(CNSNews.com) – The State Department on Thursday condemned the stoning of death of a Pakistani woman and other violence against women “in the name of tradition and honor,” but made no reference to religion as a factor.
So-called “honor killings” occur most commonly in Islamic communities and are often closely entwined with shari’a-based legislation. Although Muslim scholars insist the practice is not endorsed by the Qur’an or Hadiths, when legal steps have been taken to curb honor killings, the strongest protests have come from fundamentalist Islamic quarters.
“Tragically, this was at least the third reported so-called honor killing in Pakistan this week,” said department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, reacting to the killing of a pregnant 25-year-old, stoned to death outside a Lahore courthouse by members of her own family for marrying against their wishes.
“We remain very concerned about violence against women and girls that takes place around the world, including in Pakistan,” Psaki continued. “We are especially concerned about the violence that occurs in the name of tradition and honor such as so-called honor killings and other unjustifiable acts of violence.”
Pakistan’s best-known rights organization, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), expressed alarm and disgust over the murder of Farzana Parveen. It recorded nearly 900 “honor” killings of women in Pakistan last year.
“These women were killed because the state did not confront this feudal practice supported by religiosity and bigotry,” HRCP said.
Resisting an arranged marriage is a common cause for honor killings. Others include suspicion of an adulterous or “inappropriate” relationship.
The true scale of the problem is uncertain, since researchers say many honor killings are note reported or misattributed to homicide, accidental death or suicide, but the United Nations estimates that at least 5,000 such deaths occur across the globe each year. Other estimates put the number at closer to 20,000.
Of the 26 countries where they have been reported, most are Islamic countries in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, while in at least nine Western countries they have occurred mainly in immigrant communities originating from the Islamic world.
Under international pressure, Pakistan in 2004 passed a law that provided for jail terms for honor crimes.
But the changes left in place shari’a-based provisions which allow a killer to settle out of court by paying compensation (known as diyat) to the victim’s family members in return for a pardon. As honor killing murderers are generally themselves family members, the crimes often go unpunished since relatives simply “pardon” each other.
When a Pakistani lawmaker the following year introduced a bill aimed at closing that loophole it was defeated, with Islamist parties pushing a majority of parliament to declare that he proposal was “un-Islamic.”
In its most recent annual report HRCP says honor killings persist because the killers enjoy impunity as a result of the shari’a-based legal system.
“The law of diyat allows the family of the victim to forgive the perpetrator,” it explained. “In honor crimes, the perpetrator is almost always related to the female by blood or by marriage. Thus the victim’s family usually is related to the perpetrator as well, and conveniently forgives their kin, absolving them of the murder.”
When the U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reviewed Pakistan’s record on women’s rights last year, it urged Islamabad to stop allowing the diyat law to apply in the case of honor crimes.
‘Protects core Islamic values’
Women’s groups in Pakistan have also been campaigning for honor crimes to be dealt with under the country’s penal code rather than under the shari’a-based “hudood” ordinance, but the problem persists.
The hudood ordinance is regarded as blatantly discriminatory towards women. Under it, a rape victim is required to present four male witnesses to corroborate her story, failing which she can herself be charged with adultery.
Last year Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology – which advises the legislature on whether laws are in line with Islam – declared that although DNA evidence may be considered in a rape investigation, the eyewitness testimony of four male witnesses is the only “primary evidence” admissible under shari’a.
According to the Pakistani Women’s Human Rights Organization, as a result of the hudood ordinance at least 20,000 mostly innocent Pakistani women have been sentenced to prison terms.
“Religious groups in Pakistan strongly oppose any changes to the law, saying it protects core Islamic values,” PWHRO says.
“Sharia paves the way for vigilante justice against women in the form of honor killings, mutilations and murders committed in retaliation for bringing dishonor on one's family, whether real or imaginary.”
Closely linked to the hudood ordinance, the 1984 “law of evidence” states that the testimony of a woman is worth half that of a man in a Pakistani court of law.
There have been some modest advances in recent years.
In 2011 punishments for acid attacks commonly targeting women were stiffened while the practices of forcing women into marriage to settle disputes and preventing women from inheriting property were outlawed.
Last year, parliament passed a bill enhancing the status and powers of a national commission that investigates women’s rights violations.
In her statement Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Psaki said the administration has “been encouraged by Pakistan’s passage of legislation protecting women’s rights, and we encourage the full implementation of such laws as well as greater public awareness about these laws, especially in Pakistan’s rural and tribal areas.”
In its latest annual “Global Gender Gap” report, the World Economic Forum (WEF) evaluated 136 countries. Pakistan was second from the bottom of the list.
Of the 20 countries at the bottom of the list, 17 were Islamic – Yemen, Pakistan, Chad, Syria, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, Iran, Morocco, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Oman, Turkey and Jordan. The three non-Muslim countries in the bottom 20 were Nepal, Ethiopia and Fiji.