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  • Honor Killings: Telling their stories won’t end the crimes
  • Rafia Zakaria (bio)

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Mukhtar Mai

I remember the first time I came across the term “honor killing.” It was in a news magazine my father had brought home from work. The 1990s had just begun, and I wasn’t quite a teenager in a newly democratic Pakistan. One of democracy’s gifts was that magazines, previously censored under the martial law regime, could now talk about such things. The story was chilling; a young girl had run away from home to marry a boy she loved. The couple had married in secret, then set up a surreptitious household in another city. With the passage of a few months, their rebellion calmed into some small resolution. Then one unassuming day, a distant cousin, who happened to be in town, saw the girl shopping at a market. He followed her home and quickly relayed her whereabouts to her family hundreds of miles away. A few mornings later, her father and brother arrived at her door. She opened it and was met with bullets. Within seconds, she lay dead at her doorstep.

It was a terrifying story, and I remember reading it over and over again. My own family was Muslim and fairly conservative: I went to an all-girls school and was not allowed to date or speak to any unrelated men. But those were not the commonalities that gave me pause. Instead it was the seeming and sudden turn of ordinary men into assassins, the replacement of fatherly love and brotherly affection with [End Page 70] murderous rage that confounded me. I imagine most of us who read about honor killings share this feeling of bewildered repugnance.

Decades have passed since I read that story and the publication of many others just like it. Beyond Pakistan, in the world of international human rights advocacy, international journalism, and warfare, the “honor crime” has become a touchstone defining the furthest extreme of moral depravity. Telling the stories of endangered or executed women while underscoring the ruthlessness of their persecutors and the callous disregard of onlookers is now a brand of moral virtue that we, otherwise divided by place or politics, can collectively applaud.


But even with an increasing number of these stories told to shocked Western audiences, honor crimes have persisted and likely become even more common. In a recent article I wrote for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper where I work as a columnist, I compared the number of honor crimes in a two-year period separated by a decade. Between Feb. 1, 2004 and Feb. 1, 2006, there were 988 honor killings reported in Pakistan. A decade later, between the years 2014 and 2016, the honor killing count in the country was 1,276. The number becomes all the more troubling when one recognizes that the interim decade was one in which the parliament passed legislation specifically targeting honor killings. It should be noted that the real figures are much higher as most of these crimes still go unreported. When violence is intended to save the reputation of a family or clan, public information about it is often hard to acquire.

The story of ever increasing honor crimes is not Pakistan’s alone. According to a 2010 article in the Middle East Quarterly, there has been a global upward trend in the number of honor killings, which “accelerated significantly” between the years 1989 and 2009.

In March 2015, Alissa Rubin, an Afghanistan correspondent for The New York Times, told the story of Afghan women fleeing honor killings and being housed in a Western-funded shelter. The women told Rubin that they were afraid of the U.S. withdrawal since it would leave them without recourse, at the mercy of their fathers and brothers who could kill them. The last line of her story underscores this: “Take us out of Afghanistan,” one of them says, “because we won’t be able to have a quiet life here.” The appeal to the Western reader, the potential rescuer or savior is direct and explicit. The operative moral arithmetic in the...


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pp. 70-76
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