Should An Individual’s Life Depend On Rigid Societal Code Of Conduct?

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Afzal Kohistani was a man on a mission, a mission that he believed in and eventually sacrificed his life for. His struggle started in 2012 when he brought the Kohistan video scandal to our attention. The scandal shows the ugly face of “honor” in our society which ironically ends in death for those accused of bringing dishonor upon their families. And it takes very little to bring “dishonor”. Something as simple as clapping or dancing is enough. And that’s exactly what happened in the Kohistan video scandal (Sheikh Ismail).

Honor killing, regionally called ‘karo-kari’, ‘siyahkari’, ‘tor tora’ and ‘kala kali’, is a multifaceted subject whose characterization and execution has varied over time and across global cultures. Between varying definitions, honor killing can be best described as “actions that remove a collective stain and dishonour, both gendered and locally defined, through the use of emotional, social, and physical coercion over a person whose actual or imputed actions have brought that dishonour” (Hossain and Welchman, 50). The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimated that approximately 5000 women and girls are killed in the name of honor, annually. Within that significant number, around 1000 are victims of crimes committed in Pakistan. Distributing the number statistically, around 25 per cent of honor crimes in the world occur in Pakistan only. Ranked 6th on the list of “most dangerous countries for women” according to a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll, Pakistan is topped by India and Afghanistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation poll). It is considered that honor killing is a private family or regional affair and therefore it should be solved privately, there are no accurate statistics available on this social abhorrence. It ought to be noted that this is a gender-neutral concept however larger number of victims are women. The only principal contrast is that the male blamed of dishonoring might be allowed to clarify his position before the jirga (trible leaders) and can escape the severe punishment by offering remuneration to the family who has been “disgraced”. Women are rarely given such opportunities to explain their side of the story and the only possible way to re-establish the honor is by killing the women. The wide spectrum of activities that can trigger dishonor usually range from women seeking divorce, having “illicit” pre or extra marital affairs, rape victims, not giving consent in marriage proposals, talking to unrelated men, going out of the house without consent, property-related issues to everything that demeans men’s fragile ghairat. Furthermore, the accusations of engaging in such activities do not need to be necessarily true; mere suspicion is enough to tarnish the family’s honor. “Men” of the family who believe their izzat(respect) has been compromised deliberate on and inflict the punishments by themselves without consulting the accused’s defence. Although some argue that honor killing is rooted in religion (Islam), reasons for honor killing show that it is inextricably linked and deeply rooted in the binds of culture, and tradition. Therefore, it should be treated as a crime against the state as this is necessary to eradicate state’s patriarchal structures, lack of education and endemic lawlessness.

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Since honor killings occur predominantly, not exclusively, in Muslim countries and the perpetrators usually justify it in religious terms, it is imperative to consult the Islamic jurisprudence on the matter. Honor killings are induced by an alleged failure of women to preserve their chastity in regards to their Islamic obligations. The Quran, however, instructs both Muslim men and women to characterise modesty with the men ordered to “lower their gaze” (An-Nur 30) and the women to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty that they should not display their beauty and ornaments” (An-Nur 31). Moreover, the Quran is unambiguous in forbidding believers to engage in horrific acts like honour killing with verses like “You shall not kill your children for fear of want…To kill them is a grievous sin” (Al-Isra 31). The Quran strengthens its stance against barbaric crimes like honour killing in its “penultimate verse on the sanctity of human life, the Quran clearly states that for anyone who murders an innocent human being unjustly, it shall be as if that person ‘had killed all of mankind.’ (Al-Ma'idah 32)” (TIME). Considering the Islamic doctrine, prominent Muslim scholars from across the globe have issued various statements condemning honor killings and declaring the practice “un-Islamic”. Misogynistic crimes like honor killing are older than Islam with ubiquity in areas like Rome and pagan Arabia; the advent of Islam helped eliminate such practices including female infanticide, and protected women’s rights. Despite having no sanctions in Islamic doctrine, honor killing is commonly justified in Pakistan on Islamic grounds. It is a consequence of people referring to ignorant scholars for Islamic knowledge and contorting Quranic verses out of context to fit their own misogynistic agendas. While Islam condemns honor killing explicitly, Pakistan’s feudal structures and patriarchal mindsets fail to acknowledge it as such.

