No Honor in So-Called “Honor Killings”

Each year, thousands of women lose their lives in so-called “honor killings,” a majority of them because their actions have been perceived to bring shame to the family. Some women are killed for committing adultery. Some women are killed for marrying someone without their family’s approval. Some women are killed for talking to men who are not family members—or if there are simply rumors about her doing so.

At least 4,000 to 5,000 women are murdered in the name of “honor” annually around the world. My country, Pakistan, has faced this menace for years: According to one estimate by the Aurat Foundation, 1,000 women die from honor killings in Pakistan every year.

Currently in Pakistan, while there are laws on the books against murder, there are no specific laws addressing so-called “honor killings” to account. This means that those who kill in the name of “family honor” get to walk away from their crime, if a family declines to press charges, with little to no consequences for their actions.

Recently, honor killings came into the spotlight with the high-profile murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch. Baloch, often referred as “the Kim Kardashian of Pakistan,” gained popularity on social media by posting videos and photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Her bold videos and photos challenged the status quo in Pakistan, where cultural norms dictate that women defer to men on matters large and small, from life decision such as marriage, their children’s education or their career to simply leaving the house to go shopping or visit relatives. Baloch mentioned several times on social media that she wanted to inspire other women to live their lives freely, to challenge restrictive cultural practice and not to be ashamed of their sexuality or bodies.

Baloch’s boldness and her outspoken personality so threatened the social status quo that she was brutally murdered by her brother on July 15. Her brother proudly and publicly admitted to killing his own sister, stating that her recent posts on social media brought shame to the family. Baloch’s case has made it clear that the weak laws in my country must be fixed, but little will change if society continues to dictate that women are just submissive creatures without the same rights to self-expression and free will that men enjoy. The Pakistan I know, which was founded on the very idea of freedom, does not tolerate any kind of discrimination against any group of people, especially women and girls.

Indeed, Baloch’s death has sparked a debate around the absence of laws against “honor” killings and how people manipulate them to get away with murder. Currently in Pakistan, a family can forgive the killer, who is then not required to complete jail time. In some cases, families even settle for money or land. As a result, there is often little, if any, justice for women who are killed. In many cases, the killers are her own family members: husbands, brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins.

Due to the prominent nature of Baloch’s case, the government has become involved, which will effectively prohibit Baloch’s family from simply forgiving her killer and moving on. The worldwide media attention has helped to draw a spotlight on this enormous violation of women’s rights, but the fact remains that nearly one thousand women will die in 2016 and those cases will be largely ignored because they will not be featured in headlines around the world.

Unfortunately, another case emerged just a few weeks ago. According to her husband Syed, Saima Shahid was killed by her family while visiting Pakistan. Shahid married Syed in the United Kingdom against the wishes of her family, after she divorced her first husband, a partner chosen by family in Pakistan. Shahid is just one more horrific example in a long list of examples of how honor killings plague the lives of women. Unfortunately, there are thousands of women like Baloch and Shahid, who were brutally murdered simply for not adhering to traditional cultural norms about what women should or shouldn’t do.

In the wake of Baloch’s murder and the subsequent global media attention, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif has vowed to amend laws that allow such practices. The Prime Minister’s daughter, Mariam Nawaz, who is also a Member of Parliament, has vowed to put forward a bill against honor killing and has said she wants to pass it into a law as soon as possible.

This is an important step, as “honor killings” both violate Pakistan’s commitment to securing women’s rights and is out of line with Sharia Law.

As a Pakistani man, I believe that very idea of freedom is based on an individual’s freedom to make independent decisions about his or her life. It is fundamental that women to be able to make their own choices and live their lives as they want, just as men do. We, as a nation, must now reflect on what happened to Baloch and Shahid. Most of the Pakistani men that I know believe honor killings are wrong, but it is abundantly clear we can no longer remain silent. We need to raise our voices and be heard saying loud and clear that there is no honor in these so-called honor killings.

My hope for Pakistan is that not one more woman will endure the same fate as Baloch, Shahid or that the countless others whose names didn’t make headlines, but whose deaths remain a testament to how far we still have to go before women are truly treated as equals. We can’t do that if we remain silent.


Muhammad Hamza Abbas is an Atlas Corps Research Fellow at the International Center for Research on Women, where he conducts research and analysis on variety of projects on gender violence and rights. His current work focuses on sex ratio and social issues in the MENA region, women's land rights in Vietnam, human development impacts of discriminatory social institutions and the costs of child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence.