On 27 September 2019, a Pakistani court imposed a life sentence on the younger brother of Qandeel Baloch for strangling and killing the 26-year-old social media star from the Ma’arah tribe of Punjab’s Multan city in July 2016. Qandeel, whose real name was Fauzia Azeem, was one of the thousands of women who have been and continue to be murdered in the name of honour in Pakistan. But rather than protect her killer as the one who saved the family’s honour, family members wanted justice and stood as eyewitnesses in the court case that has now set a precedent in the country.
In 2015, award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy made a documentary about teenager Saba Qaiser, whose father and uncle shot her in the face, put her in a burlap sack and dumped her in a river because she got married without her family’s consent. She survived. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which earned global recognition after winning the Oscar award for best documentary, traces the phenomenon of honour killing in detail.
Baloch had gained a widespread following on social media from videos deemed “provocative” by the conservative standards of Pakistani society. Most of her “risqué videos” were made at night. Thousands watched her “feign annoyance or try on a new dress”. For critics, Baloch was the first social media celebrity to single-handedly expose the “social hypocrisy” that is prevalent in Pakistani society.
Her brutal killing garnered international attention after the British Broadcasting Corporation made a documentary and journalist Sanam Maher wrote a book in 2018, The Sensational Life and Death of Qandeel Baloch, which was later turned into a film called Baaghi (Rebel). In Pakistan, a 28-episode series produced by Nina Kashif became an overnight sensation, creating an unusual space for introspection in an otherwise conservative society. Viewers said the programme generated empathy for a woman like Baloch, a “victim of moral witch-hunting”.
“The biggest thing that got me interested in writing a book on her was Qandeel’s character,” said Maher. “Here was a woman who had managed to fool everyone by creating a persona that we all completely bought into. Everyone was relentlessly consuming the idea of her, who she was, by watching her videos and pictures. However, in reality, nobody had any clue who she was.”
Baloch’s mother, Anwar Bibi, admitted that her sons wanted to stop Baloch from making videos. In the first information report written by the police, Baloch’s father blamed both his sons, Aslam Shaheen and Muhammad Waseem, for killing their sister for money. Her parents fondly called Baloch “their son”, saying she took care of them and helped with the family expenses.
Baloch’s martial arts teacher, whose name has been withheld to protect his identity, drew attention to her posthumous rise in fame, something to which she aspired when alive. He said it was evidence that she had “died with honour” as the families of those killed are not supposed to talk about the deceased because of the “shame” they brought on the family.
Meanwhile, her parents’ resolve to see the culprit, their son, Muhammad Waseem, punished began to crumble when they learned that the court’s decision could mean either the death penalty or life imprisonment for him. An energetic campaign in which activists organised fundraising drives to support the victims’ parents gradually slowed. And Waseem’s friends were putting pressure on Baloch’s father, trying to convince him that his son regretted killing his sister and often dreamt of her screaming in fear.
They tried to withdraw the case and forgive him during the trial, but the court declined and convicted him on his initial confession and additional evidence.
The prevalent custom of honour killing is widespread in rural areas of Pakistan, especially in the four provinces of Punjab, Balochistan, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. When a woman is found or suspected of being involved in an extramarital or premarital affair, she is deemed to have brought shame on the entire community and especially her family. The family is then pressurised to kill the woman and her partner. The male members of the family justify their criminal act as being necessary to restore the family’s honour, by washing away the immorality. Often the killing is termed a “moral responsibility”.
Nearly 5 000 people across Pakistan have been killed for “honour” by unidentified perpetrators in the past seven years, according to the country’s Human Rights Commission. At least 534 honour killings took place between October 2016 and October 2017, including 149 cases of victims being killed for marrying partners of their own choosing. For example, a teenage couple who tried to elope in September 2017 were captured by their families and electrocuted to death in Karachi after a jirga or council ruled that they had to be punished for bringing “dishonour” to the community.
The story of Afzal
Afzal Kohistani, 30, from Palas Valley in the Kohistan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, was killed by unidentified gunmen in March this year for being an outspoken critic of honour killings.
It began with a video that surfaced showing two of his younger brothers dancing at a wedding in the same room as four women from a different tribe in 2011. A jirga declared that the women and his young brothers be killed and Kohistani appeared in front of reporters outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad in June 2012 to appeal for their protection.
A week later, he shared that one of the women in the video had been mysteriously killed and her brothers had gone into hiding, fearing for their safety. Kohistani wanted the practice of honour killing brought to an end and the perpetrators involved in these crimes punished. He insisted that institutions should protect vulnerable families.
After communicating with the media, he was declared a traitor in his hometown and accused of bringing shame to the village. Kohistani was branded a rebel who went after the age-old customs of the region, following which he repeatedly received death threats from unidentified people.
Kohistani’s testimonies brought the issue of honour killing to the public’s attention. He filed police complaints and appealed to the courts and government institutions for justice. But despite his rigorous efforts, he couldn’t save his older brothers. Three of them were killed, one after the other, in 2013 while the perpetrators continued to roam free.
“I am being punished because I stood up against the evil of the choar custom in our society. People kill their women in the name of honour and such deaths are not even taken to court,” Kohistani said in an interview with Pakistani newspaper Dawn.
Three unidentified gunmen opened fire on Kohistani on 6 March. He was travelling with his nephew, Faizul Rehman, in Abbottabad and Rehman chased after the three assailants. They got away while Kohistani’s bullet-ridden body languished in a pool of blood on the road.
The roots of honour killing
The menace of honour killing is prevalent in different countries across the Middle East, North Africa and in parts of Asia and South America. It is rooted in a rigid interpretation of a cultural understanding. The practice of killing in Pakistan is termed karo kari.
Researchers say the practice is a “remnant of psychological and socioeconomic barriers” that continues to affect people’s world view. Adherents tend to follow the practice, even when it is found to be oppressive. Pakistan’s 58% literacy rate further complicates this scenario. Especially in Sindh, the third-largest southeast province, this practice is said to find “motivation from the tribal feudal structure”.
Nasifa Shah has worked extensively on the subject for two decades and concludes in her book, Honour Unmasked: Gender Violence Law and Power in Power, that “honour is … used as a strategy as well as a moral mask which legitimises violence often serving the powerful sections of society”. She underlines different manifestations of the problem when honour killing is used under the garb of legitimising “issues of power, control over resources and marital strategies in the area”.
Similarly, Obaid-Chinoy found that villagers put the family under enormous social pressure. “In terms of orchestrating the deceased family, these people [the villagers] would tell them that the next time you come to [the] neighbourhood for help, we will ensure you get nothing. That’s how they would force the family to forgive them,” Obaid-Chinoy observed after the release of her documentary.
“My documentary was aimed to create a national discourse about honour killings, for people need to realise that it is a serious crime. Still, if you go and visit small towns and villages across Pakistan, you’ll find people saying that honour killing is not the crime as nobody ever goes to jail for it. This problem is something … not even part of our religion or our culture, and this is something that needs to be treated as premeditated murder, and people should go to jail for this,” the filmmaker stressed.
Often members of the family find themselves helpless in evading such killings, and often they succumb to the social pressure mounting on them. An understanding of family honour within the rural population is deeply embedded in patriarchal setups and remains in contrast to progressive, egalitarian ideas.
“In a country which has … [an illiteracy rate of around 42%], it gets difficult for people to break away from the cultural norms and customs, which are regressive,” Prime Minister Imran Khan answered when asked how his government was tackling women’s issues. “[A] cultural renaissance is what we need … The only way to eradicate this shameful practice is through education.”