Pakistan’s highest religious and political authorities are taking action against so-called “honor killings” after the murder of a 25-year old pregnant woman on Tuesday brought international condemnation.
According to reports, police and bystanders watched passively as Farzana Iqbal was beaten to death with stones and bricks by 20 or so family members near the High Court in Lahore, the second largest city in Pakistan. Her family had condemned her decision to marry 45-year old Muhammad Iqbal and had filed abduction charges against him. The killing came as retaliation for Farzana’s intent to deliver a statement in his defense. Her family had also killed her older sister four years earlier after the woman refused to obey her family’s command to leave her husband.
The murder of women who refuse arranged marriages — often labeled with the misnomer “honor killing” — is common in Pakistan. The country’s Human Right Commission documented that 869 cases were reported last year, although the real number is likely higher. In a disturbing recent development, it came to light that now-widowed Muhammad Iqbal strangled his first wife in order to marry Farzana, but escaped punishment due to Pakistan’s blood-money laws: a provision of certain readings of Islamic law by which murderers are absolved of guilt by paying a fee to the families of their victims.
On Friday, the Pakistan Ulema Council, an influential body of Muslim scholars and clerics, issued a fatwa — or religious mandate — declaring the killing “un-Islamic and inhuman” and called for the arrest of the perpetrators. The mandate calls “the growing incidents of violence against women” such as Iqbal a “matter of grave concern for the government and religious and political parties.” The Council Chairman, Tahir Ashrafi, stated “the government and religious and political parties should play a role” in putting an end to “the killing of girls in the name of honor or dignity,” which he claimed “has nothing to do with Islam.” He also posted pages of a religious publication by the Council on his twitter account, clarifying that “Islam commands kindness, respect, and honor towards women” and that “we should not stay quiet” about violence and abuse.
Political leaders have also taken a stand against honor killings in the days since Farzana’s murder. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued a statement describing her death as a “brutal killing” and “totally unacceptable,” and ordered the chief minister of Punjab province to take “immediate action” and submit a report on the killing. Politicians of Pakistani-origin overseas have added their voices to the condemnation as well. “Perpetrators must be brought to justice,” said Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, who is of Pakistani origin and serving in the British Foreign Ministry.
Pakistani civil society also erupted in protest against the ongoing trend of violence against women, including the publishing of a scathing op-ed that asked “has society become so brutalised that all human compassion has vanished?” Small but vocal grassroots organizations have long campaigned against the practice of “honor killings.” “The criminal justice system doesn’t work,” said professor and human rights activist Farzana Bari at a protest in Islamabad on Thursday. The group Aurat Publication and Information Service Foundation, a Pakistani women’s empowerment organization that also participated in Thursday’s protests, has consistently worked to shed light on the practice of “honor killings.” This is the first time that religious and political leaders have joined them in harshly condemning the violent trend.
The Pakistan Ulema Council will issue a detailed edict on violence against women in a joint conference bringing together leaders of all sects planned for June 5.