Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Family that Slays Together Stays Together

Family “honor killings” of Muslim women and couples are all too common

If we close our eyes, count to ten, and wish really, really hard, will the ISIS terrorists now holding swaths of Iraq and Syria simply go away?

A lot of my friends seem to think so.  And recently one scholar put that thought into writing.  As I posted previously, George Bisharat, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law, predicted that the ISIS problem will take care of itself.  He wrote an op-ed piece in which he said, “ISIS will ultimately fail not because we bomb it into oblivion, but because Arabs will reject its particularly inhumane and harsh perversion of Islam—a religion that was founded on principles of mercy, justice and equality.”

Even if you believe this to be true, it begs the question:  how soon is “ultimately?”

My search to see how that worldwide wave of revulsion is going and how soon it might start washing at the feet of ISIS led me to news of the latest honor killings out of Pakistan.  Today I did some more digging to see what the Muslim world has had to say about this kind of thing.

Here are the details of the murders.  About a week ago in Satrah, Pakistan, Sajjad Ahmed married Muafia Bibi “for love,” which is to say, without the permission of the bride’s parents.  The groom and bride were 31 and 17 respectively.  According to the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, here’s what happened next.  The bride’s mother told the girl that the family was not angry, and she invited the couple to come home for a visit.  Once there, family members drugged the two and then bound and gagged them.  A nearby shop owner told the paper, “The father of the girl announced loudly that he was going to slit the throat of his daughter and her husband.”  He then did so, allowing both victims to bleed out.  But merely killing the happy couple was not enough.  The police chief said the two victms also “had severe signs of torture on their heads.”

A crowd of sympathetic villagers gathered in the family’s courtyard to watch the proceedings.  According to the paper, someone suggested sending the children away, but the beaming father of the bride insisted the kids should stay and watch so that they’d know what happens to girls who “marry someone of their own choice.”  A witness told the paper that many in the town, from which other girls have eloped recently, supported the murders.  Both parents, two uncles and a grandfather joined in the family affair.

All five of those killers did wind up in handcuffs facing murder charges.  But don’t for one minute think that’s the end of it.  The Washington Post reports that such crimes often go unpunished.  “According to Pakistani law, if the family of the victim forgives a suspect of a crime, that person can walk free.  Because honor killings are usually committed by family members, this result isn't unusual.”  In others words, families can forgive themselves for any murder they commit, provided the victim is a relative.  Neat, huh?

The incident is by no means isolated.  The Associated Press reported, “Marrying for love is a taboo among conservative Muslims in Pakistan, where hundreds of people are killed each year by their own relatives over alleged sexual indiscretions, which are believed to bring shame upon the family.”  The Guardian added that hundreds more of the murders go unreported and unnoticed, being “written off as domestic accidents or suicides.”

Love brings shame to a family, but murder doesn’t?  What kind of values system is that?

This is an important question, and it relates to what is going on in Iraq this way:  Honor killings would appear to be one of the perversions of the faith that Bisharat describes.  So the community reaction that honor killings have provoked, and the effectiveness of that response in ending the practice, sheds light on whether the worldwide self-correcting wave of revulsion that Bisharat predicts for ISIS really is on its way and will be able to make a difference once it gets there.

I went looking to see what I could find.  First, I Googled these words:  “Muafia Bibi outrage.”  This led to the following articles of significance:

1.  A story about the killings describing how the murderous family was outraged over the girl’s marriage.  If anyone objected to the killings on the dead couple’s behalf, however, the article did not mention it.

2.  An article about the killings that the search picked up only because of this headline appearing in a “related stories” box on the same page:  Pakistan outraged as U.S. missiles hit militant hideouts.”  Well, at least now we now know how to get a rise out of Pakistan.

3.  An article claiming that other murders just like these two in the past have sparked “worldwide outrage,” but which said nothing about any outrage within Pakistan.

I tried again, this time using the search term “Muafia Bibi Muslim leader,” looking to see whether any Muslim leaders have spoken out about the murders.  I did get some relevant hits.  There’s been no Muslim reaction over this particular set of murders that I could find.  But recently a coalition of Pakistani Muslim scholars did issue a fatwa condemning the practice.  The All Pakistan Ulema Council declared that “killing of girls in the name of honor or dignity is terrorism and viciousness—which has nothing to do with Islam.”  It went on to say that a “daughter is a gift by Allah.  And the feeling of being dishonored by your daughter is forbidden in Islam.”  Other Muslim leaders, including those in the United States (where about half a dozen honor killings have taken place) have issued similar opinions.

