In October, the Parliament of Pakistan unanimously passed historic legislation for women, declaring that perpetrators of “honor killings” can no longer be forgiven and pardoned by the family of the victim and serve zero time in jail. There is now a 25-year mandatory prison sentence for perpetrators of the crime, a dramatic shift from the previously nonexistent mandatory sentence. This is a step toward advancing women’s rights in a country where there is great inequality between the genders.
More than one-thousand women were killed in honor killings last year in Pakistan. Pakistan’s legal code, in accordance with its interpretation of Sharia law, has allowed the forgiving of honor killings since the 1990s. Honor killings usually involve a woman being murdered by a male relative who believes she has brought dishonor to the family. Instances of dishonor can include running away, refusing arranged marriage, having relationships outside of an approved group, raising suspicion of infidelity, dressing inappropriately, as well as other reasons. Basically any way a woman or girl can defy traditional morals or resist her family amounts to dishonor. Perpetrators of honor killings seldom feel remorse, often believing that they are justified in committing such acts or perhaps feeling that they did not have a choice.
With pressure from the international community, sparked most notably by the famed documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and the publicized honor killing of social media star Qandeel Baloch, Pakistan’s Parliament quickly compromised on the bill. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif stated, “Women are the most essential part of our society and I believe in their empowerment, protection and emancipation so that they can equally contribute towards development and prosperity of our country.” The legislation is thus an attempt to give women more agency in the court system and outlaw the murder of women by their family members.
Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, A Girl in the River won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short in 2016, and provided a stunning example of how honor killings play out in families and the court system in Pakistan. It follows Saba, a nineteen-year-old woman in Pakistan who survived an honor killing attempt by her father and uncle. Her “dishonor” was defying her family by marrying a man believed to be from an inferior family. Neighborhood elders were shown bullying Saba, who remained persistent in obtaining justice for herself, to forgive her uncle and father and therefore release them from jail. The father and uncle, interviewed in the film, clearly showed no remorse and whole-heartedly believed they were justified in their actions.
This legislation passed three months after Qandeel Baloch, the twenty-five-year-old media star and “modern day feminist” in Pakistan, was strangled by her brother, Waseem, because he thought women should stay in the home and be traditional. She was well-known in Pakistan and around the world with her controversial, sassy, and increasingly political videos that she posted on Facebook. With 750,000 followers on Facebook, she was not much different than other Internet stars, talking about hair and celebrity crushes. In Pakistan, however, her videos were extremely controversial. For example, she made a music video that mocked the restrictions Pakistani women endure. Madiha Tahir, co-founder of the feminist magazine Tanqeed called her a “gutsy feminist provocateur” who had exposed “the hypocrisy of the male-dominated establishment, especially the clergy, through her social media videos.” Waseem claimed that his friends sharing her videos and photos was too much to handle and that killing her was better than killing himself. He confessed to the murder, saying, “I am proud of what I did. I drugged her first, then I killed her. She was bringing dishonor to our family.” However, unlike most perpetrators of honor killing, Waseem was charged with a crime against the state under Section 311 of Pakistan’s Penal Code, rendering him unable to be pardoned by forgiveness.
Obaid-Chinoy says that the bill is the “first step,” further commenting, “We need to have implementation and if we send enough people to jail for honor killings it will act as a deterrent.” It is widely hoped that the new legislation and renewed threat of imprisonment will deter men from committing honor killings. However, the bill is not perfect. Although there is now a minimum sentence, the bill does not abolish the act of forgiving nor make honor killing a crime against the state. If the perpetrator is sentenced to death, the family can forgive and have the perpetrator’s sentence commuted to imprisonment.
On the same day this legislation on honor killings was passed, important legislation regarding rape was passed as well. Before the passage of such legislation, alleged perpetrators were rarely, if ever convicted. Under the passed legislation regarding rape, medical evidence has become admissible in court in conjunction with mandatory DNA testing, rape cases have to be tried within three months, and the rape of minors and the disabled has become punishable under law. Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director at Equality Now, stated enthusiastically, “These bills are hugely important for Pakistani women, where rape conviction rates were almost non-existent, due in large part to various technical obstacles to accessing justice.” These pieces of legislation will theoretically give Pakistani women more power and more credibility in the court system, and potentially decrease the number of women killed in honor killings. By passing these bills, the Parliament of Pakistan has demonstrated its ability to change the law for the advancement of women’s rights in Pakistani society.