Last month the world was shocked to hear of the horrific murder of Pakistani social media personality and singer Qandeel Baloch, an outspoken feminist who was a voice for many in her country who had no way of speaking up for gender equality. She was a controversial figure in her conservative culture but she knew the risks and didn’t back down. Unfortunately, her brother decided the “shame” she was bringing on her family was too much for him to handle and he strangled her to death.
In a nutshell, that is what an “honor killing” is. We are morally inclined to use quotation marks because there is absolutely no honor whatsoever when a family member (usually male) decides it is better to take the life of (most commonly) a woman in his own family to preserve their public reputation. It is not the first honor killing and it won’t be the last, unless we see massive cultural change, beginning with gender equality.
In light of this recent tragedy which had people all over the world talking, Pakistan’s government officials seem to have woken up to the fact that they can no longer ignore what a horrific epidemic this is. BBC News reported in April this year that the number of honor killings in Pakistan alone are on the rise, with 1100 women reported murdered by family members in the last year alone.
Global Citizen takes the issue further afield sharing that the crime affects 5000 women around the world each year. Just before Qandeel Baloch’s death, the Pakistani Minister for Law and Justice Zahid Hamid announced the introduction of two new bills aimed at tackling honor killings as well as heighten the punishment for rape.
Along with honor killings, rape is a huge problem in Pakistan, even more so than neighboring India which has had the international media spotlight on its own sexual assault and rape epidemic ever since the brutal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi in 2012.
According to figures shared by the IB Times, there are close to 3000 rape reports made each year in Pakistan, and we only shudder to think what the actual number would be if we knew how many unreported cases there were.
With the news of Qandeel Baloch’s murder, it seems the Pakistani government knew how important the timing of the bills were and a special committee of lawmakers from both the upper and lower houses of parliament have now unanimously approved the two long-awaited bills which are expected to be voted into law very soon.
The Express Tribune describes them as two very “pro-women bills” and points to the death of Qandeel Baloch as instrumental in helping them get this far. Both the Criminal Laws Amendment Bill and the Anti Rape Laws were introduced initially in the Senate in early 2014, but did not pass the National Assembly in April 2015 within the required 90 day time-frame.
Global citizen states that it failed mainly due to “lack of support from religious mainstream groups which saw the loophole as a family’s right and part of Islamic law. Yet, strong support from local advocacy groups, activists, and growing change in mainstream culture is strong at bay to enact change and put an end to honor-killing loopholes in Pakistan’s law.”
If there is any sort of silver lining from the news of such a high-profile honor killing it is that Qandeel’s death looks not to be in vain. According to Justice Minister Hamid, under the new law relatives of the victim would only be able to pardon the killer of capital punishment, but they would still face a mandatory life sentence of twelve-and-a-half years.
For those who aren’t familiar with Pakistani law, it had previously allowed for family members of the victim to pardon the killer in an honor killing situation, which has resulted in a very low conviction rate.
In the anti-rape bill, a measure requiring DNA testing for the victim and perpetrator has been introduced for the first time, and the rape of minors or mentally or physically ill victims will be punishable by death.
Sughra Imam, a former Senator for the Pakistan People’s Party who originally helped introduce the two pro-women measures in 2014 expressed her thoughts on the current status of the bills.
“No law will eradicate a crime entirely but the law should be a deterrent. Laws are supposed to guide better behavior, not allow destructive behavior to continue with impunity,” she said.
In 2004 the Pakistani Parliament passed the Honor Killings Act which made it punishable by law to commit murder in the name of “honor”, but now that the new measure introduced also tackles the loophole of family members pardoning the murderer which prevented many convictions, we are seeing some important progress which hopefully have an effect once signed into law officially.
At the Academy Awards this year, Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar for Best Documentary short for her film ‘A Girl In The River: The Price of Forgiveness’ which followed the story of a girl who miraculously survived an honor killing, and how her own family were pushed into a corner in terms of pardoning the perpetrator who they knew.
After seeing the film, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was deeply affected by what he saw and vowed to fight to end honor killings. Upon hearing that the special committee has unanimously passed the two bills to tackle rape and honor killings, the Prime Minister’s daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif tweeted her praise for the progress being made.
It is certainly not the last we will hear about honor killings, and these laws being signed will not immediately make all gender-based crimes disappear overnight, but the kind of change needed to revolutionize hearts and minds can take time. It begins with those in positions of power doing all they can to send a message that women are to be valued as equal members of society. Here’s to seeing many more legislative wins like this across Pakistan and elsewhere where honor killings are most prevalent.