The prime perpetrators of “honor killing” in Pakistan are the accused woman’s family; it is estimated that “the woman's family of origin was responsible for 78 percent of the killings while husbands of 'adulterous' wives accounted for another 16 percent” (Chesler and Bloom 46). The statistics raise questions about the cultural conceptions that drive one’s own kith and kin to murder them. Honor is an evocative label in the traditional Pakistani society where relations are interlinked and the shame of one’s family spreads like ink on parchment to the extended community. Gossip and scandal within and across these communities augment societal pressure on the accused’s family to restore the community’s honor code. In the interwoven community, hence, honor functions to protect and strengthen the social standing of a family. Where honor becomes a currency, women become the commodity. Women in collective cultures like Pakistan are viewed as repositories for familial izzat; women represent it and men protect it.

Men’s protection of women derives from their vested interest in female honor owing to the Pakistani society’s subscription to patrilineage and its sexist cousin, patriarchy. In patrilineal societies, women’s fertility and reproductivity ensure the construction and maintenance of family power structures. Hence, the code of honor centers around gender hierarchies with men dominating women. Reducing women to just their wombs with men exercising dominion creates patriarchy in the society; a societal arrangement where men enjoy an achieved status and women are given an ascribed status with respect to men. In patriarchal societies, every abstract societal element is valued in terms of men. Men should safeguard women because “they are our mothers, daughters, and wives” and men should respect women because “that is what real men do”. By bracketing women within men, Pakistani society suppresses women to hide behind, bow down and make way for men. Men’s superior status, meanwhile, entitles them to exert control over women’s actions and its consequences are that any woman attempting to exercise her own independent will is perceived as challenging the family’s ghairat. Such was the case of Qandeel Baloch: transforming herself into Pakistan’s first social media sensation with her promiscuous Facebook videos, she liberated herself from social convention’s dictation of her life and was, consequently, strangled by her drug-addict brother in the name of ghairat, in 2016. Patriarchy, specifically in Pakistan, not only exists in the socio-cultural context but is seeped into and armoured by the country’s legal framework. The State’s institutions and legislations did not formally endorse the gender differentials of patriarchy until the presidency of Zia-ul-Haq in 1978. The ‘Islamization’ of Pakistan in General Zia’s era “systematically worked towards the removal of women from the public sphere and the perpetuation of the image of the modest and chaste woman” (Lari12). The state outlined policies that ascribed women to roles secondary to men and established conventional behaviours for women to be dominated by men. Such an administrative action withdrew state’s security and protection of women and enabled greater freedom to the society’s insidious patriarchy to be manifested publicly. Zia’s administration unofficially promoted the idea that men could freely form judgment of women and any negativity within that would be through the women’s faults. Gender was segregated in communal activities and women’s educational institutions, most crucially, were separated with most building household abilities, rather than developing the literacy skills of their female pupils.

The conventional subjugation of women, moreover, cuts them off from access to opportunities like education. Denying women an education is crucial as it limits their awareness to seek social and legal help following threats of possible “honor killing”. The latest consensus 2017-18 shows that literacy rate in females in Pakistan is only 45% (Zaman). It, also, restrains their economic freedom to build secure futures for themselves; their economic dependence on men reinforces their inferiority that promotes gendered violence like honor killing. Additionally, lack of education immobilises women and restricts them from participating in and influencing public dimensions that shape cultural phenomena like honor killing. Lack of awareness further inculcates low confidence level in them, shrinking the possibilities to speak up for help.

Since these cases go unreported and often families declared them as natural deaths or suicides, it leads to endemic lawlessness. Honor killing is used as a tool to settle scores by targeting the rival families’ women and as a means of dishonoring the family and disintegrating its lineage, that leads to endemic lawlessness. Such was the case of Mukhtaran Mai. “In 2002, Mukhtaran Mai, a resident of village Meerwala village, was gang-raped on the orders of a tribal council as a form of revenge for a crime which her adolescent brother Shakur allegedly committed” (DAWN). In the context of a traditional Pakistani society, women are encumbered with the burden of honor that strengthens the notions of masculinity; men resort to extreme measures like honor killing to ensure that women shoulder the burden in ways men deem right.

