PROVIDENCE, R.I. — At least 860 Pakistani women were brutally murdered in honor killings last year, according to the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. Hina Jilani, one of the foremost human rights leaders in Pakistan, claims that 860 is an extreme lowball figure.
Despite that, Jilani — who is also the U.N. Special Representative on Human Rights — is hopeful for the future of human rights in Pakistan. She is often at the center of Pakistan’s increasingly powerful human rights movement. Still, human rights in Pakistan, and particularly women’s rights, are frequently disregarded in favor of tradition.
Recently, a 25-year-old woman, Farzana Parveen, was stoned to death. She was three months pregnant at the time.
Parveen was murdered in a so-called honor killing, meaning her family committed the murder. Her father, brothers, cousins and uncles all participated in the assault.
They shot her, threw bricks at her and they beat her dead body with a shoe.
It all started as a petty dispute between Parveen’s husband, Muhammad Iqbal, and her family. After a disagreement over the dowry, Parveen’s family claimed that Iqbal coerced her into marriage. Parveen’s family renounced their support of the marriage, but when they learned Parveen still intended to marry Iqbal, they were furious.
At the time of the stoning, she was in a crowded street on her way to testify at the courthouse that the marriage was consensual. In a particularly unnerving twist, Iqbal admitted that he had strangled his first wife in order to marry Parveen.
He got away with that murder on a technicality. According to an Islamic Provision in Pakistani law, a murder can be absolved either by obtaining forgiveness from the victim’s family or by paying a diyat, or legal bribe.
In essence, this makes it legal to for a family to kill any of its female members.
Pakistani lawyer Saroo Ijaz said, “The state has created an enabling environment for honor killings. A woman being disciplined by her family is seen as a private matter by the police, the courts and the law.”
Jilani and many other human rights activists agree that the blame belongs squarely on the state for allowing such horrendous incidents to take place. The police were allegedly present at the stoning and they did nothing. The police claimed that by the time they showed up, Parveen was already dead. In some cases, the state goes so far as to actively protect the murderers in honor killings.
However, Iqbal and several eyewitnesses claim that the police stood by and watched the incident unfold. Much of her family, including her father and two brothers, have been arrested in the meantime.
The global community — including some of the most conservative and religious groups in Pakistan — has expressed outrage over this honor killing, and they have condemned Pakistan’s government for allowing these atrocities to occur.
Yet the state remains unresponsive to this changing sentiment. The advancement of democratic reforms would be instrumental for the human rights movement in Pakistan, according to Jilani.
“In a country like Pakistan where you have intermittent democracy only, usually it’s a military regime. How much of an influence can you have on a military dictator who has come into existence as a result of a coup where democratic values do not prevail?” Jilani asked.
When those democratic values eventually do prevail, Pakistani women will finally have their voices heard and these horrific honor killings will finally come to an end.
Until then, Hina Jilani and human rights leaders like her will continue to fight for the ongoing human rights movement in Pakistan.“Human rights defenders can never afford to despair anything, so we have to find a way to hope always that things will improve,” Jilani said.