“Honor killings” are unfortunately not new to Pakistan. Yet, with rising numbers of immigrants carrying their patriarchal values to their new homes abroad, these events have occurred with greater frequency in the West. A number of Western media commentators have responded by blaming Islam for these murders. Unsurprisingly, the end result has been a cascade of thinly veiled bigotry against Muslims.
The killing of British-born Shafilea Ahmed by her conservative Pakistani parents and their subsequent conviction in the UK stands as the most recent focus of these prejudiced media musings. Seventeen-year-old Shafliea went missing from her home in Cheshire, United Kingdom, in 2003. Her body was found in the River Kent six months later. After years of denial, Shafiliea’s parents were found guilty of her murder in August 2012. Before sentencing them to a minimum of 25 years in prison each, the judge remarked: “Your concern about being shamed in your community was greater than the love of your child.”
In a recent blog post, Christina Odone of the UK newspaper, The Telegraph, expressed feelings of “intolerance” toward Islam as a result of Shafilea’s murder:
When Muslim parents hate their host culture so much that they will kill a child who seems to embrace it, then they are guilty of intolerance – the kind that non-Muslims are wary of showing, lest they be branded racist, or bigoted. A tragedy like Shafilea’s makes me feel intolerant.
Ms. Odone’s desire to safeguard the human rights of girls and women from the onslaught of Islam is misplaced and perpetuates more harm than good. I challenge Odone to find anything in the Quran that prescribes or condones the actions of Shafilea’s parents. On the contrary, the Quran is replete with verses condemning the killing of innocent people and emphasizing the sanctity of human life. The following verse is one example: “…if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people” ( 5:32).
Another verse specifically prohibits the pre-Islamic practice of burying infant girls alive, which was common among the Arabian peninsula’s tribal, patriarchal societies: “When the infant girl, is buried alive, is questioned, for what crime she was killed”(81:9).
In short, there is nothing in Islam, as Ms. Odone erroneously asserts, that explains or excuses Shafilea’s murder. Similarly, Islam does not subject girls or boys, men or women to compulsion in marriage. If a Muslim man or woman expresses a desire to be married, and shows interest in a suitable person, his or her parents are urged to allow, not prevent, the marriage. While a woman may contract her own marriage with the help of a male guardian, known as a “wali”, he is permitted only to represent her best interests, and may not stand in the way of the marriage she has chosen or force her into a union she does not desire.
So what made Shafilea Ahmed’s parents murder their daughter? In one word, culture. Not general Pakistani or Muslim culture, but, rather, an extremely repressive expression of patriarchy found in households in rural villages and hamlets across the Muslim world. In these tight knit communities, men reign supreme and families intermarry to retain wealth and strengthen kinship ties. Family honor, tied to the chastity and good behavior of women, must be safeguarded at all costs; arranged marriages, and sadly, forced marriages, are not uncommon practices.
Lest we think only men propagate the culture of “honor killing,” Karen Reid, a Canadian barrister and criminal defense lawyer, shared with me the details of another horrific “honor killing” case from Canada. As Reid recounted:
This past January in Kingston, Ontario, a jury convicted the Afghani-Canadian Shafia family — the mother, father and oldest son—of murder for orchestrating the drowning deaths of their three outspoken daughters, along with the unwanted first wife who had been relabeled a ‘cousin’ for the purpose of immigrating to Canada.
The striking thing for me was the mother’s unblinking complicity in eliminating her three spirited, freedom-seeking daughters along with her husband’s first wife. The mom clearly backed the eldest son as her most precious possession, which is consistent with how women ascend to ersatz power in patriarchal cultures, by bearing a man-child whom they coddle and prime as an eventual ticket to vicarious control. Clearly some women in these societies are highly invested in suppressing their sisters and daughters as a means to their own advancement. These female Judases are at least as despicable as their strutting husbands and sons.
Reid does not make Odone’s mistake of blaming Islam and expressing intolerance towards Muslims. Instead, she rightly recognizes that not all Pakistani or Muslim parents, including those with conservative values, decide to murder their children because of a difference of opinion or a clash of culture within the family home.
Yet as Reid points out, the eradication of “honor killings” depends on both sexes recognizing their complicity in the system. Both men and women must relinquish the power and control gained from killing a girl who rejects her parents’ plans, and brings real or perceived shame on her family.
To stem “honor killings” men and women must first recognize and acknowledge the disturbing thirst for blood sacrifice that drives these acts, and separate this compulsion from Islamic religious obligations. Then, and only then, can we hope to save our women and girls from a fate that has no place in any decent society, Islamic or otherwise.
* Bina Shah is a writer and journalist based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her most recent novel is Slum Child, and her latest novel, Peter Pochmann Goes To Pakistan, was written partly while she was at the International Writers’ Program in Iowa City at the University of Iowa in 2011. She is also a contributing blogger at Muftah.