Why She Stood Up
It was just over two years ago that a group of women were brutally murdered in Balochistan. The details have not yet been established, but it seems they were killed by people who had some political clout with the provincial government. The crime was even discussed in the Senate. The story made headlines not so much for the fact of their murder, but because at least some of them were said to have been buried alive. It has not been possible to ascertain the status of the investigation or legal case, if one was ever filed.
By Ayesha Khan
One fact emerges as incontrovertible: the women had left their homes and were on their way to a destination of their own choice and without a male relative escort. They had entered a “public” domain, not one proscribed by kinship or village boundaries. The maximum customary penalty for a women who transgress the boundaries between private and public in Pakistan is death. Or to be more specific, the maximum penalty for women who decide – themselves and not with the consent of their male guardians - where to place their bodies, and with whom they wish to share their bodies, is death.
The suggestion in the media is that the Balochistan victims were on their way to meet men for romantic reasons, possibly even to get married. Because women do not own their own bodies, if they dare to act as if they do then their murder becomes socially and politically justified. There will be some voices raised demanding punishment for the killers, in this case there was debate over the matter in the Senate, but the criminal justice system is too weak and fundamentally disinterested in issues of gender justice to follow through.
It may be possible to escape a punishment of death by fleeing the country, as did Shaista Almani and Balakh Sher Mahar in 2004 – for the crime of marrying each other across caste boundaries. This they managed even though a government officer hauled them back from Karachi to face a village tribal jirga in Sindh that pronounced them divorced and their own relatives were preparing to kill them for reasons of so-called “honour”. Eventually the Supreme Court decided they were allowed to be together, but the couple took no chances and left.
Shazia Khaskheli and Mohammed Hassan Solangi did not survive the crime of marrying out of choice and across caste and tribal boundaries in 2003. They were hunted down by a tribal jirga from the girl’s village, with the help of the police, and murdered. It happened so fast that women’s rights groups had no time to protest and try to save the couple. Newsline magazine printed a photograph of their dead bodies on its cover.
But when women activists and rights-based organization do lodge protests and attempt advocacy with the government it is on the assumption that Pakistan is a functioning nation-state, with a Constitution, somewhat representative government, and some mechanisms in place to protect its citizens from wanton violence, and so forth. This may appear foolish, particularly in the light of crimes against women and the power of informal groups such as tribal jirgas and village panchayats to pronounce death sentences that are vigorously carried out by so-called citizens of the state. Since perpetrators of these crimes are often protected by state officials, it may appear to be a better strategy for activists to forget about the concepts of state and citizens altogether, since they so elude our grasp and they so evidently mean little to politicians and police officers who protect local murderers and rapists in their constituencies.
But then on what basis can we demand our rights, and from whom, and with what recourse in the event of violations? We need to almost will into being this notional state, conduct advocacy as if there was a rule of law, and demand what would be our rights as citizens, in order to make change possible. We need to act as if there were such a functional state, and stubbornly appeal to politicians, law enforcement officers, judges, and the press to play their role in protecting our rights.
For women there is no way to be free without acting as if they are free, in other words stepping out of their homes and assuming control of their bodies – and thereby their lives. The girls murdered in Balochistan, in so doing, acted as if they were free.
Perhaps this explains why Benazir Bhutto stood up in her car to wave at her supporters last December 27
If it is true, as many of her detractors say repeatedly, that Benazir Bhutto was guilty of bringing on her own assassination, then it must also be true that countless other women are guilty of getting themselves killed for reasons of so-called “honour”. Then what about those of us who demand that Pakistan become state which recognizes and protects our human rights? It follows that we are also deeply, deathly, guilty as charged for daring to believe that we can be free.
Ayesha Khan is with the Collective for Social Science Research