It must be loads of fun to be a woman living in rural Pakistan. That’s where you can get stoned to death for marrying against your family’s wishes or strangled to death by your husband if he would rather be married to another woman.
Those realities came to light over the course of the last week in news reports from Lahore, Pakistan, where a 25-year-old woman, Farzana Parveen, who was pregnant with her husband’s child, was bludgeoned to death by her own family in front of a high court where she was due to testify. She was initially struck with a brick by her father and then pummeled with the brick by her brother and a cousin. They were “upset” with her because she had married against their will.
The killers claim their action was “justified” as an “honor killing” under traditional Pakistani culture. Although they are being charged with Ms. Parveen’s murder, the murderers can be absolved of their crime either by being forgiven by the victim’s family or through the payment of “blood money,” also called diyat. In fact, the forgiveness absolution is what spared Ms. Parveen’s husband when he murdered his first wife, by strangling her, so he could be free to marry Ms. Parveen, whom, he said at the time, he had “liked since she was a child.” He avoided punishment for the murder when the first wife’s eldest son forgave him (presumably after receiving a diyat).
If all of this sounds too macabre to be true, consider that civil rights activists don’t even consider the deaths of the two women to have been the product of pure religious extremism. Rather, they point to deeply rooted societal prejudice against women that promulgated the ability of the guilty to, literally, get away with murder.
“The state has created an enabling environment for ‘honor killings,’” said one Pakistani lawyer. “A woman being disciplined by her family is seen as a private matter by the police, the courts and the law.”
Human rights activists condemn diyat and its implications, as you might expect. “It creates the feeling that you can kill a person in broad daylight and get away with it,” said the Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch. And that just might be the result in Ms. Parveen’s murder. But the case raises larger questions about how women are treated elsewhere, as well as in the backward rural areas of Pakistan.
In India, for example, two teenage girls were recently raped and then lynched (presumably for having had the audacity to be raped), and, much closer to home, a disturbed young male in Santa Barbara went on a deadly misogynistic rampage last month, taking the lives of three young women, along with his three roommates, before killing himself. Those actions certainly don’t represent mainstream thinking in most modern societies, but the reality is that women are still treated with less respect and shown less dignity in many parts of the world.
And while fundamentalist Islamic beliefs are not entirely to blame for the fate of women like Ms. Parveen, the Pakistani Human Rights Commission reported 869 so-called honor killings in 2013, and most of the victims were women. Fundamentalist Islam makes women subservient to men, even to the point of requiring specific dress codes in public.
But the subjugation of women has roots that go far beyond Islam. Consider these statistics: More than 64 million girls worldwide are child brides; approximately 140 million girls and women in the world have suffered genital mutilation; and in the United States, 83 percent of girls between ages 12 and 16 have experienced sexual harassment in school.
Roman Catholicism still subjugates women in the hierarchy of the church, denying them the priesthood. Mormon women are similarly denied full priesthood status and until recently were not sent on the “missions” that young 19-year old men (“elders” in the church) are. Most religious belief is founded on the teachings of men; few, if any, female figures are as dominant in ecclesiastical lore as the likes of Jesus, Mohammed, Moses, or the Buddha.
Only most recently have women attained political leadership positions around the world. And even now, the United States has yet to elect a woman president, or even a vice-president, for that matter. Indeed, it hasn’t even been one hundred years since women were even granted the right to vote in the U.S. In the business world, corporate boardrooms are only starting to be populated by women, and while more women are serving as medical doctors and attorneys than ever before, those professions are still dominated by men.
In the family setting, things have improved, but only slightly. We no longer have sitcoms where an infuriated husband regularly threatens to send his wife “to the moon, Alice,” nor is it automatically assumed that “father knows best.” Fewer women are portrayed now as subservient housewives whose principal tasks are to make sure the hard-working male bread winner is cared for and that the children are well-behaved when he comes home from work. But these changes in perspective are relatively recent, and, in some parts of the world (not just Pakistan) they are still slow in coming.
The old comic depiction of the caveman dragging his mate with a club in his hand was more suggestive of the attitudes that existed when the comic strip was created than of any anthropological evidence. On the subject of spousal abuse, only recently, and reluctantly, have some states recognized any kind of defense for women who have killed their husbands to avoid renewed beatings, traditional self-defense laws not covering these actions.
So, yes, while the examples from Pakistan depict a social order that is repugnant to modern civilized society, the picture is not without stains everywhere else. Women continue to be second-class citizens in many areas of public and private life, and whatever progress has been achieved in the last fifty years has been hard fought and cannot be deemed fully secured.
The struggle for gender equality continues, Pakistan’s cultural traditions notwithstanding.