This is how a terrible story gets worse. On Tuesday, Farzana Iqbal, a 25-year-old pregnant woman, was confronted by a mob of 20 or so of her family members near the steps of the top court in Lahore, Pakistan's second-biggest city. They proceeded to beat her to death with sticks and bricks, while police nearby looked on and did little.
The reason for the attack? She had chosen to marry a 45-year-old man named Muhammad Iqbal. That was a union deemed unacceptable by her family, which had filed an abduction case against the husband. She was about to deliver a statement in his defense. Photos taken after the attack show her lifeless body shrouded in colored fabrics, crumpled on the pavement. They also show the haunted stare of her husband.
Now, the media furor after the incident has turned up a new, stomach-turning wrinkle in the case: Police say the husband killed his first wife before marrying Farzana. After police sources in Lahore leaked unseemly details about his past to local media, Muhammad Iqbal himself confirmed to Agence France-Presse over the phone that he had strangled his first wife. "I was in love with Farzana and killed my first wife because of this love," he said before hanging up. The forgiveness of his son and Pakistan's controversial blood-money laws apparently allowed him to escape a jail sentence.
Last year alone, Pakistan's Human Rights Commission reported 869 "honor killings" — a misnomer of the highest order, describing incidents in which family members take it upon themselves to punish daughters who refuse arranged marriages or choose to follow their heart rather than family diktat. The real number, though, is probably much higher.
"I do not even wish to use the phrase 'honor killing,'" said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in Geneva. "There is not the faintest vestige of honor in killing a woman in this way." (Another news report now suggests that a sister of Farzana was poisoned to death four years ago in a similar episode.)
Beyond the awfulness of the crime, what's equally disturbing is the inaction of police and bystanders. An editorial in the Lahore-based daily Dawn summed it up:
Those who shake their heads over the grotesque attacks on women in the name of some antediluvian notion of ‘honour’, tend to raise the point that these are dark crimes usually committed behind closed doors — that the victims are quietly erased from the public memory and the perpetrators, mostly close relatives, remain unprosecuted and unpunished. The most shocking aspect of this killing, however, is that all the people witnessing the crime, even the law enforcers, were silent spectators as a woman was bludgeoned to her death. They turned their backs as she screamed for help. How are we to understand this?
The victim's father has been arrested, and police are reportedly seeking out more of her relatives. On Thursday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif issued an angry statement on her "brutal killing," deeming it "totally unacceptable." He ordered the office of the chief minister of Punjab, of which Lahore is the capital, to deliver a report on the case. The chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, happens to be the prime minister's brother.
It remains to be seen what can tangibly change after this incident. Last year, across the border in India, a horrible gang rape and murder case woke up civil society, leading to blanket media coverage and massed protests across the country. But the greater awareness has hardly stemmed the tide of violence against women: just yesterday, reports emerged of the gang rape and lynching of two teenage sisters in a remote village in northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
In Pakistan, only a few dozen activists assembled and marched in the capital, Islamabad, after the fatal stoning. They are, in part, up against grinding poverty, illiteracy and age-old traditions of patriarchy. But they also have to confront the uneven rule of law in Pakistan and the increasing influence of orthodox Islamic beliefs on its justice system.
"Has society become so brutalised that all human compassion has vanished?" asks the Dawn editorial. "Whatever the case, all indications are that a twisted psyche dominates, and that society is no longer willing or able to look at itself in the mirror because what it would see there would be nothing short of frightening."