Author: Zaarain Baloch
Honor killing, a deeply rooted issue in Balochistan for several decades, is the culturally condoned killing of individuals found guilty of engaging in supposedly illicit relationships. This practice has become ingrained in the Baloch psyche, drawing support from local traditions, culture, and religious beliefs. Unfortunately, each year, numerous men and women become victims of these atrocious crimes, with women bearing the disproportionate brunt of such violence.
Honor killings are sometimes referred to as Karo Kari, a term commonly used in Balochistan’s Naseerabad and Jaffarabad districts due to their geographical and cultural proximity to Sindh from where the word originates. However, the more frequently used term in Balochistan is Siyah Kari, which literally translates to ‘black deeds’, symbolizing the mindset associated with this practice. The rationale behind honor killings is both absurd and tragic: The person engaging in a supposedly illicit relationship before or outside of marriage, is believed to have brought shame and dishonor upon their family and society. Consequently, the only perceived path to restore the family’s reputation and honor is to take the life of the individual involved.
The Balochistan Post has reported nine cases of honor killings in Balochistan since the beginning of this year, the actual number is suspected to be much higher. In its annual report for 2021, the Aurat Foundation, a non-governmental women’s rights organization, documented 49 honor killings in Balochistan, with 27 occurring in the Naseerabad district alone. Additionally, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated, in its annual report for 2022, that 35 individuals, over half of whom were women, fell victim to honor killings in Balochistan. However, it is widely believed that the true number of incidents remains significantly underreported.
According to the Human Rights Watch, the main cause behind honor-related crimes is the perceived deviation from socially accepted norms. Factors such as a woman’s choice of clothing, employment, or education, refusal to comply with arranged marriages, entering into marriages without family consent, seeking divorce, experiencing rape or sexual assault, or engaging in intimate or sexual relationships before or outside of marriage (even if only alleged) are considered valid grounds for justifying an honor killing.
While Amnesty International emphasizes that “honor killings are committed predominantly against women and girls,” it is crucial to note that men, too, can become victims of this brutal form of violence. This underlines the indiscriminate nature of honor killings, transcending gender boundaries and causing harm to individuals within the Baloch society.
The Baloch society has a reputation for its conservative outlook, where the age-old adage of izzat maray pen maray te maff (“honor before everything else”) holds sway. Baloch people cherish their traditions and customs with an almost zealous fervor, vehemently safeguarding their culture and heritage from any encroaching external forces. This, coupled with their unwavering commitment to religious practices, is a recipe for the prevailing occurrence of honor killings in the region.
A striking incident serves as a testament to the horrors of honor killings and the mindset associated with them. In 2008, five women were brutally murdered in the name of honor in Balochistan’s Jaffarabad district by tribesmen belonging to the Umrani tribe. When this shocking incident was brought up in the Pakistani senate, Israr Ullah Zehri, a lawmaker and the brother of former Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri, defended the killings, referring to them as “our centuries-old tradition” and vowing to continue to defend them.
In Balochistan, particularly in regions like Naseerabad, Jaffarabad, and other areas bordering Sindh, a documented reason behind honor killings revolves around the issue of inheritance rights for women. Tragically, it is not uncommon for men within families to deny women their rightful share of inheritance. In order to seize control of lands and other inherited assets, men resort to a deeply disturbing tactic: falsely accusing the women of bringing shame upon the family’s honor. This ultimately leads to the devastating loss of lives as these women become victims of honor killings.
The tribal chieftains, known as ‘sardar’ or ‘tumandar’, and the syeds, the spiritual leaders of the community, have a personal axe to grind. “They deliberately bring attention to honor killings, magnifying their significance because it enables them to reap substantial financial gains by mediating between the heirs of accused men and women who have allegedly dishonored their respective families”, explained women’s rights activist Hameeda Noor to The Balochistan Post. “These chieftains and syeds take the lion’s share of the settlement money, solidifying their authority within the region. Shockingly, they often subject the accused women to their control, even engaging in non-consensual sexual acts. The women bear the brunt of this issue, living the rest of their lives in deplorable conditions.”
Noor explained that the sardars are constantly seeking cases to exploit for financial gain. She recounted an issue that came to light last year involving a young man and an elderly woman, an octogenarian, who were accused of adultery. The local sardar declared it an issue of honor and demanded that accused either pay a sum of money or face death. “The elderly woman walked around the town, proclaiming: ‘The boy is younger than my own grandchildren! How can I be involved in such a thing with him?’ The growing public disbelief and skepticism forced the sardar to relent and retract his verdict.”
The Naseerabad and Jaffarabad areas are particularly plagued by honor killings due to their proximity to Sindh, where such killings have become a routine practice. The levies, who hold administrative control over most of Balochistan, are influenced by tribal elites. Unfortunately, cases in these areas rarely get registered, let alone reach the courtroom. Astonishingly, according to the Aurat Foundation’s report on honor killings, not a single case of honor killing has been brought before the Balochistan High Court since 2004.
“The significant prevalence of honor killings can be attributed, in part, to the lack of thorough investigation,” Hameeda Noor emphasized. “In many instances, the police and levies simply accept honor killings as inevitable and fail to pursue legal action against those responsible. Furthermore, they exhibit a reluctance to investigate allegations of adultery and, alarmingly, even surrender the accused individuals, who sought their protection, directly to the sardars or syeds. Subsequently, these influential figures either order the execution of the victims or extort money from them. The absence of proper investigation and accountability perpetuates the cycle of honor killings and allows the perpetrators to act with impunity.”
Efforts have been made in Pakistan to outlaw honor killings. The first attempt was made nearly two decades ago, in 2004, when the National Assembly passed the Honor Killing Act, which criminalized killing in the name of honor. However, this legislation contained a significant loophole, granting relatives the right to protect the perpetrator through an Islamic legal practice known as Diya. The heirs of the victims can forgive the convict, resulting in no penalties. This loophole is particularly troubling since the individuals perpetrating the murders are often family members themselves.
In 2016, the National Assembly took a significant step forward in addressing honor killings by enacting the Anti-Honor Killing law. This law aimed to close the aforementioned loophole and mandated life imprisonment for the convict, even if the victim’s heirs forgave the murder. However, even with this legislation in place, there have been instances where justice has eluded the victims. In the highly publicized case of Qandeel Baloch, who was killed by her brother in the name of honor, the convict was ultimately acquitted, with his lawyer arguing that the law was enacted after her killing and, therefore, did not apply to her case. Moreover, Qandeel Baloch’s mother forgave her brother, and the judge ruled that it was not an honor killing, highlighting the complexities surrounding these cases.
The Balochistan government also took a step towards women empowerment and gender equality with the adoption of the women empowerment and gender policy bill in 2020 to make up space for the Baloch women in politics and social issues. However, it is essential to recognize that passing legislation alone is insufficient to tackle deeply ingrained societal attitudes and break the cycle of gender-based violence. The root of the problem lies in the fact that the Baloch society is male-dominated where women are relegated to second-class citizenship, devoid of freedom and a voice of their own. It is at the micro level, within families and communities, that transformative change must take place.
In addition to legislative measures, a comprehensive community outreach effort is vital to challenge the tacit acceptance of these so-called ‘traditions’ within Baloch society. The society as a whole needs to be sensitized to the fact that these acts are not about honor but are, in fact, acts of murder. Only through concerted efforts to raise awareness, educate, and engage the community can we hope to dismantle the cultural norms that perpetuate such violence.