Haroon Janjua

Islamabad - The recent burning of a teenage girl by her own mother in the name of honour has triggered the debate on so-called honour killings in the country.

Last week in the country’s eastern city of Lahore, an 18-year-old Zeenat Rafiq was drenched with kerosene oil and set on fire because the girl had challenged the social norms by marrying a man of her own choice.

The case stirred the countrywide anger among the civil society and human rights activists but such killings are common in Pakistan.

Lahore’s Zeenat Rafiq is the most recent case in the series of such occurrences in recent months. However, recently, in the hilly town of Murree a 21-year-old schoolteacher Maria Bibi was set ablaze for refusing to marry a man twice of her age. Later, she succumbed to her injuries at PIMS, Islamabad, on May 31.

Earlier in May, a 16-year-old girl Ambreen was strangled and set on fire in Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, after the decision given by the local jirga.

Jirgas and customary laws run parallel with the democratic constitution of the country in resolving local disputes. Ambreen was punished for helping her school friend to elope with her lover.

In Pakistan, the victims have been killed by relatives for getting raped, being homosexual, committing adultery and actions that bring shame or dishonour to the family.

“There has been an increase in the honour killing cases in various parts of the country. Media and police records show the sudden rise in such crimes, which is a discouraging element for the society,” says Tahira Abdullah, human rights activist.

Simultaneously, she told The Nation that Pakistan is becoming highly polarised society with moderate powers giving ground and fundamentalist radical forces having a broader say in determining the country’s laws and politics.

Various critics view that the bill against honour killings was passed in 2004 but it has hitherto been badly followed.

Moreover, human rights activists view that even with the sounder implementation, the law itself is not adequate enough to preclude such practices. “Legislation cannot do practically enough until there is a positive change and development in social positioning of the women,” Dr Farzana Bari, an Islamabad-based women rights activist told The Nation.

However, there is an urgent requirement for fortifying the current law against honour killings, Bari stressed, indicating that at present most the such cases are not been followed up in court. This resulted in the rise of such crimes being committed with impunity, she believes.

Samar Minullah, a social activist and filmmaker suggested, “The state has to become defender of victims of honour killings and ensure rigorous punishment for the culprits.”

Minullah also blamed the country’s mainstream media of partially strengthening anti-women social approaches by portraying women as subservient entities in television transmissions and serials. However, she also criticised the media in reporting such incidents, saying: “Media to a greater extent recklessly glorifies the killers in such cases.”

However, the situation ignites when the Pakistan’s top clerical body, Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), has taken controversial stances in recent months, saying that a husband should be allowed to “lightly beat” his wife, besides declaring a women’s protection legislation “un-Islamic.”

Rights activists asked if the CII or any other religious body, whatsoever, has ever come forward and condemned crimes committed against women in this country.

Activists accept that it is not easy to change societal behaviour towards women in Pakistan. They are committed with the cause and vow to carry on their efforts to eradicate such anti-women practices from the society.

The HRCP complainant cell head, Zaman Khan denounced the government on the issue. The government has not appointed a chairperson for the National Commission on Status of Women for the past six months – one of the major governmental bodies regarding women rights.

In February, when filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy won the Oscar ward on her short documentary “A girl in the river,” various activists and campaigners in Pakistan took heart from the Sharmeen’s award which pressed for the stronger legislations to protect potential victims. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is committed to bring forth the stronger legislation on honour killing and give women their due rights for achieving the shared goal of prosperous and vibrant Pakistan.