Omer Aziz is a writer, political journalist, and recent Commonwealth and Pitt Scholar at Cambridge University. He tweets @omeraziz12.
On Tuesday afternoon, another gruesome chapter was written in Pakistan’s history. As 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was walking towards the Lahore courthouse on one of the city’s busiest streets, her brother fired a shot at her. Having missed, he then smashed her head with a brick. As she lay wounded, the rest of her family bludgeoned her to death, her loud cries echoing through the street were dozens of people, including the police, looked on.
Farzana Parveen’s life was taken because she married a man of her own choosing, rather than the cousin selected by family elders. The honour killing set off a fury of rage among elite Pakistanis. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called it a “brutal killing” and demanded an investigation. The chief minister of Punjab called it an act of terrorism. The Dawn newspaper, an English daily, called it “particularly horrific.” The Urdu papers responded more tepidly, while Ms. Parveen’s father pathetically muttered that his daughter had “insulted” the family, declaiming that he felt no regret over participating in his own daughter’s murder.
The practice of murdering daughters and sisters who defy familial wishes and supposedly muddy the ‘honour’ of the family is practically a social institution in the tribal belts of South Asia and the Middle East. But before the reflexive Islam bashers begin clearing their throats, it is useful to remember that such crimes have no basis in Islam, which teaches that marriage is a consensual and equal partnership.
The tribal practice is grounded instead in an antediluvian, violent hatred of female sexuality. Not a fear of sexuality, mind you, but a deeply entrenched loathing of it; where the clan’s entire sense of esteem is defined by the chastity of its women. Thus, the woman’s right to self-determination must be negated. Her genitals must be controlled. Her sexuality must be denied. She is to abide by the dictates of her father and brothers or face violent punishments. What we call ‘honour killings’ – a placid and useless term – should actually be called human sacrifice, because such murders-of-shame are relics from our premodern days when humans sacrificed one another based on various superstitions. Notice the almost universal correlation today between honour killings and illiteracy or general lack of education.
The extreme patriarchy of Parveen’s father and brother – of countless fathers and brothers around the world – is rooted in a fundamentally totalitarian understanding of male-female relations. For ultratraditional, ultraconservative men like Parveen’s father, only absolute dominion over the daughter’s reproductive choices will suffice. Anything short of this is warrant for murder. The logical conclusion of this grotesque thinking is genital mutilation or murders so horrific one wonders how such crippling inhumanity poisoned the patriarch’s mind in the first place.
It is self-assuring and self-satisfying to write off honour killings as merely isolated acts of lunatics. They are nothing of the sort. According to Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, nearly 900 women were murdered last year for crimes of dishonour. When unreported murders done in the penitentiary of the patriarchal home are counted, the actual number is in the thousands. These men are not insane. They are behaving according to centuries of ossified tradition. And, even if they were insane, then what of the large mobs who watch in silence?
A common counterargument relativizes these kinds of crimes. It posits that the deadly beating of a woman outside of a bustling courthouse in a major city in Pakistan is no different than various examples of Western patriarchy. It is true that the West is infected by rape culture and is in denial about its own crimes against women. But to be morally serious about what is happening in Pakistan and elsewhere requires noticing the difference in degree. The patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism polluting the minds of too many South Asian males are particularly absolutist. I say this as a man of Pakistani heritage. We have a problem in our culture. We see some of our male figures of authority mistreat their wives and daughters and we adopt such frameworks consciously and unconsciously. We arrange our daughters to be married without their consent and then lash out when they demand equal treatment. We adopt extremely conservative mores towards our sisters and allow our brothers to be liberal and libertine.
What are we afraid of? Can we, for one second, acknowledge that there is a cultural problem here, or will we continue to sanctimoniously blame all of this on ‘those other men over there?’ Within five kilometers of my home, I can think of at least two cases of such extreme, impenitent misogyny. In one case, a Pakistani father beat his daughter after he discovered her long-distance relationship. In another, the case of Aqsa Parvez, her brother strangled her to death with the father’s consent because she objected to wearing the hijab. Everywhere there is an honour killing – a human sacrifice – there is a woman breaking off the chains of tradition. There is a woman demanding the right to live as she wishes, and in her way is a man demanding she get in line.
These women are the real freedom fighters in the Pakistani and wider South Asian and Middle Eastern community, not the cowardly males who use their physical advantage to assault women in the name of some illusory honour, or their supporters in the West and throughout South Asia who rationalize their decisions. One crime too many has been committed against women by the insecure, ignorant, hate-filled mob that is their own family. It is time that we be honest about the causes of such barbarity and begin seriously combatting it, or Farzana Parveen’s name may soon be forgotten like the many women who were sacrificed before her.