According to the definitions I found online, a fatwa is sort of like a legal opinion—it’s intended as guidance but is not universally binding on the faithful.  And while scholars speaking out against this kind of unspeakable horror is a good thing, it would also be fair to ask whether that criticism is unanimous. According to media reports, one Islamic scholar was scheduled to give a presentation in Australia next month entitled, “Honor Killings Are Morally Justified.”  The event at which he was to give this speech is called the “The Festival of Dangerous Ideas.”  But apparently the presentation title was too incendiary even for a gathering with that kind of moniker, and organizers canceled his appearance.  The speaker reportedly decried the cancellation as an expression of anti-Muslim sentiment and said that he personally doesn’t support such killings.  If so, perhaps he might consider choosing a different title for his next presentation.  How about, “Honor Killings Are Not Morally Justified.”  That makes a statement.

So, we’ve established that while no groundswell of outrage seems to be sweeping Pakistan over this particular incident, Muslim leaders have spoken out against the practice in general.  The next question is:  are those leaders doing enough?

No country or culture has a monopoly on violence against women.  In the United States, domestic violence remains a huge issue.  How can we know that?  Because:

-- We hear about such incidents in news reports all the time.  As a TV news director, I assigned many such stories for coverage personally, and saw to it that reporters pursued them aggressively.

-- Community leaders and women’s rights activists are continually speaking out against the problem.

-- We’ve all seen and heard countless television public service announcements, radio public service announcements, and even billboard ads decrying the problem.

-- Many of us have heard religious leaders speak out against it.

--The United States Department of Justice has an office dedicated to the problem of violence against women.

--The U.S. Department of Health also has dedicated resources to the problem.

-- Countless civic organizations with the country are involved in fighting the problem.

-- American communities generally have strong and clearly defined laws against domestic violence.

-- American courts more often than not are sympathetic, not hostile, to the rights and needs of domestic violence victims.

So I got curious.  What kinds of efforts are underway within Pakistan to stamp out violence against women there?

I’m happy to report that a search of the words “Pakistan violence against women campaign” got hits.  First it brought up this website, the Pakistani version of the worldwide White Ribbon campaign to end violence against women.  In 2011 the UN Women organization gathered a million signatures in a campaign to end the violence.  President Asif Ali Zardari’s was the millionth signature.  The campaign stated that it had mobilized 1,500 women leaders and recruited thousands of volunteers.  Pakistan also has a chapter of the worldwide “We Can End all Violence Against Women” movement.

Those efforts certainly are commendable and encouraging.  But the country has a steep hill yet to climb.  For one thing, it’s still feeling the effects of the Hadood Ordinances, a series of laws enacted in 1979 designed to impose Islamic Sharia law.  One of the rules stated that any woman complaining of rape had to provide four male Muslim witnesses to back up her story—otherwise, she was guilty of adultery and could face punishments ranging from public flogging to the death penalty.  According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, in the middle of the last decade a Pakistani study found that up to 80% of women languishing in jail at that time were there because of ambiguities and other problems in the law.  The government amended the law in 2006, but some Islamic scholars continue to defend it, blaming any problems in its enforcement on the Pakistani court system. 

Further, the Voice of America reported in 2012 that there were no laws in Pakistan outlawing domestic violence against women.  In 2009 the Pakistan’s National Assembly attempted to pass such a bill.  The Council of Islamic Ideology objected to it, and the measure failed.

A sympathetic or at least non-hostile court system and strong laws against domestic violence are two very powerful weapons in this fight.  They’re lacking in Pakistan.  Religious and secular leaders standing should to shoulder in the fight also would be good, and also appears to be lacking.

So, bottom line:  Yes, this issue is getting attention, and there is progress to report, with hundreds of thousands fighting the good fight to advance the cause of women in Pakistan.  But they’ve just started on what is sure to be a long and arduous journey.  And Pakistan is a model of tolerance and restraint compared to many places in the world. 

The area controlled by ISIS is one of those uglier places.  Bisharat is right to say that ISIS’s extremism has offended much of the rest of the Muslim world.  Muslim leaders have soundly condemned ISIS for its violence.  Even al-Qaeda has disavowed ISIS for the same reason.  But so far, those condemnations have simply bounced off.  ISIS doesn’t care, and hostile words have not slowed its advance.  In fact, the momentum now is in the exact opposite direction.  Some Middle Eastern media are reporting that ISIS fighters have videotaped rapes and have beheaded infants. 

Likewise, without a doubt, the fight to enhance protections for women definitely is underway in the Muslim world.  But it would be generous to describe those efforts even as a “wave” of reform at this point.  Certainly the movement is no tsunami. 

And where ISIS rules, the surf’s not up at all.  It’s naive to think it will be any time soon.


Other postings on this and other political topics can be found here.

©2014 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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