How Can They Kill Their Daughters?

by Samia Altaf

In May 2014, a young man beat his twenty-year-old sister, Farzana, to death by hitting her head with a brick. He did this in broad daylight just outside the High Court building in Lahore, the cultural, artistic and academic capital of Pakistan. He did it as local policemen and passersby looked on, lawyers in their black flowing robes went in and out of their offices and barely fifty yards away, inside the building, the bewigged and begowned Chief Justice sat with his hand on the polished gavel.

Farzana, a young woman from a lower-middle-class family, had married a man against her family’s wishes. She had come to the High Court that day to provide proof that she had married voluntarily and had not been abducted by her husband as her family claimed when they filed the case to “get her back.” Farzana was dead, the bridal henna still bright red on her hands and feet, before her case was called for hearing by the court.

Though this was one in a string of incidents of violence against women, and though many similar incidents have happened in Pakistan since, the shock and horror of the murder consumed us for a few days and became international news. On May 29, 2014, the BBC asked, “How can families do this?”

One answer to the question is that families can perpetrate violence against their daughters because they have years of practice doing so every day. Women in Pakistan live in a culture of ambient violence, and incidents of exaggerated violence labeled “honor killings” are just lamentable spikes in the ambient violence of their everyday lives.

Daughters “belong” to their families. They are the property of the family, which has the right to use and dispose of them as it sees fit in its own interest. The real dispute in a case like Farzana’s was over who owned the asset, the paternal family or a husband acquired independently against the family’s wishes. No one intervened because they saw and understood that Farzana’s father and brother were asserting their right over their property.

Fathers and brothers deciding for daughters and sisters regarding, employment, education, travel and even minor activities of daily life is common in South Asia across all classes, even in educated households. And the decisions are defended and enforced by the mothers. Most of the time this is done in a framework of love and with care, a framework that is internalized by the women who are coaxed or cajoled into accepting the protection as being in their own best interest. In cases of non-acceptance, corrective measures are employed, such as exclusion from the household or the larger community. When cajoling or arm-twisting fails, violence is the next recourse.

Farzana, like thousands of other girls, had likely started to suffer benign violence at the hands of her family from the day she was born. She had a lower status in her parental home and was not treated as well as her brothers. She received less food, less medical attention and less education. She had fewer opportunities for employment, reduced opportunities to enjoy occupying public space, and diminished freedom of movement. Almost all decisions related to these choices were made for the family and endorsed by the mothers who justified the special privileges of the brothers as commensurate with their role as her “protectors.”

The confirmation of the lesser worth of a woman is institutionalized in the rules of inheritance. A daughter’s share in inheritance is half that of her brothers. A wife inherits one-sixth of her husband’s estate though a husband inherits the entirety of a wife’s. A Pakistani woman marrying a foreigner cannot confer citizenship on her husband whereas a man can. A wife cannot initiate divorce, she has to “ask” the husband for one; he may or may not agree to “give” it. These manifestations of lesser worth are taken for granted and the lower status of women feeds into the internalization of ambient violence.

Pakistan ranks 150 out of 153 countries on the Georgetown Institute’s Women, Peace and Security Index and is considered among the five worst countries for women in the world. According to the UNDP’s Gender Inequality Index, Pakistan was ranked 145 out of 187 countries. The Aurat Foundation’s annual report on violence against women, which included only reported cases, documented a 6.7 percent increase in extraordinary violence over the preceding year. Sexual assaults increased by 48 percent, acid throwing by 37.5 percent, honor killings by 27 percent and domestic violence by 25 percent.

Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world with laws that directly repress women, including those who are supposedly empowered by education or their class status. These laws pertain to citizenship rights, marriage and divorce, inheritance and property transfer. It is also one of the few countries in the world where a member of the National Assembly described murder of women for the “crime” of wanting to marry a person of their own choice as a “cultural practice.”

This situation persists across social groups. In accepting their subordinate position women are complicit in the construction of their own unequal status that they perpetuate as mothers and grandmothers. In most homes, daughters are treated with gentleness and care and acculturated without overt coercion. They are made to accept by subtle and not so subtle ways that they have limited choices and personal agency. Associating these patriarchal attitudes with shame or honor is an effective way of embedding them deep inside the psyche of the family. That could explain why even families that move abroad can kill their daughters when they interpret their independence as bringing “shame” on the family.

This was the context of Farzana’s life. Raised to defer and submit, she failed to comply with the stereotype. Something forced her to break out of the claustrophobic expectations that shaped her life to exercise personal agency, to insist on being a person and not a piece of property. With that act of defiance Farzana created a problem and became a liability that had to be written off.

One can be sure this was probably not the first time her brother had hit Farzana. In my work as a physician I have encountered many victims of beatings and heard the beatings justified because the woman needed to be taught to respect her brother, father, or husband and become an obedient wife and mother.

It was thus not unusual for Farzana’s brother to revert to type and on that fateful day beat his sister to death while the father looked on. Nor was it out of the ordinary for the bystanders to look on without interfering, for they, too, were brothers and fathers familiar with the context of women’s lives. They may not have been beating their daughters or their sisters, but in their homes, too, girls were suffering from a lesser violence, that of less food, less medical care, less education, and less freedom compared to their brothers.

The extraordinary violence rests on the acceptance and persistence of the lesser violence, much like a person with untreated chronic infection manifesting as low- grade fever can have a dangerously high spike at times. It is to be expected if the underlying pathology remains untreated.

The Pakistani government has attempted to address the situation. There was a flurry of legislative initiatives in 2014. The Punjab provincial assembly introduced the Punjab Reproductive, Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health Authority Act, the Punjab Status of Women Act, and the Punjab Fair Representation of Women Act. The Baluchistan Assembly introduced the Baluchistan Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Act and the Promotion of Breast Feeding and Child Nutrition Act. The Punjab government also introduced police stations with separate cells for women where psychosocial services were provided. There has also been the increased induction of female judges in the judiciary. Since 2010 there has been the overarching Protection of Women Act passed by legislature to make violence against women, of the kind meted out to Farzana, a criminal offense.

Most of this legislation awaits ratification, and that which has been ratified awaits regulations for implementation. The court system is slow and conviction rates low due to lack of sufficient evidence. Many such crimes are dealt with in traditional forums where the perpetrators are “forgiven” or absolved by the payment of “blood money.” Very often the underlying sentiment in such forums is one that lauds male perpetrators for their acts of bravery to protect the family “honor.”

The Pakistani author Mohammed Hanif in his novel Our Sister of Alice Bhatti has one of the characters comment on the treatment of sisters and daughters by their families: They “treat her like a slave they bought at a clearance sale.”

That provides the short answer to the BBC’s question of how they can do it. They can do it just as easily as the slave masters did it to their slaves.