Why did Pakistan's parliament close an 'honor killings' loophole?

Under mounting pressure in the wake of a prominent social media star's death at the hands of her brother, lawmakers took action to protect women.

B.K. Bangash/ AP
Pakistani legislator Sherry Rehman, right, from Pakistan's People's party, who moved the bill against honor killing, talks to media with other lawmakers outside the Parliament in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. Despite objections from religious hardliners, Pakistani lawmakers on Thursday passed a law that stiffens the penalty for convicted “honor” killers and closed a loophole that often allowed them to go free.

Pakistan's parliament unanimously passed legislation against "honor killings" on Thursday, three months after the murder of outspoken social media star Qandeel Baloch.

A joint session of the lower and upper houses of parliament, broadcast live on television, approved the new anti-honor killing law, removing a loophole in existing law that allows killers to walk free after being pardoned by family members.

"Laws are supposed to guide better behavior, not allow destructive behavior to continue with impunity," said former senator Sughra Imam, who initially put forward the bill.

Some 500 women are killed each year in Pakistan at the hands of family members over perceived damage to "honor" that can involve eloping, fraternizing with men or any other infraction against conservative values relating to women. That was the case with Ms. Baloch, who was reportedly killed by her brother, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in July:

Ms. Baloch was a rising star and a voice for women's freedom of expression in Pakistan. The 26-year-old model had catapulted herself to the spotlight by posting videos and selfies to her social media accounts, which have hundreds of thousands of followers. Baloch, who described herself as a proponent of 'girl power' and who spoke of changing 'the typical orthodox mindset' of Pakistani society, challenged conservative sensibilities with poses and outfits that some Pakistanis criticized as too sexual.

In most cases, the victim is a woman and the killer is a relative who escapes punishment by seeking forgiveness for the crime from family members.

Under the new law, relatives can forgive convicts in the case of a death sentence, but they would still have to face a mandatory life sentence.

An anti-rape law, which makes it mandatory that a perpetrator gets 25 years in jail, was also passed in the same parliamentary session.

"These bills are hugely important for Pakistani women, where rape conviction rates were almost non-existent, due in large part to various technical obstacles to accessing justice," said Yasmeen Hassan, Global Executive Director at Equality Now.

"We hope that these new laws will help generate a cultural shift in Pakistani society and that women will be able to live their lives in safety," Hassan told Reuters.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, whose documentary on honor killings won an Oscar this year, posted on Twitter: "Thank you to PM Nawaz Sharif for keeping his promise."

The government of Prime Minister Sharif has faced mounting pressure to pass the law after Baloch's brother was arrested in connection with her strangling death. The brother said he was incensed by her often risqué posts on social media.

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