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By ?Women?s rights terrorist? Shahnaz Bokhari tells Uddalak Mukherjee why victims of honour crimes need to speak up for themselves
  • Published 29.06.06

Shahnaz, you are one of the most respected figures in the women?s movement in Pakistan. Could you tell us how you got involved in this sphere of activism?

I have always believed in advocacy as a tool to solve problems that afflict our society. I had taken the lead in speaking out against the problems faced by students, especially women, even during my college days in Gordon college, Rawalpindi. But when I returned to Pakistan after spending nine years abroad, I realized that mere activism was not enough to quell the violence against women; the need of the hour was to provide more practical services ? emotional, monetary and legal assistance ? to victims and to bring them under one umbrella. Till about five years ago, the Progressive Women?s Association was the only organization in Islamabad that functioned as a shelter and as a legal aid cell for women.

Honour killings are a malaise in societies ranging from Asia to Latin America.Could you elaborate on this problem and its causes?

It is a matter of shame that in some tribal areas of Pakistan, honour killings are not seen as a crime but as legitimate action against those who breach the code of honour. For example, in Sindh, the practice is referred to as karo kari or siah kari. Pashtun communities in the North West Frontier Provinces and Balochistan often hack, stab, burn and shoot their women in a custom known as tur. There have been reports of similar crimes in Asia, South America, Africa and even Europe where honour killings have been reported from Muslim and Sikh communities.

Honour killing is an old practice by which people ? mostly women ? are murdered by their relatives for behaving in a manner that is perceived to have destroyed the family?s honour. The causes of honour killings are as varied as complex.

Women are murdered depending on a society?s perception of honour. A woman may be killed for marrying out of her own choice or for seeking divorce. Victims of rape are killed too. Many women have been murdered for money and land. Actually a whole ?honour killing industry? has sprung up as a blanket cover for many crimes and both the administration and the traditional tribal societies are guilty of abetting the crime.

How do you explain the apathy of successive governments to the murder of women?

I have no answer for this. Violence against women in Pakistan is grossly under-reported and under-analysed. Often, it is the state that facilitates such violence in subtle ways ? Hudood laws and other discriminatory measures such as the Qisas and Diyat. General Musharraf?s comment ? that Pakistani women cry rape in order to go abroad ? is a classic example of the indifference of those in power. NGOs and rights bodies have no power to formulate laws or punish the perpetrators of violence. According to the PWA?s data, nearly 7,000 women have been burnt in the last 10 years in Rawalpindi and Islamabad alone. Centres to treat burn victims are too few. Those who take up the cudgels on behalf of the victims are labelled Westernized, working with a specific agenda. Many of them don?t even know that the PWA is not a foreign-donor-funded organization.

Are honour killings symptomatic of a conservative Islamic society?

There is no mention of honour killings in the Quran or in the Hadiths. Honour killing, in Islam, refers specifically to extra-legal punishment meted out by the family to a woman, and is forbidden by the sharia (Islamic law). Religious authorities do not agree with the notion of honour killings. So the practice is cultural; it is not a religious issue. It draws its legitimacy from existing socio-cultural factors that have been endorsed by a distorted interpretation of Islam.

You have survived death threats, discrimination and severe emotional stress and yet continued to fight for the victims. What keeps you going?

I have seen thousands of burnt women on their deathbeds. I can never forget those rotting, defenceless bodies, their eyes imploring help. Yes, there have been many death threats against me and my family. There have also been raids on my house by the police. Intelligence agencies used to be a constant presence at home. The persecution and the fear forced me to send my children away from the country. I have also been branded a women?s rights terrorist! But what kept me going was the people?s love for me and my organization and their faith. People in the media, hospital staff and even some god-fearing, honest policemen referred cases to us in the belief that the PWA would be able to get justice for the victims.

President Musharraf is striving hard to project Pakistan as a liberal and equal society. Would the women?s movement in Pakistan benefit with Musharraf at the helm?

I admire President Musharraf for his decision to induct 30 per cent women at all political levels. They may seem useless at present, but with time, they will be experienced enough to fight for women?s rights. But I strongly object to the statement that Pakistani women get raped when they want to seek asylum elsewhere. He should promise to repeal the Hudood laws as a compensatory gesture.

You have received several awards, including the Sitara Imtiaz, the highest award for a civilian given by the government of Pakistan. How much do these awards matter to you?

I have been involved in this cause for close to two decades and it has been depressing and frustrating at times. These rewards have boosted my spirit and motivated me at difficult points of my life. I am grateful to the individuals and organizations, both in Pakistan and abroad, who have recognized my efforts. There was a time when I had felt vulnerable ? a single mother of four fighting for women in a deeply patriarchal society. But after 20 years, I stand tall in my conviction, grey hairs notwith- standing.

Honour killings occur in both India and Pakistan. Is there a case for the two governments and rights organizations to work more closely on this?

Certainly. The present political climate is conducive to organizing joint platforms to work towards women?s emancipation. I hope that the Pakistan government passes a law against domestic violence, as has been done in India.

Finally, is there something you would like to say to the victims of violence and to activists?

The victims need to break the silence and speak up for their rights. They need to remember that rights are not going to be presented to them on a platter. They will have to fight for them. The women?s rights movement in Pakistan is on stronger ground now. Women need to come out and strengthen it. As for the activists, I will only request them not to turn this cause into a money-making industry, and to work with more commitment.


An expression prevalent in west Asia goes to the quick of the matter: “A man’s honour lies between the legs of a woman.” The truth is brutal, much like the thousands of murders that take place in the name of family or community honour across religions, cultures, castes and ethnicities. What is amazing are the forms of evasion different societies employ to let the perpetrators off lightly, to make the murderer look like a victim in a crime of ‘passion’. The desire to control and possess women’s sexuality makes the whole world kin. Or else, why give this particular form of brutality towards women a special name?

But what is ‘honour’? It is a male concept, and its inescapable association with the possession — literal and metaphysical — of female bodies turns the noble accoutrements of the ideal inside out. Matching male honour is female ‘shame’. A woman need not choose a man from another community or caste, or even opt for a different lifestyle, to bring shame; all she has to do is be raped. A teenage girl in Palestine, raped by her brothers, was given a razor by her mother to slit her wrists. When she refused, her mother killed her. The other children love their mother more, now that they know how she saved the family’s honour. The special billing given to these murders privileges them above other killings. As with sati, society approves.

Without such implicit approval, honour killings would not have been a subject of discussion in 2006. It is dangerous to pretend that honour killings spring from a particular religion, ignoring proof that neither that religion, nor any other, allows such murders. One young woman, brought up in Canada, angered her powerful Jat Sikh family by marrying a rickshaw driver in Punjab. Allegedly, her mother ordered her killing from Vancouver.

In Uttar Pradesh, in a district where 13 honour killings were known to have taken place in the first nine months of 2003, a 15-year-old girl was gangraped because her brother had eloped with a girl from another community. In Punjab, two months after his marriage, Jasvir was hacked to death before his wife. He was a Jat who had dared to marry a Rajput. A 2002 report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan shows that in one region, four women were killed by their fathers, 15 by their brothers, 10 by husbands, two by sons and nine by close relatives.

There is no dearth of excuses to torture, mutilate and kill women. A special name is needed to legitimize at least some of them.