Photo: Aslan Media CC via Wikimedia
Of all the killing that takes place in the world today one of the saddest is the deliberate slaying of a daughter by her own father. Equally sad would be the murder of a son, although that is much rarer than female filicide. Indeed, sons are far more likely to be perpetrators than victims in the family revenge tragedies known as “honour killings”.
Wives and mothers are also among the victims of this retribution for moral crimes — as defined by the tribal codes of some Middle Eastern and South Asian countries – the details of which can be extremely shocking.
Halima, an Afghan woman aged between 18 and 20, the mother of two children, was shot dead by her father in front of a mob of hundreds. She had run away with a cousin while her husband was in Iran. The same cousin then sent her back to her village where religious leaders issued a fatwa against her, sealing her fate.
In Pakistan, pregnant, 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was bludgeoned to death with bricks by a mob which included her father and brother, because of a dispute over bride price. This happened in broad daylight outside the High Court in Lahore in May last year. Her husband, it transpired, had killed his first wife so he could marry Farzana.
Such killings are not confined to Muslim countries, since immigrants in the West sometimes fall back on this outrageous custom.
In one of a dozen cases to pass through Canada’s criminal courts in the past ten years, the father and brother of Aqsa Parvez were convicted of murder after she was found strangled at her home. Friends said 16-year-old Aqsa, of Pakistani descent, was in conflict with her family over her desire to wear Western clothes and get a part-time job like her Canadian peers.
Survivors bear the marks of unbelievable brutality. In Afghanistan, Gul Meena’s brother struck her with an axe 15 times slashing her head and face so deeply that it exposed her brain. He tried to kill his 16-year-old sister for running away with another man from her abusive 65-year-old husband. The man died from his wounds, but she survived and received help from a women’s shelter.
The reason for such appalling savagery seems to be that the shame brought on the family or clan by a woman’s rebellion against her role in the system can only be atoned for by the shedding of blood. Unfortunately the religious background of these communities excludes the belief that one Man has already died for the sins of all the people.
Sheltering the women
Since these crimes started appearing in the West among some immigrant communities – though rarely, it has to be said – the media have also highlighted dramatic instances in the countries of origin. But these are just the tip of the iceberg of honour crimes and violence against women, according to human rights groups and the UN.
In 2000 the UN estimated that 5000 women globally were victims of honour killings each year. More recently the Afghan women’s Network said 150 cases of honour killings occur annually in that country, though fewer than half of them are formally reported. Over 4,000 cases of violence against women and girls were reported to the Afghan Ministry of Women Affairs from 33 provinces of the country in 2010-2012.
However, pressure from the UN and grass roots activism might be encouraging more women to resist family pressure, defy threats and report violence used against them. In Afghanistan they are being encouraged in this by emergency shelters, including a network established by Women for Afghan Women, which describes itself as a grassroots organization whose mission is to secure and protect the rights of disenfranchised Afghan women and girls in Afghanistan and New York.
The NGO’s work was the subject of a recent New York Times article which featured the stories of women who have found refuge in a shelter in Kabul at different times.
One of them, Faheema, 21, arrived there after running away from her home in eastern Afghanistan with the man she loved and had married, leaving behind her large family and the man that her family had promised her to, her uncle’s son. We meet her at the point where she has agreed to attempt reconciliation with her family, who want to persuade her to come home.
After three mediated sessions with various members of the extended family, including the spurned suitor and his father — the third session marked by tears and screaming and bordering on physical violence as her mother tries to drag her away — Faheema believes that she cannot trust them, refuses to leave the shelter, and flees in great distress to a secure room. She is all too aware of the fate of another young woman who did trust her family’s assurances.
Amina, 18, ran away from her family when they told her she would be marrying an older man. From rural Baghlan Province, she was picked up by the authorities in the provincial capital and handed over to the Women’s Ministry Office, which in turn sent her to the only women’s shelter in the province. She was persuaded by her family to return home with them, but on the way nine men held up the taxi, pulled the girl out and shot her. No-one else in the car was harmed. The police believe her brother was involved.
A number of Faheema’s companions in the Kabul shelter have scars and disabilities reminding the others how ruthless one’s own family can be: Gul Meena, the young woman whose brother tried to kill her with an axe, lives there.
Long-term solutions: cultural change
The question is, can she live safely anywhere else? There are 26 women in the long-term shelter in Kabul and Manizha Naderi, who runs the WAW network, estimates that 15 percent of the women in her shelters will never be able to leave. The organisation tries to find substitute families and husbands for them, but it is difficult.
Faheema was able to leave after a court recognised her marriage and ordered her to live with her husband in Kabul. However, the couple are poor, isolated and insecure, and she believes their only hope of a quiet life is to leave Afghanistan.
Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the shelters will survive. They have been set up during the period of Western presence in the country, which is ending, but they are opposed by high ranking clerics and not positively supported by the Afghan government or the public. The shelters rely almost entirely on Western donors – 90 percent of Ms Naderi’s budget comes from the US government – and “donor fatigue” affects not only the private sector but extends to governments.
Clearly, younger Afghan women, like those in Pakistan and elsewhere, have begun a cultural change with far-reaching consequences for the whole nation. It has to end with recognition of the equal dignity and human rights of all women, rights which begin with life itself and include the freedom to marry on the basis of mutual agreement.
How long that process will take is anybody’s guess but there are a few obvious steps that can give it impetus.
First, the government must enforce laws against extra-judicial killing. Killing a daughter or sister for any reason is murder. It contravenes the natural law enshrined in the Decalogue and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Countries which tolerate tribal customs to the contrary should be specifically called to account by the UN and named and shamed until they seriously address “honour crimes”.
Second, Islamic authorities must vigorously teach the populations that adhere to this custom the grave sinfulness of these crimes. We read that “there is nothing in the Qur’an that justifies honour killings” but the fact remains that they occur predominantly in regions where the Islamic faith prevails. The imams must teach that for a father to kill his child is not only a crime but a dishonour to him and his whole family.
Third, there is a need for the family to understand itself primarily as a community of love, not a legal or tribal entity. As long as the men of the family define their role as one of authority rather than service, the good of individual members is going to come second to considerations of status and power.
It would be encouraging to think that, as well as providing shelters for abused women, the West could provide a shining example to other cultures of respect for life, for women, and of loving fatherhood. Unfortunately our family culture, blighted by abortion, unsupported mothers, absent fathers and, yes, violence, has fatal weaknesses in all of those areas – another dishonourable story crying out for remedies.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.