Is violence against women now an accepted norm?

“A man with the help of his grandfather axed to death his mother, sister and their lover in Kot Mangu, some 50kms from [Gujrat], on Thursday evening … with repeated blows of axes.”  (Dawn, 22nd October 2004) The murder of Saima Sarwar, daughter of a prominent industrialist in the North-West Frontier Province, in her lawyer’s Lahore office “passed like a swift wind, leaving the perpetrators untouched and guiltless of a grisly crime.  A precedent had been set by the state, judiciary and civil society that ‘honour killings’ would continue to remain above the law, human rights and religion.”  (Newsline, June 2003, p 83) Saima’s family felt her disobedience in seeking to divorce her abusive husband was a threat to their honour. 

Violence perpetrated against a woman in Pakistan begins from her birth where in some tribal areas it is received with greetings such as “‘Khuday day sharam parda o satee’ (May God preserve your honour), ‘Sart toray mashay’ (May you never lose your veil or purdah) and ‘Naik bukhta day shee’ (May she grow up to be pious).” (Newsline, June 2003, p78) The slapping of a woman is not considered to be an act of violence, and many women are themselves groomed to believe they deserve violence inflicted on them.

Domestic violence is largely hidden and deemed to be a private matter that does not belong in the courts. Many women do not understand that violence is a crime and are often subject to brutalisation not only by their husbands but also in-laws in the extended family. In a 1998 study on violence against women aimed at understanding the magnitude of violence against women and its dynamics “thirty percent of rural women and 17 percent of urban women, i.e. one fifth of the respondents, reported physical abuse by their husbands.” (Rashida Patel, Woman versus Man, p 115) The counter argument is often that Islam allows a husband to beat his wife.

Cases of women being burnt by stoves or acid are regularly reported in the press. Victims are left grotesquely disfigured with injuries covering more than 30 percent of their bodies and often as much as 60, 70 and 90 percent. “The nature of [stove burn] injuries, the position of the victim in the family (she is usually a daughter-in-law, or a daughter to be married), and the frequency with which these ‘accidents’ occur provide circumstantial evidence of a grim pattern; that these women are burnt not by accident, but are victims of deliberate murder.” (Madadgaar’s Press Release, 24 January 2002 ‘223 women died due to burn injuries during the year 2001)

Many victims of rape cannot find redress for their grievance through the judicial system.  In fact, the victim becomes the criminal under the Zina Ordinance. Failure to produce 4 male witnesses to the criminal act of rape the woman finds herself charge with adultery and imprisoned. Her admission of rape constitutes an admission of adultery. Women who seek the help of the law often find themselves victims of violence perpetrated by the custodians of the law. Reported cases of custodial rape have led the Government to issue a number of directives regarding the arrest of women, but practically little seems to have changed.

The eleven years between 1977 and 1988 are considered some of darkest for women in Pakistan’s history. Under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq “women were systematically attacked through discriminatory legislation, an unsympathetic judiciary and a brutally prejudiced executive.” (Herald, January 2002, p 130 ‘In their own right’) The women’s movement in Pakistan rallied, agitating openly against the state-sponsored brutalisation of women under this regime. They took to the streets, vigorously opposing the legalisation of violence against women. The core issues that sparked the rebellion against General Zia and led to mass agitation remain very much the same today, however it appears the struggle for women’s rights has been diluted and lost its focus.

Violent acts being perpetrated against women in Pakistan have roots in cultural norms, extreme patriarchal formations in society, socio-economic strictures, religious ideologies, laws that allow such violence to be perpetuated, and a state that is hostage to fundamentalist philosophies and ideologies. Violence has been increasing, despite a growth in the number of women’s NGOs seeking to work at a grassroots level to instigate real change. 

Can we redefine ‘honour killings’?

There is a Punjabi proverb that says ‘one does not share the bread, but one shares the shame’.  And yet, honour and shame, while attributed to individual acts are not about the individual, but about the family. The honour of the family, in particular its male members, is located in the bodies of women.

Unni Wikan argues that it is not clear that honour and shame are binary opposites[1]. Drawing on studies conducted in Cairo and Oman, she argues that the location of these concepts in the everyday life of the community, and not just in select discourses, is essential. She shows that honour and shame relate differently to behaviour: that shame arises from an identifiable act, whereas honour is an attribute of the whole person[2].

But the debate continues. How else can honour and shame be seen? Whereas Nafisa Shah argues they are ‘two parallel states, honour is masculine, shame is feminine. Just as men have honour, women have shame. A woman’s shame summarises her public reputation and social position in much the same manner as honour does for men’[3], Tahira Khan suggests they are ‘dialectical states’: shame is the opposite of honour and both are male attributes, men possess honour and suffer shame[4].

Honour and shame are intrinsically linked in everyday discourses that shape women’s behaviour and the control of it. Purna Sen suggests that ‘codes of honour serve to construct … what it means to be a woman’[5]. Others link it to patriarchy and possession. Fatima Mernissi in her book ‘Beyond the Veil’, also makes a connection between honour and possessions. She argues that there is a strong link between money and female sexuality on the one hand, and the social construction of honour and purity on the other. Her point is that although honour is linked to material wealth, its location is firmly fixed in the body of women[6]. The woman’s body and her sexuality are the idioms of honour and shame. 

Is it possible then to redefine honour killings? The popular shorthand referring to killing women because an alleged shame besmirching the family honour as ‘honour killing’ becomes a tool for the defamation of women. What stops us simply calling it murder? In every other instance of killing it is called murder, and yet the killing a woman because someone alleges she has shamed them is not called murder.

Honour killings are murder, whatever the reasons attached.


[1] Wikan, U. (1984). “Shame and Honour: A Contestable Pair.” Man, New Series 19(4): 635 – 652. p 636

[2] Ibid. p638

[3] Shah, N. (1999). Women in revolt. Dawn. Karachi.

[4] Khan, T. S. (2006). Beyond Honour. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p 46

[5] Sen, P. (2005). ‘Crimes of Honour’, value and meaning. In L. Welchman & S. Hossain (Eds.), ‘Honour’: Crimes, Paradigms, and Violence Against Women. London and New York: Zed Books. p 48

[6] Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Revised Edition ed.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p 46-64