Facing Culture and Religion – the case of Samia Sarwar

The broad-daylight, cold-blooded murder, in April 1999, of Samia Sarwar by her family in the office and presence of her lawyer Hina Jilani, a leading human right’s lawyer and activist and UN Special Representative to the Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, shocked and stunned many in Pakistan. That her family would so boldly shoot her dead was seen as indicative of their belief that they would not face prosecution or even condemnation for the deed. There was a storm of protest with human rights activists storming the Civil Secretariat the following day demanding justice.

But the country was divided. In a Special Bulletin, ‘The Dark Side of Honour’, by Shirkat Gah (part of the international network ‘Women Living Under Muslim Law’) Rabia Ali writes that members of the Senate refused to pass a resolution condemning the murder, arguing that honour killings were part of their ‘cultural traditions’ (Ali, 2001). The NWFP Chamber of Commerce and religious organizations added their voice, declaring her killing ‘in keeping with tribal laws’ (Ali, 2001). The Ulema went so far as to declare Asma Jehangir, one of Pakistan’s leading human rights lawyers and a founding member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), and Hina Jilani infidels deserving to be killed because they were misleading Pakistan’s women and contributing to the country’s bad image abroad. Public support for the honour killing was said to be overwhelming in the NWFP because it was deemed to be in accordance with tradition and therefore not a crime.

Government inaction on honour killings was publicly exposed by this event. Honour killings were placed firmly on the public agenda and women’s organizations and activists were able to publicly engage on the issue. It was a local flashpoint with international ramifications. The Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at SOAS and the International Centre for Legal Protection of Human Rights convened a conference in November 1999 to look at the question of honour killings. In the summary report produced from this ‘Roundtable on strategies to address ‘crimes of honour’’ they state explicitly that “the project was initiated in response to the murders of Samia Sarwar in Pakistan and Rukhsana Naz in the UK in early 1999 and the explicit articulation of an ‘honour’-based defence by the alleged perpetrators in each case.” (Welchman, 2000)

WAF, Shirkat Gah and other human rights bodies issued press releases condemning the murder and calling for action. Asma Jehangir filed an FIR (First Incident Report) and demanded a Government enquiry into 300 cases of honour killings for the previous year. There was no response. Women were confronted with the realities of cultural norms given religious weight in condoning crimes against them. In October 2004 the government rejected legislation introduced into parliament by Sherry Rehman, an opposition MNA, seeking to articulate clearly the criminal nature of honour killings. Kashmala Tariq, an MNA belonging the then ruling party, put up a private members bill in March 2005 seeking to prevent those accused of honour killings from winning impunity through the provision of diyat, or blood money, but this too was dismissed by the National Assembly. Culture and tradition are not willing to give up their right to sanctioned violence against women.

The process of negotiation is fraught with difficulties but the Samia Sarwar incident showed how culture and religion, when they become intertwined, are a toxic mix for women.

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