Where killing women is an honor

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

Mufti Ziauddin runs his finger down a chart that grimly chronicles the ``Status of Court Cases for Murdered Women.''

Before him are the statistics he has compiled in his home district in Pakistan. On the left hand side of the page are the victims, on the right hand side the verdicts.

``Acquitted,'' he reads, repeatedly jabbing at the page with his finger, ``Acquitted. Acquitted. Acquitted.'' The acquitted were men - mostly husbands - whose violence was condoned in a place where the real law is tradition.

The intense human rights lawyer goes on to describe women who were victims of what are called ``honor killings'' as if somehow the ``honor'' justified the ``killing.''

``Suppose I kill my wife,'' he explains. ``I walk like a king to the jail. People come and hold a march for me. And I go free.'' If the woman has been accused, justly or not, of some infidelity from flirting to an affair - even if she has been raped - she's ``defiling the honor'' of the man who claims her as his property. That's reason enough for murder, socially approved homicide. ``They consider themselves heroes.''

Ziauddin is sitting in the UNICEF building at the United Nations where delegates and activists gathered recently to prepare for ``Beijing Plus Five.'' In June, the U.N. will hold meetings to assess how far the world has come in implementing the ambitious Platform for Action signed at the U.N. World Conference on Women held five years ago in Beijing. And there's no way to chronicle the advancement of women without looking at the backward pull of violence.

In 1997, more than 300 women were victims of honor killings in just one Pakistan province. In 1998, some 200 women were victims of acid attacks in Bangladesh. Every year 5,000 women in India are killed over ``dowry'' arguments.

With this in mind, UNICEF has just renewed a drive targeting what Carol Bellamy, the chief of the children's agency, calls ``culturally sanctioned homicidal violence.'' ``For too long,'' Bellamy says, ``some men have been getting away with murder.''

But it's not easy to unravel the relationship between inequality and violence. Ranjana Kumari, the Indian activist and author of ``Brides Are Not For Burning,'' who has also come for the meetings, calls violence against women, ``lethal discrimination.'' But is it inequality that leaves women subject to random violence? Or violence that keeps women down?

Some of the government representatives to the U.N. boast about the progress of the law, about equality in print and even in constitutions. But activists like both Kumari and Ziauddin see tradition as a terrible counterforce.

``If you change the laws but no one is responsible for enforcing the laws, what does it mean?'' asks the lawyer. In Swat, the northwest frontier province of Pakistan where Ziauddin makes his home, the tradition is so virulent that women suspected of ``dishonoring'' their families live in jail because release would mean death.

In parts of India, echoes Kumari, where 60 percent of the illiterates are female, where arranged marriage is still the norm, and dowry the only capital, ``the laws might as well be written on the moon.''

We have come a long way in a decade. In 1990, the international community was still debating whether there were universal human rights at all, or whether one country's human rights abuse was just another's tradition. Countries have signed on to the belief that women's rights are human rights. But tradition still rules--not just in South Asia but across the globe. Not just in ``honor'' killings but in what we too often trivialize as ``domestic'' violence.

The question that activists struggle with is how best to intervene. As Kumari says, ``We have done a lot of work on what is happening to women. Now we must also look at men.''

UNICEF's Ruth Hayward, a former deputy director in South Asia, believes ``many cultural norms put pressure on men to show they have power and privilege over women.'' The justification - Acquitted! - to protect the family ``honor,'' even by murder, is wrapped up in what it means to be a man.

Now UNICEF is trying to connect with men as ``partners not perpetrators,'' says Hayward, and link together men of the world who hold to a different standard and often feel isolated. In the struggle against tradition, against violence, one of the unsung movements is to redefine what it means to be a man.

As Ziauddin, one of nine sons of a founder of the fundamentalist Islamic political party in Pakistan and a father of two sons has learned, ``We have to redefine a man's honor as the honor to have the courage to protect women against other men.''

This is the question for men to ask each other: How long will it take to separate the honor from the killing?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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