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Examining Pakistan's 'honor killings' scourge

The recent burning to death of a teenage girl by her own mother has once again turned the spotlight on the issue of so-called "honor killings" in the country. What are the reasons behind the prevalence of this practice?

In the eastern city of Lahore this week, 18-year-old Zeenat Rafiq was doused with kerosene and set ablaze by her mother Parveen Rafiq, because the young girl had defied her family to marry a man she was in love with.

While the case sparked nationwide outrage, such killings are not uncommon in Pakistan. Last year alone, nearly 1,100 women were killed in the country by their relatives for "dishonoring" families and allegedly violating cultural values on love and marriage, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a non-governmental organization.

The case of Zeenat Rafiq is the latest in a series of such incidents over the past several months. In the Punjab province, a 19-year-old school teacher named Maria Bibi was set on fire last week for refusing to marry a man twice her age.

A month earlier, police arrested 13 members of a local tribal council in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province for allegedly strangling a 17-year-old girl and setting her on fire for helping a friend elope with her lover.

A rise in reporting

"There has been an increase in the reporting of these crimes to police and the media in recent years," says Tahira Abdullah, a Pakistani human rights activist, adding that this is raising awareness in society about the problem.

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At the same time, she told DW, the country is becoming increasingly polarized, with moderate forces losing ground and religious extremists having a bigger say in shaping the nation's politics and laws.

Although the nation's parliament passed a law against honor killings in 2004, it has so far been poorly implemented, say critics.

Furthermore, activists point out that even with better implementation, the law itself will not be enough to prevent such crimes. "Laws cannot do much until there's a positive change in society's attitude toward women," Samar Minullah a social activist and filmmaker, told DW.

Nevertheless, there is a need for strengthening the existing law against honor killings, Abdullah stressed, pointing out that at present most of these cases are not pursued in court. This has led to such crimes being committed with impunity, believe rights advocates.

"The state has to become the guardian of the victims in such cases and ensure stringent punishments for the perpetrators," Abdullah said.

Role of media and religious bodies

The activist also blames the nation's media of partly reinforcing anti-women social attitudes, by portraying women as submissive individuals in their television programming. "In their reporting, the media inadvertently often glorifies the killers," she noted.

Abdullah says there also needs to be reporting on positive stories, citing a father who left his village, property and family in order to protect his daughter from being killed in the name of honor. "A message must be sent to society that there is no honor in killing," she underlined.

Minullah also blames the Islamic Republic's religious parties and Muslim scholars for not doing enough to put an end to such killings.

Pakistan's top clerical body, the Council of Islamic Ideology, has taken controversial stances in recent months, saying that a husband should be allowed to "lightly beat" his wife and declaring a women's protection legislation "un-Islamic."

"We don't talk about women's rights in mosques and how important it is to treat women with equal respect. While the latest CII recommendations concern women's rights, no one from the CII or any other religious body has ever come forward and condemned crimes committed against women," Minullah said.

An ongoing struggle

Abdullah admits it is not easy to change societal attitudes toward women in Pakistan. But she and other activists vow to carry on with their struggle to eradicate the violent practice, notwithstanding the fatwas and threats they receive.

Zaman Khan, head of the complaint cell at HRCP, criticizes the nation's government for not prioritizing women's rights, noting its failure to appoint a chairperson for the National Commission on Status of Women - one of the most important government bodies on women rights - for the past six months.

Khan, however, remains optimistic about women's empowerment in the country.

"I believe that ultimately the women will win, there is a very slow and quite revolution taking place in Pakistan; women from all economic backgrounds are coming out and working. When a woman is economically empowered, it is difficult to suppress her."


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