ISLAMABAD: Naeema Kishwar shrouds herself in a burqa, showing only her eyes. She belongs to a Pakistani political party that has been linked to the Taleban. And she comes from deeply conservative tribal lands where girls have been killed for going to school. Sughra Imam sometimes wears a scarf draped lightly on her hair, but often her head is bare. She belongs to a liberal party whose leader, Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister of this predominantly Muslim nation, was assassinated by extremists.
She comes from a prominent Pakistani family and was educated at Harvard. So much divides the two politicians, but at least one thing unites them: they have spent their careers fighting for women. They became unlikely allies in the battle to pass a historic law to protect women from murder by members of their own families. In Pakistan, legislation passed decades ago has allowed many of those who kill in the name of family “honor” to go free.
A family’s honor can be “tarnished” by something as innocent as sitting next to an unknown man, or helping a friend elope with the man of her choice. The law decrees that relatives of a murder victim can forgive the killer. Human rights groups argued that in the case of “honor” killing, this granted immunity to killers, because both victim and perpetrator are usually family members. Hard-line Islamic groups, however, defended forgiveness as a religious edict from the Quran.
But the mood in the country began to shift in the last year with the rise of social media and a proliferation of television channels that started covering “honor” killings. Pakistanis grew outraged over a series of grotesque murders: a daughter burned alive by her mother, a social media star drugged and strangled by her brother, a teenage girl ordered by a tribal council to be bound and burned like Joan of Arc for helping a friend elope.
After Imam became a member of parliament’s upper house seven years ago, the poor who tilled the land in her constituency in Punjab province started coming to her with stories of a man who had killed his wife after seeing her talking to another man, or of a brother who killed his sister for having “illicit” relations. She saw that the men who killed showed no worry of even going to jail. “No one was ever afraid. They never felt they would be punished. They knew they would be forgiven,” Imam says.
When Imam began to craft her bill three years ago, she wanted the killings removed from the Islamic law allowing the family to forgive a murderer. Imam wore her fellow lawmakers down until finally they agreed to her wording. Even senators from Kishwar’s hard-line Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam Party were among the Senate’s 104 members who passed Imam’s bill unanimously last year. But the legislation never came to a vote in the more powerful National Assembly, dominated by the Conservative Pakistan Muslim League, a traditional ally of the religious parties. Imam’s bill was dead.
It would take an extraordinary moment in Pakistan’s history, and help from Kishwar, to bring it back. Kishwar’s hometown of Mardan is in a deeply conservative region of Pakistan’s northwest where women are rarely seen on the streets without the all-enveloping burqa. When she was a child, Kishwar says, parents discouraged their girls from attending school. As a teenager she swore to fight for change, and when she first was elected to public office in the provincial Parliament in Pakistan’s northwest in 2002, she advocated for girls’ schools and colleges.
“I have been raising my voice in the Parliament for the rights of women, and I will keep doing it,” says Kishwar, now a member of the National Assembly. But Kishwar’s activism is shaped by her strict interpretation of her religion. She says Islam demands women cover from head to toe, and she adheres firmly to segregation of the sexes. Like Imam, she wanted “honor” killing punished, but she defends at least some forgiveness, saying Islam gives families the right to reconcile. “Because I wear this veil and love my religion doesn’t mean I accept this,” she says of “honor” killings. “No. But it’s complicated.”
The Price of Forgiveness
The legislation proposed by Imam could be revived only if the government called a joint session of the Senate and National Assembly. That seemed unlikely until a heart-wrenching documentary about the murderous practice won an Academy Award this year. “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” trained an international spotlight on the killings, and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finally vowed he would work to change the law. In search of a consensus, the government sent the bill to a committee, whose members held a potentially disastrous mix of views ranging from secular to hard-line religious. Imam was no longer a senator at this point, but she wasn’t sidelined: Her party and the government’s law minister consulted her often as the bill was shepherded through the committee.
Kishwar, a member of the committee, knew that Imam’s language was a nonstarter for her hard-line party and its leader, who told her the party would never take “honor” killing out of the Islamic law that allows forgiveness of a crime. “It was very difficult for me. I was the go-between between the government and my party,” she says. After many hours of negotiations, the committee unanimously agreed on a compromise bill: a mandatory 25-year sentence for a convicted “honor” killer. But the final wording allowed forgiveness of the death sentence.- AP