Honor Crimes: Very Close to Home

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By Ma Àngels Viladot i Presas, in Intergroup Communication 

It is certain that Saba Qaiser knew one of her uncles, a brother or even a parent was trying to kill her. She had committed one of the most serious crimes against the honor of her family; declaring to her male partner in front of the altar “I love you”, without the permission of her parents. The heart searches its own path and Saba was beting her life. It was lesson in courage as her transgression never preribes. I’m eager to see the Oscar nominated documentary A Girl in the River by filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid which follows the story of Saba. It’s a shocking story that attracted worldwide attention and spread like wildfire through social media.

A woman dies every 90 minutes as a result of honor crimes around the world. Surprisingly, Saba survived. We know that her father shot her in the head after savagely beating her with the help of her uncle. As if that weren’t enough, they put her in a plastic body bag and threw her in the river with impunity. With impunity because a gap in the law in Pakistan, just as happens in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Yemen and other countries of the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, allows pardon to the men that execute these heinous “honor killings.”

In all societies on earth, behaviors are evaluated in accordance with prescribed social norms. However, in some countries, the behavior of women and young girls that only wish to be free are seen as worthy of an imminent and brutal death. Refusing an arranged marriage or having been raped (which in itself seems utterly surreal), even staring too long at a good looking boy is considered a shameful act which dishonors the revered family institution. Women are drenched in gasoline and lit up like a torch, struck over the head with an axe, shot dead or drowned. These are some of the horrific ways of “settling” an issue, which sends a strong message to others. So strong is the desire to belong to a group., so weak and precarious the masculine identity of certain societies around the world (especially the patriarchal and fundamentalist), so ingrained and unjust are their rules and customs, stereotypes and gender roles, that many are persuaded to even murder the dissidents.

Let’s be serious here, honor crimes have nothing to do with honor. . In any case, they have to do with the “droit du Seigneur” of the Middle Ages and withthe ingrained belief that women are the property of men. It is as if the time machine from the TV series “The Time Tunnel” has transported us from our western 21st century culture into another dimension in the distant past where men rule over women through fear and coercion. These are extreme circumstances where women are entirely dependent for even the most basic needs of food and shelter. Think of the ancient Roman laws that justified honor killings of men slaughtering their wives for being convicted of adultery. The romantic scene of Moses in a little hemp basket swinging over the gentle waters of the Nile, melts as butter in the oven with the overwhelming image of thousands of women who were drowned in that same river at the hands of coercive power. Even on the Rhône the same thing happened when Calvino took control over Geneva.

Honor is a mythical concept so deeply ingrained that it is used as an excuse for males to commit domestic violence and for their crimes to go unrecognized. This impedes the gathering of outrageous statistics, which would without a doubt be circulated around the world. The same outrage unleashed by the Oscar nominated documentary that has enabled Nawz Sharif to get his at together to try to change things with legal reforms. As I understand, at the moment, there are no powerful governments offering their support to this issue. Group thinking has been imposed. This is not a trivial matter and will undoubtedly create barriers.

How can a Pakistani leader unite the necessary forces to change the status quo? Patriarchy protects its own prerogatives. If the Prime Minister really wants to change the world and at the same time remain in power he must become the “devil’s advocate”. He must convince his audience he himself is not in disagreement and making a new proposal on behalf of a metaphorical and distant person. He’ll have to explain that if he disagrees it is only because his political role forces him to do so. If he goes to the effort of creating such distance, then perhaps members of his party would pay him more attention. Perhaps the criticism he will receive will not harm his good image.

The urge to wipe honor crimes off the face of the earth motivates us to wish him all the best in his endeavors. He will need a lot of skill and expertise to be convincing. We can only hope that he will not try to succeed through force and his own coercive powers.

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