On May 27, 2014, another woman was murdered in Pakistan. Her name was Farzana, she was 25 years old, married, and pregnant. She was killed by twenty members of her family, including her father, brothers, and cousins. They pelted her with bricks because she had married a man of her choice, rather than the cousin she was arranged to marry.Farzana was killed in broad daylight, on a busy street outside Lahore’s high court, where she had come to contest a bogus abduction case filed by her family. The high court is heavily guarded, but police officers on the scene refused to come to her aid, despite desperate pleas from Farzana’s in-laws.
At the time of this writing, only Farzana’s father has been arrested. He described his daughter’s murder as an “honor killing,” stating "I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it.” Two days later Farzana’s husband admitted to strangling his first wife to marry Farzana.
As horrifying as this story is, and it is absolutely horrifying, the horror is compounded by three facts. First, Farzana is one amongst hundreds — if not thousands — of women who are killed by their families in Pakistan every year.
Second, family members who murder their daughters are either acquitted or suffer only light sentences by the state, since families are hesitant to bring cases to court and police are reticent to investigate.
Third, if the case were to appear in court, family members could exploit a loophole in Islamic law to acquit themselves. Islamic law allows the family of the murdered to “forgive” the murderer, and so family members can forgive one another for murdering female relatives. In fact, this is how Farzana’s husband went free after murdering his first wife; his son “forgave” him. The same loophole might save Farzana's murderers from prosecution.
The structural inequalities that this story exposes make it difficult to pass it off as an exceptional act of madness. The number of family members involved in Farzana’s attack, the public manner of her murder, the inaction of the police, and her father’s brazen confession of the crime reflect a deeply patriarchal cultural and religious context in which women are seen as “belonging” to male members of their family, and where expression of women’s agency and independence — especially sexual — is a punishable act even unto death.
Yet, I have noticed that when many of us well-intentioned scholars and activists are confronted with a story of violence involving persons of colour, our instinct is to downplay the structural inequalities it exposes by comparing the story to one in which a “western,” white man is violent toward “western,” white women.
This move is intended to prove that violence against women belongs to all human societies and is not unique to any one cultural or religious group, lest any community be unfairly demonized for its treatment of women. The “western” cases are usually picked ad hoc, so long as they demonstrate that “the west,” too, fails to protect women from discrimination, abuse, and violence.
And though, sadly, such a comparison could be made in any given news cycle, there is something deeply troubling about comparing Farzana’s murder to that of other women; not least because it cheapens and belittles their deaths. In the service of countering simplistic reductions of religions or ethnic groups as inherently misogynistic, these comparisons only feed the cycle of over-simplification by lifting all responsibility from the community in which the violence occurred.
In an honorable bid to prevent demonization, we unwittingly perpetuate the structural inequalities that led to Farzana’s murder in the first place.
What if we stayed with Farzana, and took a hard look at the patriarchal landscape of the social and political structures in which women must carry the “honour” of their families; in which they can be murdered in broad daylight by family members; in which the police refuse to help a woman who is murdered before their eyes?
What if we considered the problems of an interpretation of Islam and legal structures in which women’s sexuality is strictly regulated; in which women are denied the agency to marry whom they choose and must seek the consent of their male guardians; in which those who murder women can be “forgiven,” exonerated by appealing to religious law?
Staying with Farzana means acknowledging that seemingly small patriarchal acts and beliefs, carried to their logical conclusion, always lead to violence against women. Societal mores that regulate women’s sexuality, or demand a male guardian’s consent to marry, or grant husbands disciplinary rights over their wives, conspire toward a male supremacist worldview, in which men feel a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies and lives. There is an easy connection, thereafter, between power and violence.
Staying with Farzana means that we must hold every community accountable for all the ways in which they tolerate patriarchy in their own homes and societies. It means taking words that come out of the people’s mouths — both perpetrators and victims of gendered violence — seriously. If they use religious and/or cultural arguments to justify their behaviour, we need to examine the ways in which culture and religion are responsible for condoning such behaviour, even as we recognize that no culture or religion is homogenous and monolithic.
Indeed, just as no culture is purely ugly or fully responsible for individual actions, neither is any culture purely beautiful nor any individual action free from cultural influence.
For Muslims, staying with Farzana means seeing and taking responsibility for the ugly within our own communities. Ironically, ignoring the ugliness in our own communities and deflecting it onto other communities — which is something we are all guilty of, in one way or another — is dehumanizing. In saving ourselves from demonization, we leave our most vulnerable members exposed to the harm we’re too busy pretending does not exist. Just as the first step in correcting a wrong is recognizing that a wrong was committed, the first step in empowering women is to recognize how we oppress them.
It is time for us be honest about our modes of oppression, and to sit with Farzana and see, through her eyes, how we are ugly.
Bukhari, Mubasher. “Pakistan woman stoned to death by family for marrying man she loved.” Reuters, May 27, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/27/us-pakistan-honourkillings-idUSKBN0E711A20140527.
NBC News/World. “Family Stones Pakistani Woman to Death in ‘Honor Killing’ Outside Court.” May 27, 2014. http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/family-stones-pakistani-woman-death-honor-killing-outside-court-n115336.
Neuman, Scott. “Husband of Woman Beaten, Shot To Death In Pakistan Killed First Wife.” NPR, May 29 2014, International. http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/05/29/317160595/husband-of-woman-stoned-to-death-in-pakistan-killed-first-wife.
Walsh, Declan. “One Man, Two Wives and Many Accepted Forms of Violence in Pakistan.” The New York Times, May 30, 2014, Asia Pacific.http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/31/world/asia/honor-killing-of-pakistani-woman.html.
BBC News Asia. “Pakistan police defend actions over Lahore honour killing.” May 30, 2014. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-27633227.
Photo Credit: InnervisionArt / Shutterstock
Author, Ayesha Chaudhry, is Assistant Professor of Gender and Islamic Studies at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include Islamic law, Qur'anic exegesis, and feminist hermeneutics. She is the author of Domestic Violence in the Islamic Tradition: Ethics, Law and the Muslim Discourse on Gender (Oxford University Press, 2014). Dr. Chaudhry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.