Farzana Parveen’s killing must trigger change for women in Pakistan

Published in The Guardian on May 29th 2014

On 27 May 2014, as Farzana Parveen lay dead on the uneven floor of the Lahore high court, it was not easy to ignore the blood-stained brick next to her. A chador she had worn that morning covered her crushed head. Police investigators said that members of her family had attacked her and her husband with batons and bricks. Farzana was three months pregnant.

This murder stands out among the 900 honour killings committed over the past 12 months in Pakistan because it happened at the very place she had come to seek justice. She was apparently killed for doing something that was her right according to the law – marrying the man she loved. She was there to record her statement against a false allegation from her family that claimed that her husband had kidnapped her. If her husband hadn’t escaped the attack, he too would be dead.

The crowd had looked on. This is what Pakistan is increasingly becoming now – a country of 180 million or so onlookers. The papers reveal one violation of human rights after another, and women are mostly the targets.

Perpetrators of honour crimes mostly try to justify their acts by appealing to religious doctrine. This is ironic. In pre-Islamic days, daughters would be buried alive. Islam put an end to that ghastly tradition. Now, those with the same pre-Islamic thinking just stone women when they are older.

If one were to plot the human rights violations on a graph, 2014 would likely form a spike. The geopolitical situation is not helping – neither is the choice to negotiate with the extremist Taliban. With the kind of discourse flooding our newspapers and airwaves, it might as well be the terrorists calling all the shots.

No surprise, then, that there are only muffled cries from an anaemic civil society. People are now afraid of putting their necks on the chopper of protest.

With around eight million more women now in the workforce than there were 10 years ago, one cannot help but hope that it will be women themselves who will break the archaic mould they are forced into, and that it will be financial independence that will eventually free them from oppression.

These numbers, however, are less impressive when compared with those who have no access to an education in the first place. Although a demographic dividend of the kind Pakistan has – over 60% are below the age of 30 – is a blessing, the kind of education emergency that exists could send the country to the brink, making it a curse. Pakistan ranks second in the world for numbers of children out of school.

What can change this inevitable downward trajectory is a clear involvement of the international community with Pakistanis – a people-focused engagement – be it through developmental programmes, education via the media, or giving law-enforcement agencies the teeth they need. The key is more engagement not less.

It was Simone de Beauvoir who said: “On the day when it will be possible for woman to love not in her weakness but in her strength, not to escape herself but to find herself, not to abase herself but to assert herself – on that day love will become for her, as for man, a source of life and not of mortal danger.”

We need, above all else, to be taught how to love without death.

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