The launching in Islamabad last week of Nafisa Shah’s book ‘Honour Unmasked: Gender Violence, Law and Power in Pakistan’, was a moving event. It made us all proud and impressed of the Pakistani people, from the top down, from east to west, north to south. How come when the event was about something as outrageous and medieval as honour killing? Honour killing has no honour, and there is certainly nothing to be proud of.

There was more to that event than documenting and revealing traditions behind the crimes of honour killing. There are similar practices against children, and also against men. The latter are often not about sex outside marriage, as is almost always the justification used for the crime of honour killing of women. Similar crimes against men have to do with money, property, status and power. Most of the honour crimes have class and gender dimensions to them; it is about power and leadership in local communities in rural areas, also in bigger towns and cities.

I shall not go into detail about the substance and courses for honour killings in Pakistan, indeed in Upper Sindh, which is the area where Nafisa Shah comes from and did her anthropological fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation at Oxford University in UK. It is that research that has now become a book. I know far too little about the subject; well, I can easily say it is a tragic practice, and it is time to end it, as laws in Pakistan try to help doing. Nafisa Shah and others have done a lot in the recent decades, and the practice of honour killing is hopefully being seen as unacceptable in the country, not just something people close their eyes to. Yet, work remains for Nafisa Shah, now a Member of the National Assembly (MNA) and earlier a local government ‘Nazim’, civil society activist, journalist and researcher. Many others are joining in; NGOs, politicians, newspaper columnists, TV and radio talk show hosts, teachers and many more.

I hope we all speak up against honour killing, not only at seminars and conferences and in other public situations, but also in our everyday situations, so that children and youth can learn that such practices and other severe discrimination is unacceptable. Honour killing and other related discriminatory traditions are part of a mindset that takes time to change, and it has to do with how women are treated in society in a broader sense – and children and poor men, too. As with all social change, it is a step by step process.

One MNA I know and spoke with after the book launch said he thought the author of the book, Nafisa Shah, his MNA colleague, had the most data right, but not all. He thought that she had sometimes exaggerated data or interpretations. That may well be true; social science research is never totally accurate. And if some issues have been highlighted more than others, maybe other issues were toned down when they could have been given more prominence. After all, Nafisa Shah writes about her own beloved home area and land, yet she is also aiming at being a ‘neutral researcher’.

As outrageous as the honour killing tradition is, Pakistan is not the only land to still have such a practice. Lynching and mob justice are practiced in many countries of the world. They usually have a male gender dimension, though. Domestic violence has a female gender dimension. Sometimes, broken legal systems with outdated punishment border on institutionalisation of wrong and cruel practices. In USA, African Americans are much more likely to be caught and sentenced than whites, and in getting more severe punishment, including death penalty. The fight against honour killing has direct and indirect international dimensions, yet, the main focus for us should be local.

I began my article today saying I was proud of Pakistan. I was proud of the many wise speeches; I was glad to see so many good people in the audience, including a handful of diplomats, many lawyers, academicians, and more. The Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services (PIPS) Auditorium was filled to its brims. Most of all, I was impressed that Mian Raza Rabbani, Chairman of the Senate, and Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, Speaker of the National Assembly, attended the event patiently for two hours. They spoke passionately and honoured the importance of the topic, and indeed their parliamentarian colleague, Nafisa Shah, irrespective of party or other affiliation. Afterward, I was wondering if this could have happened in any other country, that the land’s top leaders would attend such an event; not that leaders in other countries would avoid attending delicate meetings, but how often would we see events at this level when practices in the land they lead are under scrutiny and often publicised unfavourably? It was a rare and impressive occasion.

Did the politicians, other speakers and the audience all represent liberal, urban, enlightened values? Where they all Pakistanis of tomorrow? No, I don’t think so, or at least not only that segment of society. I think they simply represented the descent Pakistanis that we often forget to notice. Foreigners sometimes exaggerate what is bad and wrong in a country, and they may do it without sufficient knowledge and understanding.

Again, I was impressed by the leaders of the Parliament, indeed Mian Raza Rabbani, who took us all to task as Pakistanis and foreigners for not placing enough emphasise on moral values, yes, indeed having concern for the least, the last and the lowest, and not noticing when the society is on the wrong path. Rabbani sounded the alarm. Yet, this message pertains not only to Pakistan but the world at large in our time. I hope the international media would listen to the decent Pakistani leaders when they give such speeches like this, because leaders and ordinary people in the West and elsewhere can learn from them, and get a more nuanced picture of Pakistan.

I would like to express sincere gratitude to Nafisa Shah for her important work and perseverance, with many assisting her behind the scene, academicians, politicians and others. She thanked the chief of Oxford University Press, Ameena Syed, for having pushed her to get the book completed and published. She said that somebody had said that what was in the book was perhaps not the most important, but who had written it. The book is an example of how to take up important and difficult topics and show everyone a way ahead, step by step. Many topics deserve similar studies and focus, with a clear zeal for change.

I think it was Rabbani who said that labour unions in Pakistan have been relegated to a status of close to nonexistence. That situation is indeed a tragedy and a key political field to study, write books about and seek solutions to. Without labour unions, gender unions, poor people’s unions, and so, Pakistan cannot develop. The powerful already have it all, and they are mostly men, in Pakistan as elsewhere. Sometimes, though, the leaders named at the book launch event in Islamabad, powerful as they are, reminded us that they, too, do not really ‘have it all’, they too lack power for change. They need the support of progressive people to be able to do what is morally right and decent. They need research, studies and indeed people’s common sense. Let us reflect on this, and the sad practice of honour killing, as the holy month of Ramadan now has begun – and throughout the year.