About 500 women in Pakistan are killed every year by relatives for acting in ways that fail to conform to conservative, traditional values, including marrying or eloping with a man of whom the family has not approved.
In 2015, Sughra Imam, a former Pakistani senator, drafted a bill imposing harsher punishments on those charged with honor killing in Pakistan. “No law will completely eliminate crime, but at the very least it should hold those who violate the law and principles of justice to account,” Imam said.
The previous law regarding honor killings contained a loophole allowing male members of a family to execute women they believed had dishonored them without facing any legal retribution if the women’s relatives pardoned them. The new bill is intended to close this loophole and, if responsibly enforced, will mandate a sentence of 25 years for the crime.
On Oct. 6, the Pakistani Parliament approved the new legislation, which came largely in response to the death of young social media sensation Qandeel Baloch. Baloch was strangled by her brother who, upon interview, declared that he had “no regrets” concerning the brutal murder.
Baloch used her online platform to highlight the aggressive misogyny prevalent throughout Pakistan. Her death caused a ripple effect across the country, forcing the re-examination of the abhorrent ideals held by conservative Islamists in government. Aggravated young women began holding mass protests, shouting slogans including “There is no honor in killing,” a phrase that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has often repeated as he has hailed the passing of the legislation.
The law was accompanied by another that mandated a sentence of 25 years in prison for rape convictions and required the use of DNA tests. The law also requires courts to give verdicts on rape cases within three months of their arrival. This change is an improvement for Pakistan, where rape conviction rates are almost nonexistent, but it is too little, too late. In a country where women can be humiliated and shunned for surviving the worst sort of trauma imaginable, only decisive action will suffice. Detailed investigations, harsher punishments and a drastic change in patriarchal mentality are necessary.
My friend Uzayr Usman Agha (COL ’18) from Karachi, Pakistan, phrased it well: “Though there are still a number of loopholes in the laws regarding women’s rights in Pakistan, the new bill is a step in the right direction. Laws alone, however, will not alter the regressive mindset of some people in the feudal areas of Pakistan.”
The mindset Agha mentions is evident in arguments of the legislation’s opponents, many of whom believe such laws are not in keeping with those of Islam. However, this stance is wholly incorrect. Islam, since the time of its advent, has been a fundamentally feminist religion, granting privileges and protection to women during its founding. If women in Pakistan are deciding to elope rather than bend to the wills of others, it is because the society has pushed them to the point where they no longer feel safe among those they love.
A Muslim society that rejects inclusivity is in complete contradiction with the Quran, which devotes an entire chapter to the protection and respect of women. Nowhere does it encourage murder at all. On the contrary, it strictly ordered the cessation of the burial of live infant girls, which was a norm in seventh-century Arabia. Thus, a lack of respect for women does not stem from faith, but rather from individuals who seek to impress their inflexible beliefs onto others.
It took a colossal amount of effort for that society to eradicate its prejudices, and no less effort is required from Pakistanis to develop a community in which all members can flourish safely. Although it is only a first step, the recent legislation may put us on a promising path toward achieving that goal.
Ghazal Ullah is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.