Did 22-year-old Saima Bibi scream out as she was electrocuted at her parents’ home in their village near the southern Punjab city of Bahawalpur in Pakistan? Did she plead with her family for her life? Did she seek mercy?
The answers to these questions will never be known. In one of the most harrowing “honour” killings reported in recent months in the country, Saima was, according to media reports, murdered by her relatives. They committed the crime following a ruling by a gathering of village elders that she be put to death by electrocution for eloping with a man she had chosen to marry. Police are investigating the murder and the prime minister has ordered the findings be submitted urgently.
An autopsy report states the girl had died due to severe burn injuries. Her relatives had said she had committed suicide. A police officer in Hakra village, where Saima died, Afzal Lodhi, told IRIN “a raid was conducted to recover Saima’s body” after police received a tip-off over the phone.
Murders of the kind which ended Saima’s life are not uncommon. According to the autonomous Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), over 600 women were killed for “honour” in 2009. This usually entails the murder of women suspected of having sexual relations outside marriage; choosing who to marry rather than accepting decisions made by families; or behaving in other ways that are seen as “immoral”. Other “honour” killings go unreported, especially when they take place in remote, rural areas.
“Such killings occur when the `honour’ of male members of a household is perceived to have been injured,” said I.A.Rehman, the secretary-general of HRCP.
Though women aged over 18 have the legal right to marry of their own free will “tradition” means they are expected to go along with parental choices.
“My marriage was `arranged’ by my family, and I plan to arrange the marriages of my two daughters, aged 15 and 13, when they are older, because such matches bring the families closer together,” Bushra Suhail, 42, told IRIN.
“Forgiving” the perpetrators
While “honour” killings are regarded as murder by the law, Islamic provisions allow the relatives of a victim to “forgive” the perpetrator, and choose to accept blood-money rather than seek capital punishment, a factor that is believed by rights activists to make it difficult to end such murders.
“I think unless the law provides non-compoundability, in other words no provision for forgiveness, we can never deal with what we call `honour’ crimes. This should be a crime against the state and not a person. What happens is the father [of a woman] kills and his son forgives, or the son kills and the father forgives. This happens time and again,” Fouzia Saeed, director of the NGO Mehergarh and a member of the government’s National Commission on the Status of Women, told IRIN.
Apart from “honour” killings, women also suffer brutality of various kinds, following accusations of “immoral” conduct. This has included the shaving of heads or incidents in which they have suffered mutilation of various kinds. The number of such incidents is unknown.
“Judging by what is reported in the media, the most horrific violence is being inflicted on women. The trend seems to be increasing, perhaps as social tensions and frustrations grow due to economic hardship and related factors,” Gulnar Tabbusum, convenor of the Women’s Action Forum, an organization which works for the rights of women, told IRIN.
“Many young women today are educated and would like to have a choice in whom they marry. But incidents such as the electrocution and torture of Saima Bibi leave us afraid. We hesitate even to claim this right,” Asiya Batool, 19, told IRIN.