Following the discussion on social, legal, and religious apparatuses that produce the phenomenon of honor killing, it is worthwhile to delve into the corrective apparatuses that could mitigate the problem. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has declared around 300 women as victims of honor killing in the first half of 2016 (Chen and Sophia) and Pakistan ranks 144 out of 145 countries on gender disparity (World Economic Forum). The statistics manifest a growing, toxic social epidemic in dire need of acknowledgment and resolution. Conclusive of aforementioned arguments, Pakistan’s failure to act thus far stems out of a male-controlled socio-cultural backdrop, an insufficient and ineffective legal mechanism, and misinterpretations of Islamic jurisprudence. However, the State’s inertia has to change and the primary reason for that is best summarised in Quaid-e-Azam’s own words: “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you; we are victims of evil customs. It is a crime against humanity that our women are shut up within the four walls of their houses as prisoners. There is no sanction anywhere for the deplorable conditions in which our women have to live” (Jayawardena and Alwis, 56). To eliminate the deplorable conditions and help Pakistan achieve the height of glory, there must be a cultural shift in the country alongside tighter legal reforms and their effectual implementation that provides greater security and equality for women by declaring honor killing as “the crime against the state”. In addition to maximising penalty for abettors of honor killing and other gendered violence, women must be provided with opportunities to empower themselves through education, training, and legal support. Political discourse and manifestos should comprise of committing resources to advocacy of women’s rights; the steps would elevate female agency and contribution to building social agendas and influencing cultural perception. Moreover, awareness must be raised about the misperceptions of Islam to counter the narrative of ignorant religious scholars so that people are not beholden to invisible religious obligations such as killing one’s own daughter to cleanse the family of the shame she has allegedly brought. Activists in Pakistan are headed in the right direction for emancipation of women but they need each of us to actively support in furthering their agenda so that there are no more Saba Qaisars or Qandeel Balochs or Mukhtaran Mais or Kiran Bibis or Samia Sarwars or Ambreen Riasats in this country.

Works Cited

  1. “Al-Qur'an Al-Kareem - القرآن الكريم.” Surah Al-Isra [17:31],
  2. “Al-Qur'an Al-Kareem - القرآن الكريم.” Surah Al-Ma'idah [5:32],
  3. “Al-Qur'an Al-Kareem - القرآن الكريم.” Surah An-Nur [24:30],
  4. Bhatti, Haseeb. “Mukhtar Mai Rape Case: SC Adjourns Review Petition after Suspects Show up without Legal Counsel.” DAWN.COM, 6 Mar. 2019,
  5. Chen, Kelly, and Sophia Saifi. “Pakistan Passes Milestone Law for Women.” CNN, Cable News Network, 8 Oct. 2016,
  6. Chesler, Phyllis, and Nathan Bloom. “Hindu vs. Muslim Honor Killings.” Phyllis Chesler, 19 July 2012,
  7. Hossain, Sara, and Lynn Welchman. “Honour.” Google Books, Google,
  8. Iftikhar, Arsalan. “Don't Turn a Blind Eye to 'Honor Killings'.” Time, Time, 29 July 2016,
  9. Jayawardena, K. and Alwis, M. (1996). Embodied violence. London: Zed Books, p.56.
  10. Lari, Maliha Zia. “'Honour Killings' in Pakistan and Compliance of Law.” Aurat Foundation, Nov. 2011,
  11. Sheikh, Ismail. “Afzal Kohistani and the Deathless Video Jirga | Samaa Digital.” Samaa TV, 8 Mar. 2019,
  12. Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The World's Five Most Dangerous Countries for Women 2018.”,
  13. World Economic Forum.
  14. Zaman, Fida. “Female Literacy Rate.” The Nation, The Nation, 4 Aug. 2016,
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