Pakistan -- September 28, 2006 Thursday Ramazan 4, 1427
Honour: a different perspective
By Zehra Nasim
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According to historical materialist point of view there are economic forces and material conditions at work behind the creation of patriarchal systems that enforce the subjugation of women and ‘honour’ is only used as a guise under which acts of violence are committed against them
As fervent debates over women’s issues continue in the parliament and media, the launch of the academic study Beyond honour: a historical materialist explanation of honour related violence, written by Dr Tahira S. Khan comes about at a critical time to add an interesting dimension to the whole discourse.
As opposed to conventional thinking that the inferior status and condition of women in society is natural and unalterable, hence leading to their oppression, this book offers an alternative perspective on the root causes of the perpetuation of violence against women by examining it from Marx’s historical materialist point of view. This approach identifies that there are economic forces and material conditions at work behind the creation of patriarchal systems that enforce the subjugation of women and ‘honour’ is only used as a guise under which acts of violence are committed against them.
In her introductory address, Ameena Saiyid, said that Dr Tahira S. Khan approaches the subject of honour killings with clear-eyed pragmatism, and steps behind the curtains of high-sounding sentiments and emotionalism to discover and describe the real motivation for the violence.
Calling the book a welcome addition to feminist literature, Dr Jaffar Ahmad, Director, Pakistan Study Centre, University of Karachi, said that the book is path-breaking in the sense that the author has tried to explore the issue of honour killings in the context of economic conditions prevalent in a society and how the division of labour has an impact on gender relations.
In her thought-provoking speech, Dr Arifa Syeda Zehra, Chairperson, National Commission on the Status of Women, questioned the meaning assigned by society to the notion of honour. She quizzed men as to what sort of ‘honour’ was theirs which they were unable to protect themselves and instead made their women its custodians. This distorted concept, she said, gave them the license to even murder their women in the name of honour.
Dr Zehra pointed out that in weaker societies, only two groups of people exist: one who can be ‘controlled’ (the oppressed) and the other who ‘controls’ (the oppressor), and in such societies the oppressors do not allow their women the ‘freedom to choose’ and the ‘right to decide’ because they know that these will equip them to distinguish between right and wrong and eventually lead to their empowerment.
Her remark about the Hudood Ordinance drew a lot of applause when referring to it she said, “Nobody wants to question the Hudood-e-Allah or the Hudood-e-Haq, rather it is Hudood-e-Ziaul Haq that one wants to challenge because people have taken the two to mean the same.” She further remarked, “If our conscience awakens and we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we are accused of being under the influence of the western agenda. It suits us to let our conscience sleep because by doing so our ability to think regresses and we like this state of regression because if our ability to think is provoked, we shall be in a state of constant unrest.”
Praising the book, Dr Zehra said that she was pleased to see that it was written by a scholar but, more importantly, that it was written by a sensitive and compassionate teacher whose work neither sermonised nor rebelled, but, instead, presented a well-researched analysis of the phenomenon of honour killings.
Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid, former Pakistan Supreme Court Judge, also spoke on the occasion. He said that his research conducted on women in jails revealed that most of the imprisoned women belonged to the lower strata of the society and more shocking was the discovery that 47 per cent of the women kept in jails were convicted under the Hudood Ordinances. He related an incident in which a woman languished in jail for three years because her husband, upon suspecting her of ‘zina’, had her implicated under the Hudood Ordinances. The woman, who turned out to be the younger sister of a prominent religious party leader, was released after three years because ‘not an iota of evidence was found against her’.
While attending a conference in interior Sindh, Justice Zahid was flabbergasted to find that no cases of domestic violence were being reported there and despite common knowledge about the occurrence of honour killings in that area, surprisingly only one such case was tried in court while all other incidents of honour killing remained unreported. In his view, ‘honour is principally a symbol of man’s domination over women’ and he feels that economic empowerment alone will not rid women of their misery, it is equally important for them to be socially empowered as well.
Dr Tahira S. Khan has done her Ph.D. in International Studies from the University of Denver, Colorado. She has an extensive experience of teaching in universities in the US and Karachi, and is currently teaching gender studies at a university in the US. Being a committed women’s rights activist, since 2002 she has been working as a private consultant and researcher on women’s issues.