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Why are honor killings still happening?

Why are honor killings still happening? My conversation with Rula Jebreal

Earlier this week, a 25-year old Pakistani woman was stoned to death by members of her family as she defended her decision to marry the man she loved in court. To make matters worse, police have just confirmed that the husband previously murdered his first wife.

We rarely hear of such atrocities in the mainstream western media, but honor killings are on the rise. Over 1,000 Pakistani women were victims of honor killings in 2013 alone (and this doesn’t even factor in the undocumented killings) according to Pakistan rights group the Aurat Foundation. Pew research has shown that 83% of Pakistanis support stonings for adultery.

I sat down with Rula Jebreal to try and determine why honor killings are more of an issue than ever in 2014.

WF: Why do these honor killings have such widespread appeal in Pakistan?

RJ: It’s all about sexual control, but it comes from the same place – the idea that you can control women – their bodies, their brains. The root of that is misogyny, sexism, but the fact that in a tribal society men think that they own her, they own her body. So whatever she’s doing with it belongs to the tribe and to the family and ultimately, they can kill her and do whatever and submit her. But if you think of the role of education, whether it’s after September 11th or after the invasion of Afghanistan and in Pakistan, these honor killings are not decreasing. They’re increasing. Once a woman has more freedom in choosing what school she wants to go to, what books she should read, this is challenging male authority and here’s where you see more violence and killing.

I don’t want to connect it but we live in a global world. What happened in California with the shooting – I would connect these two things together. We might think they’re far apart but actually it’s the same thing, same root. Give away your body, I will shoot you. A woman does whatever she wants with her body, they will kill her. It’s the same thing. And the sense of entitlement, considering a woman’s body as property is a matter of a family and ultimately violence will be the answer is something widespread all over the world whether it’s in Spain or Italy, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It takes a religious turn in certain areas but it comes from the same root – viewing a woman not as equal, but as inferior.

WF: The point you just made about women becoming more educated and having a little but more of a choice – do you see that being galvanized in more of a positive light going forward?

RJ: It is galvanizing for women and communities in certain areas because it gives them access to employment, to a better life, to better economic conditions. But I think the culture that needs to change is not the female culture but the male culture.

In India, after the horrifying rape last year when the girl was killed by a gang, women kept repeating “don’t tell you daughter not to go out, tell your son to behave properly.” We need to educate our children all over the world about how to treat women, how to talk about them. If you look at the way women are talked to in certain TV shows or movies, you can understand what a man’s attitude is towards a woman.

WF: It’s interesting that you brought up the gang rape in India because I feel like there are some parallels in the sense that this instance occurred, it became renown worldwide, but there hasn’t been much follow-up since. Are you worried that global concern over honor killings will also fade?

RJ: It is a part of culture. After a Newtown, everyone hoped that something would be reformed when it comes to gun control and background checks. Nothing changed, unfortunately. All of that depends on us – how to keep the debate going – and fight back to have our rights established. – which is a fundamental part of being considered equal and free to do whatever we want with our bodies, with our brains, with our careers, with our emotions. That every woman still has to fight for this kind of freedom is concerning.

WF: Let’s shift to this public vs. private dichotomy. Most of these honor killings in Pakistan happen in private and then all of a sudden there’s one in public and there’s some sort of outcry with Prime Minister Sharif even getting involved. What do you think accounts for that?

RJ: I think media – today we live in a global world with huge access to technology and social media. Everybody that has a telephone can become a reporter and everyone who uploads a video is a filmmaker. Given these realities, every politician has to be held accountable for what’s happening in their country and it will reflect badly on their image.

When Hillary Clinton said women’s rights are human rights and gay rights are human rights, it projected what American foreign policy stands for and every country will have to relay that issue. When it comes to women’s rights in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, these countries have to step up, otherwise it will bring them down.

WF: Do you see any type of role for any international bodies?

RJ: Everybody is responsible. I think international bodies have been talking about these issues whether it’s the UN or the IMF and the World Bank, but the culture has to change and it has to start with education and the responsibility of whoever is in office to approve policies that facilitate women’s rights.

WF: It’s so crazy because at least in the Pakistani case, there’s a law that dictates that a victim’s family can forgive the killer, but in most cases the killer is a member of the family.

RJ: Exactly. It’s a decision that’s not taken by an individual. It’s taken by an entire family. Some laws have to be reformed, and they have to be reformed as quickly as possible. It’s not about speaking loudly against these cases it’s about what you do after that. In India, for example, after that rape, there was a severe public reaction that pushed the government to intervene – it has to be the same thing for Pakistan.

WF: It’s so heartbreaking that it takes figures like 1,000 women dying of honor killings in Pakistan in order for there to be a rise in consciousness.

RJ: How many women do you think there are being killed in Afghanistan or Egypt? Terrible numbers. It’s not a feminist issue, it’s a human rights issue.