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Over this year’s scorching summer, Pakistan witnessed some of the most gruesome attacks on women and girls that it had seen in a long time. Some victims were burned to death, and others were strangled, poisoned, or shot. The most high-profile case was the murder of a social media star, Qandeel Baloch, who was strangled to death by her brother “for dishonoring the Baloch name.” Under Pakistani law, the perpetrators of such crimes can be acquitted if they are forgiven by the victim’s family members. But with new legislation passed earlier this month, that policy has begun to change.
Starting earlier this year, the Pakistani parliament, of which I am a member, has worked to block acquittals in crimes of honor. Popularly called “the anti-honor crime bill,” the measure was passed unanimously after a long debate. The new law does mark progress, but it does not go far enough to contain the violence against women and girls. Problems in the structure and content of the law remain unaddressed, and religious groups prevent parliament from making the necessary changes. Until all murder is treated uniformly in the penal code, as a crime against the state instead of against an individual, acquittals for crimes against women and children will likely continue undeterred.
In many parts of Pakistan, tribal codes allow men to take the life of a wife, daughter, or sister if she is caught in a sexual act with a man to whom she is not married. In practice, women are often killed on mere suspicion (and although the men involved may be killed too, they frequently are not.) Others are killed for refusing a forced marriage, picking their own spouse, or running away from the family home. For the most part, such crimes go unpunished because, according to Pakistani law, a murderer can be acquitted if the victim’s relatives opt to punish, forgive, or settle with the perpetrator after taking compensation.
Honor killings and acquittals are not a problem only in the tribal frontiers and borderlands. They also occur in major cities such as Lahore and Karachi. In Pakistan, more than 1,000 men, women, and girls lose their lives each year to such crimes.
Recognizing the problem, Parliament in 2004 moved to exclude honor killings from the law that allows victims’ families to directly settle with the perpetrators. The violence nonetheless continued—as did the impunity. The new amendments passed this summer reaffirmed the 2004 exception: if a murder is registered as fasad fil arz (the legal category in which honor crimes are placed), then the provisions for blood money and forgiveness are voided. The punishment for a crime committed on the pretext of honor will now be life imprisonment, and judges no longer have the discretion to allow acquittals. However, the bill does not legally define what constitutes an honor crime, nor does it clarify how a crime of honor can be proven in court unless the perpetrator confesses and witnesses corroborate.
That is a particularly high bar; women are killed primarily in their family homes—and with collusion of other family members. That can make it difficult to establish the facts of the case. And because all non-honor murders can still be settled, those involved have incentive to deny that their crime had anything to do with fasad fil arz.
Even worse, this year’s crime bill—and the 2004 one—miss an essential point. There is no honor in taking a human life. By even recognizing honor as a cause for murder, Parliament has created a legal category that should not exist. Indeed, the problem with the new bill is its conceptual premise. In Pakistan, murder continues to be a private offense, committed by one individual against another, which can be settled among those involved. Pakistan can make an exception for crimes of honor, but all deliberate killings—of men, women, and children—have to be treated equally. And murder has to be seen as a crime against the society and a state, where family should play no role in either revenge or forgiveness.