Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It is one of the bloodiest series of suspected murders in Pakistan. Eight people were already believed to be dead before the start of 2019, and last week a ninth was reportedly killed, in what have become known as the Kohistan Honor Killings. Afzal Kohistani was the man who had exposed a cell phone video that showed four women and two men singing and dancing. All four of the women and one of the men, along with three others who were not in the video, were all ordered killed once the matter came before a tribal jirga or council, according to Dawn, an English-language newspaper in Pakistan.
Kohistani’s death in early March underscores the need for new approaches in the fight against honor crimes. It also provokes the question of why laws like Criminal Law Amendment 2016, which was passed in Pakistan to reduce the incidence of honor crimes, have not been successful in doing so.
The story of the Kohistan killings began in 2011, when the wedding celebration that the men and women attended took place. In it, women were seen singing and clapping in the presence of two of Afzal Kohistani’s younger brothers. One of the men was dancing. All of this, captured on a cell phone, incensed the villagers of Palas, the small village in Kohistan, a remote and extremely conservative part of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.
By 2012, people watching the video and listening to Kohistani’s story suspected that the sentence had largely been carried out. First, the four women along with a fifth were killed, and then, because the villagers weren’t satisfied, three of Kohistani’s brothers, only one of whom had been seen in the video, were also reportedly killed, according to the BBC and others. According to local reporting, Kohistani and the rest of his family were in hiding.
This changed when Kohistani went public with the video, and allegations of what the tribal jirga had done, to civil society activists and journalists. “They destroyed my family,” said Kohistani in a media statement. “The girls are dead, my brothers have been killed and nothing has been done to bring justice or to protect us. I know very well I will probably be killed someday, but it does not matter; someone has to fight.”
The fact that a tribal jirga is suspected of ordering a mass killing did engender outcry in Pakistan and around the world. Within hours after Afzal Kohistani went public with what had happened, the video was everywhere, and within days Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided that all the facts had to be gathered from Palas. This would be the first of two fact-finding missions – both of which were unable to determine what had really happened. It was only last August, eight years after the murders, that a police report was finally filed in the case. It was December by the time four men were arrested, and by March, Kohistani, the man who had tried to fight, was dead.
In the meantime, it seemed that Pakistan was making progress in the fight to end honor killings. The Criminal Law Amendment was passed in 2016 after the honor killing of YouTube celebrity and model Qandeel Baloch, who had posted a picture of herself wearing the hat of a religious cleric to underscore the hypocrisy of the country’s religious establishment. The legislation closed a loophole that had permitted families to “forgive” the killers through the payment of blood money. In effect this meant that the very family members who were complicit in the crime could also forgive those who had committed it. The objective of the legislation, wrote the senator who had helped sponsor it, was “to prevent these crimes from being repeatedly committed.”
It is not just Kohistani’s death that suggests that this objective has not been met. An editorial in Dawn from September of last year, two years after the passage of the bill, noted that “the number of women – and men – being killed in the name of ‘honor’ keeps rising at a disturbing rate in this country.” The editorial quoted statistics from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, which put the number of honor killings between June 2017 and August 2018 at 737. The total number of such murders since the organization started keeping records in 2016 stands at 15,222, a staggering number and, given the low reporting of such cases, likely only a fraction of the true figure.
What then must be done about the continued perpetration of honor crimes?
The numbers attest to the reality that, even as top-down initiatives such as legal reform are pursued and prosecution of such crimes is encouraged, little changes at the grassroots level. There, conservative villagers continue to egg on the murders of men and women perceived as errant. The truth of the matter, whether any wrongdoing was actually done, is almost irrelevant; the power of the community, exercised through the ruling of jirgas and panchayats (which are tribal councils made up of community elders and other strongmen) is front and center. A community that can police its own, those who have invited questions or controversy, is a strong community, the thinking goes. In this battle, the laws passed by the federal government criminalizing such murders go up against the traditional and communal mores of a village or clan or tribal group.
The answer, perhaps, lies in changing the debate and acknowledging that trickle-down feminism is not working to end honor crimes. If communities are clinging to these horrific practices as a means of highlighting their continued power against a modernizing world, then the way ahead may hinge on change at the community level, involving the very people who are now wielding power in tribal jirgas and other grassroots justice mechanisms. Previous legislative proposals have considered the idea of district-level councils of women in the community as checks on the power of tribal councils. Such entities must be supported and provided with resources.
Finally, an even more controversial turn would be to abandon the label “honor crimes” altogether. The term serves no practical purpose on the ground. The antagonism that some communities have shown toward ending the practice suggests that the very name of the crime has become a flashpoint, where individual community members may feel afraid to stop or report the crime specifically because they are afraid of taking sides in a burning controversy. If the crimes were no longer classified as this special type – and would instead be labeled as what they are, murder – perhaps this would help focus community attention on the task of saving the lives of innocent men and women.
None of this will change what has already happened. Afzal Kohistani, who had shown so much courage, who spoke out against the needless killing of eight people, is dead. He was sitting in a stationary van when his assailants showered him with bullets. When the time came, neither legislators nor laws were there to save him. This alone should inspire a harder look at the issue and highlight the need for tactics that are different from those already deployed.