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.

Challenging the law: the case of Safia Bibi

The Hudood Ordinances were the first laws introduced in Pakistan by General Zia ul-Haq in 1979 as part of his programme of Islamization. They are a collection of 5 criminal laws dealing with theft and armed robbery; Zina or rape, abduction, adultery, and fornication; Qazf or false accusation in respect of Zina; prohibition of alcohol and narcotics and public whipping. Most of these were already offences in Pakistan when the Hudood Ordinances were promulgated, but these new Ordinances introduced forms of punishment recognized by Muslim jurists. Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, in their book ‘The Hudood Ordinances: A Divine Sanction?’ described the promulgation of the Hudood Ordinances as ‘transparent political opportunism’. (Jahangir and Jilani, 2003) Their framing and implementation has been described as ‘slipshod’ at best and lending no credibility to the notion of Islamisation. However, once a religious label has been attached to a law it becomes an extremely sensitive issue and any criticism is perceived as heresy.

While there was widespread consternation at the promulgation of the laws they were brought sharply into focus in 1983 with the case of Safia Bibi. Raped by her landlord and his son Safia Bibi became pregnant. Her father filed a complaint of rape when her pregnancy was revealed and the case went to court. Because she was blind and therefore unable to visually identify her alleged attackers they were set free. Her resultant pregnancy though was seen as admission of zina, adultery, and she was convicted and sentenced to 3 years imprisonment, public flogging and a fine. These laws caught Safia Bibi in their web. Under them she, the victim, had become the accused.

Women’s activists and supporters of human rights were outraged and for the first time the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), formed in 1980, went out onto the streets to protest this punishment and demand changes to the laws. Pressure was mounted as journalists wrote articles to highlight the issue and women lawyers agitated in their Bar Association. While many had opposed the promulgation of the laws this incident gave a focus to concerted agitation and attempts to negotiate for their change. It was a defining moment in the life of emerging women’s organisations, and that original protest is still celebrated each year by women’s groups around the country. It continues to provide opportunity for raising issues that concern gender violence. When the Federal Shari’a court acquitted Safia Bibi on a technical ground it made clear in its ruling that national and international pressure had played no small part in this decision.

While there was success in seeing the particular decision overturned, much of those Hudood Ordinances remain in force today. The question must be asked; was this an individual revolution or have women’s organisations and activists been able to use this as an opportunity to engage and negotiate?