A16-year-old mentally retarded girl was shot to death in March on orders of a tribal council and in front of a tribal gathering in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. Her crime? She'd brought dishonor to her tribe by being raped.
Several weeks later, a 29-year-old mother of two sons, Samia Sarwar, was shot to death in Lahore. She apparently was killed because she was attempting to divorce an abusive husband. She sought help from lawyers Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir, who is the United Nations's special monitor on extrajudicial, arbitrary and summary executions and chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a nongovernmental organization. Their law firm had set up a women's shelter where Samia Sarwar had taken refuge. On the morning of April 6, while she was at her lawyer's office, her mother arrived with an uncle and a driver. The driver shot her in the head, killing her instantly. No one has been arrested.
These incidents are contained in "Pakistan: Honor Killings of Girls and Women," an Amnesty International report released Sept. 21. Among its conclusions: "The fact that the killing [of Samia Sarwar] was carried out in the presence of well-known lawyers indicates that the perpetrators were convinced they were doing the right thing, were not afraid of publicity and felt no need to hide their identity as they felt sure that the state would not hold them to account. They were right."
It gets worse.
Samia's father is president of the Peshawar chamber of commerce. The chamber and several religious organizations demanded the two women lawyers be arrested for "misleading women in Pakistan and contributing to the country's bad image abroad." Religious rulings were issued against both women, and money was promised to anyone who killed them.
Asma Jahangir lodged a complaint with police and called upon the government to set up a judicial inquiry to investigate almost 300 cases of honor killings reported in 1998 in Pakistan. Nothing is known to have come of either request. Then on May 11, Samia's father lodged a complaint with police accusing the lawyers of abducting and murdering Samia. The Peshawar High Court quashed the complaint and ordered police to take no action based on it.
Most of these slayings are committed in the name of family and/or tribal honor, and they usually are done by male family members who rarely are brought to justice. The report cites data showing 286 women were victims of honor killings in Punjab in 1998, and 255 women were murdered in Sindh. In the first quarter of 1999, 132 such deaths were documented in Sindh.
And as is the rule throughout the countries of the world where domestic violence is tolerated, the incidents are underreported. Common methods of murder include shooting the women, hacking them to death and burning them. The Progressive Women's Association in Islamabad has monitored 1,600 cases of women burned in their homes in Rawalpindi and Islamabad alone since 1994. A common excuse used is that the women caught on fire while cooking.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan issued a report in 1998 that concluded: "Woman's subordination remained so routine by custom and traditions, and even putatively by religion, that much of the endemic domestic violence against her was considered normal behavior. . . . A sample survey showed 82 percent of women in rural Punjab feared violence resulting from husbands' displeasure over minor matters; in the most developed urban areas, 52 percent admitted being beaten by husbands."
What makes all this possible is that women in Pakistan are treated as commodities: They are sold into marriage by the ruling male in their family. On March 29, an 18-year-old college girl, Qaisrana Bibi, committed suicide in Khanpur when her parents pressured her to marry a man she did not want. She chose, instead, to be run over by a train. Men who marry women against the wishes of the women's families also have been killed.
Amnesty International is mounting a worldwide campaign to pressure the Pakistani government to stop these honor killings, which have been the dirty little secret of the Islamic world. Amnesty International wants the government to revise laws to protect women and give them equal treatment; it wants the government to investigate these slayings and punish the killers; it wants a public education campaign on the equality of women, and a significant increase in resources, such as shelters, for abused women. The campaign will include letter-writing to Pakistani officials.
The report is the first that Amnesty has ever released that documents human rights abuses by people other than government officials.
Pakistan has ratified the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The United States, to its disgrace, has not. But the government of Pakistan, instead of enforcing the convention, is making a mockery of it by allowing feudal treatment of women to go unpunished. Yet as women in Pakistan get a taste of modern standards for the treatment of women, they are more tempted to assert their own rights. Curt Goering, senior deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA, warned when the report was released that these killings appear to be increasing as the perception of what constitutes honor and what damages it widens.
It matters little to dead women whether they are killed by government officials or family members. As long as the government ignores these murders, it is sanctioning them. And that, not women's behavior, will give Pakistan a ruinous reputation around the world.