The law of for­give­ness

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Zahid Hus­sain

MORE than 1,000 women are killed in the name of hon­our in this coun­try ev­ery year, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial fig­ures. But the ac­tual num­bers are be­lieved to be much higher. Saba Qaiser, 19, would have been one of them had she not mirac­u­lously sur­vived drown­ing in a river af­ter hav­ing been shot in the head. Un­sur­pris­ingly, those who tried to fin­ish her off were none other than her own rel­a­tives - her father and un­cle - as hap­pens in most such cases of ' hon­our' crime.

Sharmeen Obaid Chi­noy's bril­liant 40-minute doc­u­men­tary A Girl in the River: the Price of For­give­ness is the story of that 19-year-old from Gu­jran­wala.

Nom­i­nated for an Academy Award, the short film is surely a pow­er­ful por­trayal of the plight of a vic­tim of hon­our crime. But it is not just the story of a brave girl who de­fied death and is now liv­ing hap­pily with the man she loved and risked her life for. She is back to life with a scar left by the bul­let that pierced her cheek­bone, but is still haunted by the in­ci­dent.

It is more about the law of for­give­ness that pro­tects the killers. Saba's father and un­cle are now free and with no re­morse for what they had done. Un­der the pres­sure of lo­cal el­ders and the clan she has for­given her tor­men­tors. Per­haps they would have killed Saba in the se­cond at­tempt and even then would have got­ten away with mur­der us­ing the pro­vi­sion of the law that al­lows a fam­ily mem­ber to for­give the per­pe­tra­tor.

By reach­ing her, Ms Chi­noy may have saved the life of that girl from Gu­jran­wala. But hun­dreds of other women killed ev­ery year in this land of the pure are not that lucky.

'Hon­our' killing is not be­ing treated as a crime against the state and the law of for­give­ness is vir­tu­ally a li­cence to kill. Not sur­pris­ingly, there has been a steep rise in ' hon­our' crimes across the coun­try. Many of the vic­tims are young girls who dare to marry with­out the con­sent of their fam­ily.

How can one for­get the har­row­ing in­ci­dent in 2014 when a young girl named Farzana Parveen was blud­geoned to death by her fam­ily mem­bers in broad day­light out­side the La­hore High Court as a large crowd in­clud­ing po­lice stood there watch­ing the grue­some act?

No one came for­ward to save the girl for vi­o­lat­ing the so-called hon­our of the fam­ily by mar­ry­ing the man of her choice. The in­ci­dent may have pro­voked an in­ter­na­tional out­cry, but would not shake our con­science. Many would ra­tio­nalise the bru­tal act in the name of fam­ily hon­our. As Ms Chi­noy rightly pointed out in an in­ter­view, peo­ple here are so ob­sessed with the very con­cept of hon­our that it has be­come a com­mon nar­ra­tive.

The doc­u­men­tary re­veals the var­i­ous forces that come into play in this kind of sit­u­a­tion.

While the law of for­give­ness marginalises the role of the state, it gives sway to the lo­cal el­ders who force a com­pro­mise. The odds are in­vari­ably stacked against the vic­tim and the sym­pa­thies are with the per­pe­tra­tors as hap­pened in the case of Saba. The vil­lage el­ders who played the role of ar­biter ar­ranged the com­pro­mise were clearly on the side of the father whose hon­our, they ar­gued, was vi­o­lated by her ac­tion.

Poverty and cir­cum­stances too be­come a fac­tor in lim­it­ing op­tions for the vic­tim. Saba would never have for­given her tor­men­tors had she not been afraid of be­ing shunned by the com­mu­nity and the state be­ing un­able to pro­vide her pro­tec­tion. She also faced the trau­matic re­al­ity of her own father hav­ing tried to kill her, and then the fam­ily os­tracis­ing her. The of­fend­ers come out tri­umphant in the bar­gain while the onus lies on the vic­tim.

Of course, there was no ques­tion of shame and re­morse; in­stead the bru­tal act ap­pears to have fur­ther em­pow­ered Saba's father who felt that he had done some­thing right that earned him im­mense re­spect in the com­mu­nity. He boasted that his ac­tion had im­proved the prospect of mar­riage for his other daugh­ter.

Such grand­stand­ing by a crim­i­nal is per­haps the most dis­turb­ing part of the doc­u­men­tary. One can hardly find any such ex­am­ple of the state be­ing a silent spec­ta­tor in the face of such de­fi­ance. One won­ders if the mur­der­ers would have had the same re­sponse from the com­mu­nity had they been pun­ished for the crime. Per­haps the nar­ra­tive would have been very dif­fer­ent if there was no le­gal pro­vi­sion of for­give­ness.

The prob­lem with ' hon­our' killing as de­scribed by Ms Chi­noy is that it's con­sid­ered to be in the do­main of the home. A father kills his daugh­ter or a brother kills his sis­ter and no­body files a case as they feel it would bring shame to the fam­ily. This mind­set is not just re­gres­sive, it ac­tu­ally pro­vides im­punity to the mur­der­ers.

For long, hu­man rights groups have been fight­ing to get hon­our killing to be treated as a crime against the state to make the pro­vi­sion of for­give­ness in­ef­fec­tive But it seems hard to con­vince the law­mak­ers. The big­gest con­tri­bu­tion of the doc­u­men­tary is that it has opened up a na­tional discourse that crimes against women have noth­ing to do with hon­our.

Whether or not the doc­u­men­tary will fetch a se­cond Os­car for Ms Chi­noy, the film has al­ready made a pow­er­ful im­pact even draw­ing the prime min­is­ter's at­ten­tion to the is­sue.

One is, how­ever, not sure if it is the Os­car nom­i­na­tion or the mes­sage in the film it­self has prompted Sharif to recog­nise the killings in the name of hon­our as a se­ri­ous prob­lem. One hopes that his in­ter­est goes be­yond screen­ing the film at the Prime Min­is­ter's Of­fice.

There is an ur­gent need to amend the law to re­move the pro­vi­sion of for­give­ness that em­pow­ers peo­ple like Saba's father.

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