, and whether he is acquitted or convicted is a matter for the judiciary. There is only so much we can do."
Women's rights advocates have praised Musharraf for his strong statement condemning honor killings, but they note it has not
been accompanied by any moves to bolster investigations or prosecutions. They also predict that such crimes will occur with
impunity as long as the laws that enshrine men's superiority over women remain unchanged and as long as the popular belief
persists that a woman's sexual sins must be avenged.
"Sections of society continued to regard any expression of independence by women as an infamy, and the only way to restore
the family's honor was to promptly put an end to the life of the transgressor," the Human Rights Commission said last year. The
subordination of women was so "routine," the group noted, that domestic violence was widely considered "normal"
behavior--even by the victims themselves.
Zahida Perveen's husband, a 40-year-old barber named Mahmoud Iqbal, does not deny that he carved up her face with his
razor on the night of Dec. 28, 1998. His defense is based on the Islamic legal concept of ghairat, or uncontrollable actions in
the face of extreme provocation--in this case, suspicion that his wife was being unfaithful. He took no action against the
brother-in-law with whom she was thought to be involved.
"I did these things, but I was going out of my senses," said the stocky bearded man, shackled to a policeman with thick iron
chains, as he stood on a balcony outside the Gujar Khan courtroom, about 20 miles from Rawalpindi, awaiting an evidence
hearing in the case. "She was provoking me and ruining my life. What I did was wrong, but I am satisfied. I did it for my honor
As Iqbal was taken to a police van after the hearing, several male relatives and acquaintances approached and shook his
manacled hand. Later, when journalists showed his wife's photographs to a group of middle-class men in Islamabad, several of
them commented that she "must have deserved it" and that her husband "did what a man has to do."
Although Pakistani law does not condone murder in the name of honor, it does contain strict Islamic ordinances enacted in
1979 that prescribe harsh punishment for the crime of zina, which means committing adultery or having premarital sex.
Under these ordinances, men and women can be stoned to death or publicly whipped 100 times for committing zina, but such
charges are brought almost exclusively against women. Harsh penalties are rarely imposed, largely because it is very difficult to
prove that the alleged sexual acts have occurred. But women's advocates say the law intimidates women, prevents them from
demanding their rights and encourages men to abuse them with impunity.
"Usually the women are eventually acquitted, but they may spend several years in jail meanwhile," said Shebana, the women's
advocacy lawyer. "Their families are happy to have them in prison, because they have disgraced the family by eloping and they
must be made to suffer for it."
In Pakistani society, women who are accused of zina, or who seek divorce and are not living with their parents, are often
ordered to remain in jail or in locked government shelters while their case is pending. In theory, these shelters are intended to
protect unattached women, but in practice they also seek to protect society from them and to ensure they do not engage in sex.
There are currently 28 women confined to the shelter in Rawalpindi. The doors and windows to their rooms are barred, and
only lawyers and relatives are permitted to visit them. They spend their days praying, studying the Koran, embroidering and
One pretty girl in her early twenties ran away from home after she was forced to marry a wealthy man twice her age. Her father filed a police case against her for eloping with a boy. In another case, a mother of five who sought a divorce said she was kidnapped by her brothers and threatened with mutilation. A third inmate named Usma said her husband beat her and took up with another woman but that her parents forced her to return to him.
"My parents say it is shameful for me to want a divorce," said Usma, who has been confined for more than a year. "They say it
will ruin their reputation and that no one will marry me if I am second-hand. I don't want to go home. I don't want to get
remarried. I just want to be free."
For Pakistani women who have been scarred by domestic violence, remarriage is almost unthinkable; sometimes suspicious
husbands disfigure them so they will not be attractive to other men. Zahida Perveen, a slim woman with curly black hair, may
well have caught her brother-in-law's eye as a pretty young bride.
Now, her face is a scarred and sightless mask that evokes horror and disgust from strangers. But once in a while, when her veil
drops, it arouses other emotions. Last month, as Perveen crouched outside the Gujar Khan courtroom, an elderly woman
watched her silently and began to weep. The woman let her own veil drop, revealing a jaw and cheek that had been badly
burned 20 years before.
"It was an accident," explained a man who sat next to her.
"It was an accident," the woman repeated quickly, and readjusted the veil over her face.
In the Name of Family Honor
Culturally sanctioned killing of women in the name of preserving the family's honor remains a serious problem in many countries. Although little information is available, some groups have estimated honor-killing incidents:
Bangladesh: Between 1996 and 1998, about 200 women were reported to have been attacked with acid by husbands or close relatives; deaths unknown.
Egypt: 52 violent crimes reported against women in 1997; in some cases the perpetrator was the victim's mother or sister.
Jordan: 20 killings reported in 1998. Human rights and women's activists have urged amendments to the penal code, which
exempts honor killings from punishment or reduces penalties in such cases.
Lebanon: 36 honor crimes between 1996 and 1998, mostly in towns and small villages; deaths unknown.
Pakistan: Hundreds killed each year. In Sindh province alone, more than 300 women were reported killed last year, and in
Punjab province 278.
Palestine territory: In the Gaza Strip, 177 women believed killed between 1996 and 1998 in 239 reported attacks. The deaths
were attributed to natural causes.
SOURCES: UNICEF, national women's groups
© 2000 The Washington Post Company