In the eyes of their families and tribes, Shahid Mustafa and Imam Khatoon committed an unpardonable, heinous crime: They eloped.
The young lovers fled at midnight from a remote village of Pakistan's southwestern Sindh Province and were married in a Karachi court two years ago. Back in the village, the girl's parents felt their daughter's actions had brought dishonor upon their family. They took their anger to a tribal jirga, or gathering, where the couple was placed under a death threat known as Karo Kari.
"The armed men of the tribe are chasing us. They threatened me to send my wife back to her family, attacked our house, and shot twice at me and my wife to kill us," says Mr. Mustafa.
Ten months ago, when Mustafa was away from home, the men of his wife's family kidnapped her and their infant son. Mustafa has not seen or heard from them since.
Though it may be too late for Mustafa's wife, and more than 1,200 other women in Pakistan killed last year in the name of "family honor," President Pervez Musharraf signed a bill last week making honor killing an explicit criminal act punishable by death. Rights activists say it is a small step forward and that more must be done to change tribal and feudal attitudes that treat women like property.
"It is a landmark decision as the law protects the rights of women and eliminates such archaic rituals," says Wasi Zafar, the federal minister for law and parliamentary affairs. "But the problem is securing the rights of women, and it will be solved gradually and slowly by collective efforts of the society. Such inhumane crimes occur due to the tribal system, illiteracy, and poverty and we have to solve these issues."
Under the British penal code that Pakistan's judicial system inherited, there was a clause of "grave and sudden provocation" which was often used in cases of honor killings to skirt convictions for premeditated murder. The acquittal ratio has been more than 80 percent in recent cases of honor killings.
Social activists and opposition politicians say the government still needs to offset the Islamic law of qisas and diyat (retribution and blood money), which allows families of the deceased to either forgive the murderer or to ask for blood money in return. Since most honor killings are committed by brothers, fathers, or other kin, the perpetrators go unpunished after they are pardoned by other members of the family.
"So a son could forgive his father for murdering his mother, a mother could forgive her husband for killing their daughter, a father could forgive his brother and so on," says Saba Gul Khattak, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and a women's rights activist.
On suspicion of being a Kari, or "blackened girl," the female is killed usually by the men of her family, generally the brother or husband. Then the role of a feudal lord or a tribal chief comes in as they decide the fate of the murderer as well as the Karo, or "blackened man."
If deemed "justified," then the tribe will sanction the killing of the "blackened man." The aggrieved family men can ask for compensation for the loss of their honor in exchange for allowing him to live. And if the murder is not "justified," then the killer is fined before being set free. Often jirgas ignore the court rulings. If the couple has eloped both are liable to be killed.
Honor killings in Pakistan can be triggered by a wide range of activities, or even mere suspicions. Teenage girls and women of all ages can be issued death warrants for conversing with men, working with men in farm fields, or even speaking fondly of a man over the telephone, says Mashooq Udano, a well-known critic of the ritual. In December 2002, a 16-year-old girl was killed after she joined a dance along with relatives at a wedding reception in Larkana, a town in Sindh Province. One of the young men present caught hold of her hand; she quickly snatched it away, but her male relatives noticed the exchange and later killed her.
The Koran does not permit or sanction honor killings and religious leaders in Pakistan have on many occasions condemned Karo Kari and other honor killing rituals as "un-Islamic" and a "murder of humanity." Honor killings have occurred in other Muslim nations like Jordan, Egypt, and Bangladesh, as well as non-Muslim countries like Ecuador and Brazil.
However, the view of women as property with limited rights of their own has become rooted in Islamic culture, some social rights activists argue.
"Women are considered the property of the males in the families irrespective of their social status, ethnic, or religious group. Thus the fate of the property is in the hands of the owner, and that perception has changed women into a commodity that can be bartered, bought, and sold like cattle," says Rukhunda Naz, director of Auruat Foundation, a group working for women's rights in Pakistan.
Analysts say that President Musharraf moved to end the practice as it conflicts with his efforts to present Pakistan as a moderate Muslim country.
The practice has sparked undesirable internal unrest as well. In 1999, the marriage of a Mohajir boy with a Pashtun girl triggered ethnic clashes between the two communities in the port city of Karachi. The armed members of the Pashtun girl's family even shot him in a court that was to decide the fate of the couple. The boy Kanwar Ahsan and girl Riffat Afridi could escape death only after fleeing to a foreign country with the help of rights activists.
But Mustafa is still in search for his love in Pakistan. He is concerned about his wife, as she was kidnapped by her family members. "I don't know whether she is dead or alive. I only know that she was declared Kari. They won't let her live," says Mustafa with tears in his eyes, while sitting in his lawyer's office in Karachi.