SYEDA HAMEED | 2 SEPTEMBER, 2014
On May 28, 2014, Farzana Parveen was stoned to death outside the Lahore High Court in Pakistan. She had come to the court early in the morning to give testimony in favour of her husband, Mohammad Iqbal, who she had married against the wishes of her family. Farzana was 25 years old and three months pregnant. The incident occurred bang next to the High Court and within two kilometres of the District Court, Aiwan-e-Adl (Hall of Justice), where family disputes are settled. The driver, Rashid, who took me back and forth on that particular stretch the next day informed me that this place is a ‘women’s adalat’.
I had reached Lahore a day after the gruesome killing, crossing on foot from Wagah. On the Delhi-Amritsar flight I had read the chilling story filed from Lucknow about two teenaged dalit girls from Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, who had been gang raped by five men and found hanging from a tree, which was described by the police as ‘probable suicide after the brutal attack’. Violence against women is the one persistent, omnipresent, blatant reality in every country of South Asia. Despite all that has been said at various political forums, it occurs throughout the region every single day and becomes a little more heinous each time.
It was 17 years ago that as Member of the National Commission of Women I was witness to my first case of honour killing. It had occurred in a village, Sudaka, in the Taodo block of district Mewat, Haryana, a mere 40 minutes drive from Delhi. The name of the two victims, Maimun and Idris, will forever be branded on my heart. The couple had eloped and married. The girl’s cousin had her gang raped, her body slashed and then left for dead. After she was rescued she escaped to Delhi and came within our protection. We took up her case with the Supreme Court, which gave its verdict in favour of the young couple. The two were forced to live incognito in the Capital where he worked as a mechanic and she gave birth to two children. Six years later they were tracked down by her family and it was in her own room that she was ‘honour’ killed by her younger brother.
In Lahore, Farzana Parveen was accosted at 7:45 am by a hostile group of 20 family members, including her father Mohammad Azeem, her brothers Zahid and Ghulam Ali, her cousins Mazhar and Mohammad Iqbal. She had come with her husband to contest an abduction case her family had filed against him. They fired shots in the air and tried to snatch her away but when she resisted they began pelting her with bricks from a nearby construction site. There was a crowd of onlookers who watched the stoning. Her husband told the BBC that the police was ‘watching silently’ while his wife was beaten to death despite desperate attempts to get them to act. Then he made the most bizarre statement; ‘One of my relatives took off his clothes to catch their attention. A naked man was crying for help before the court but nobody intervened’. Farzana’s father showed no remorse when he surrendered to the police and called the cold blooded murder: ‘my honour redeemed’.
When I went to the scene of crime it was bustling with life. I looked up at the beautiful domes of the Lahore High Court building and then down at the pavement where she must have been killed a mere two days ago. What bricks did they use; were they construction leftovers? Did they bring rods which they used to smash her skull? The media reported ‘batons and bricks’. Did her brain spill onto the pavement that was burning with May heat? I looked around but there was no evidence, not a shred. There was only the incontrovertible scene of crime screaming its story for anyone who cared to listen.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a relentless crusader, once again spoke about the failure of the State to protect its citizen’s lives. In 2013 alone the HRCP had recorded killing of nearly 900 women in honour crimes. It stated: ‘These women were killed because the State did not confront this feudal practice supported by religiosity and bigotry’.
The stories are the same across this region. A swathe of blood of innocent girls, some of them children, courses through all seven countries though we hear of more cases from Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. Back in 1997 when I filed my report in the honour killing case there was a storm in the country. After the Supreme Court had intervened, I felt a heady sense of victory. What I and even the Supreme Court had not foreseen was that ‘honour’ would find a way to redeem itself even after the passage of several years.
Following the Lahore incident, the media has gone wild in reporting stories about this killing. One account that has emerged is by Farzana’s sister Khalida who has said that she was killed by Iqbal (her husband) and his accomplices who shifted the responsibility to her father and brothers. One can discount the tales and stick to the very first report that appeared hours after the kill, but the rot underlying this practice is incontrovertible. And that pertains to the practice of ‘diyat’ or blood money that allows the victim’s family to forgive the murder in compliance with blood money laws, which simply means compromise and payment, sometimes even offering a girl in marriage. In this one family, for example, three women have been murdered.
It is reported that Iqbal had killed his first wife ‘because I fell in love’. His son, who had reported the murder of his mother, forgave his father under the blood money laws. Farzana’s family had killed one of her sisters but had escaped punishment because her son had given forgiveness. Quite likely that the same formula will work once again, allowing free passage to Farzana’s killers as well. The third woman killed in one family.
Impunity flourishes under the fig leaf of religious sanction, while society looks on. Columnist Nazish Brohi’s comment on the incident, ‘intolerance and violence are the only factors to have had a trickledown effect’ applies equally to the Indian context where we too wear dark lenses of cynical acceptance.
And the black humour in the comment of a family witness to the Farzana Parveen bludgeoning that ‘a naked man was crying for help but no one listened’ is matched in the report of the dalit girls’ hanging in UP on the last page of ‘Dawn’. It reports on Congress Vice President’s visit to the village, Katra Shahadat Ganj: ‘Mr Gandhi also saw the tree where the girls were found’.