‘Honour’ Killings

BY all accounts, over the last two decades ‘honour’ killings have increased manifold; they are going to increase even more in the foreseeable future. This is because a gender-segregated patriarchal society, which has traditionally used violence for settling even petty disputes, is finding it difficult to come to terms with new realities.

These include working women, adult female students, ‘free-will’ marriages, women in sports, a media landscape that is both loved and hated, emancipated role models, and aspirations for greater freedoms. Observations, surveys and available statistics all show that Pakistani society is changing rapidly and that these changes cannot be digested by a conservative establishment and its support groups.

I started working in Karachi’s informal settlements in the mid-1970s and since 1981 with the Orangi Pilot Project in katchi abadis (slum areas). In Karachi at that time, katchi abadis were purely working-class settlements in which women did not work outside their homes.

Today, Suzuki-loads of women are taken to garment, packaging and pharmaceutical factories, to return late in the evening. Thousands more take the long bus ride to affluent areas of the city to work as domestic staff; they are forced to deal with men during the journey and at their workplaces. Over the last decade, they have become well groomed and many today are indistinguishable from their female employers. Without their income, the kitchen at home could not function.

Existing trends will change Pakistan in the coming decade.

Meanwhile, most of the older settlements are now multiclass as an increasing number of their residents, both male and female, have white-collar jobs in which women work alongside men. Also, private schools used to be rare in these settlements and there were no beauty parlours. Now almost every neighbourhood in the older settlements has at least one of each and the vast majority of teachers, and sometimes education and other entrepreneurs, are local women.

Marriage halls also exist in these settlements today and over the years, the strict gender segregation at marriage ceremonies has relaxed considerably. All this is in spite of the fact that these changes have been opposed, often with violence, by the more conservative residents and activists of militant groups created as a result of the Zia era and our involvement in the Afghan war.

Census statistics tell us that other changes at the overall city level are also taking place. The most important age group in any census is between 15 and 24 years. This is because it is both the present and the future.

In Karachi in 1961, 66.71 per cent women and 23.38pc men were married in this age group. If we extrapolate the statistics of the 1998 census to 2016 (keeping all things constant) then the percentage of married women in this age group today is 17 and married men 7pc. So, for the first time in Karachi, we have an overwhelming majority of unmarried adolescents which any sociologist knows is enough to change gender relations and family structures.

Surveys conducted for the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 tell us that 82pc of Karachi families are nuclear. This is an over 80pc increase from some area-specific surveys of the 1990s. Though no reliable data for free-will marriages is available, lawyers dealing with court marriages say that they have increased in geometric progression over the last decade and half.

These changes are taking place all over Pakistan. The figures for even small Punjab towns such as Chiniot and Kasur, for the age group of 14 to 24 years, are similar to those of Karachi. (In the rest of Sindh apart from Karachi, the trends are similar but somewhat slower than those in Punjab.)

Women dominate universities in Karachi and many other cities in Pakistan, and their presence is increasing. Critics point out that once educated, women do not work. However, alumna and university reports suggest that this is changing rapidly. What policymakers should be made to look at are societal trends, and not simply existing conditions.

The trends discussed are nothing short of a revolution for a country like Pakistan. They will change Pakistan in the coming decade, whether the country becomes a ‘secular’ democracy or not. However, addressing or even recognising these trends in clear terms does not figure in the state’s development policies. Meanwhile, civil society is waging a battle against oppressive tradition and the ugly incidents it creates, and for appropriate legislation.

Still, there is a dire need to understand the changes taking place, their causes and repercussions, and to see how new societal values can be built and promoted around them. For this the most important role is that of the media and the more liberal right-wing groups in society. In the absence of these values, change will only consolidate itself through a long process of which pain and frustration, mainly for women, will be an integral part.

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