Pakistani Mohammad Iqbal   holds up an image of his wife Farzana Parveen, who was allegedly beaten to death with bricks by her father and other family members for marrying a man of her own choice, in Chak 367.

Pakistani Mohammad Iqbal holds up an image of his wife Farzana Parveen, who was allegedly beaten to death with bricks by her father and other family members for marrying a man of her own choice, in Chak 367. Photo: AFP

Last week Farzana Iqbal became the latest known victim of ‘honour killings’ as she made her way to a courtroom in Lahore, Pakistan.

The 25 year old, whose husband had been accused of kidnapping her, was due to give evidence that she had married of her own free will. As she approached the courtroom, a crowd of men including her brothers, uncles and father, hurled bricks at her in a brazen attack lasting 15 minutes. Only her father has been charged.

It’s an all too familiar story, which leaves us shaking in disbelief and asking ‘How?’ How can a man kill his own daughter or sister or niece in such a brutal fashion, and only for the ‘crime’ of marrying the man she loves?

In his book Honor: A History, James Bowman defines honour as, “The good opinion of those who are important to you.”  In ultra conservative societies such as Pakistan, as well as parts of the Middle East and India, ‘those who are important to you’ can be broadly defined as ‘everyone who knows of your family name.’

In these cultures reputation is everything. To protect it, people restrict their own behaviour and police their family members to ward off any gossip. Back in the 80s and 90s, the recently arrived Lebanese community in Sydney to which my family belonged, was preoccupied with reputation. It was ironic, the way people tried to sniff out the slightest whiff of scandal in the lives of others, even as they tried to prevent themselves becoming the focus of that week’s gossip.

As a teenage girl, my life revolved around  ‘what people will say.’ I remember the resentment my sisters and I felt that these nameless, faceless people who’d never even met us, could so thoroughly dictate our lives. That dress is too short. People will talk. No, you can’t go to your school formal, people will talk.  How can I let you sleep at your friend’s house? What will people say?

It’s hard to convey to those who have never experienced it, how it feels to be immersed in such a culture. It’s like living in an invisible prison; to the outside world everything appears normal, but the fear of bahadli -disgrace- consumed so much of our waking moments. Of course, in this particular community in Sydney, which was actually comparatively liberal, the stakes were not quite so high. But if even those of us who grow up in the west can be affected like this, you can only imagine what it must be like to live in places where the honour code is all they know.

This is what so many westerners, living in a society driven by individualism, have difficulty comprehending: to those cultures in which honour is paramount, nothing else matters, and all family members are expected to play their part.

As journalist Barbara Kay explains:

‘To understand honour culture, one must think of oneself not as an individual but as a role. You are not John or Julia; you are a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a father-in-law or a mother-in-law. Your role dictates your behaviour and your obligations. When one steps out of the prescribed role to act as an individual, the smooth functioning of the family collective is threatened.’

And this is where it gets dangerous for women. In such deeply patriarchal cultures, the honour of men is found, as the Ecuadorian saying goes, ‘between the legs of a woman.’ In some ways women are placed on a pedestal, cherished for their ‘purity’ and ability to be mothers. But -and here is the catch- if they fall from that lofty perch, not only is there no getting back up again, but the reputation of the entire family is irrevocably tarnished.

And so the role of women is not to do anything that may cast doubt on their purity or modesty. Simply been seen in the company of a man who is not a relative is enough to set the wheels of gossip in motion. Because women are considered the keepers of virtue, the ones who are meant to reign in the uncontrollable desires of men, their failure to do so is seen not only as a terrible transgression, but as a complete failure of them as a person.

When a woman’s worth is tied up solely in her chastity, what happens when that chastity is compromised? She becomes literally worthless and it is considered no great loss if she is disposed of. 

Make no mistake, this is misogyny in its worst form. Although men are sometimes the victims of honour crimes, the vast majority are young women. Often acting under enormous social pressure, their attackers will claim that the women had to be killed because they were ‘too western.’ Of course ‘too western’ is just shorthand for the desire to be free. This should not be exclusive to western countries. Indeed, early Islam afforded women far more freedoms than any Muslim majority country does today. I will never cease to be amazed and dismayed at how a religion rooted in freedom and human rights could be so thoroughly corrupted.

To this end, any attempt to tackle honour crimes has to be two-fold, the first is to free people from the illusion that what others think of them matters more than all else. I don’t hold much hope that this can be done in countries like Pakistan or much of the Arab world any time soon since many of them appear to be getting more, not less, conservative. But it can certainly be tackled in immigrant communities in the west. That Lebanese community I described above is almost unrecognisable in how far it has progressed in the last twenty years.

The second is to challenge the status of women as the keepers of virtue. I have written before that nothing has contributed more to the oppression of women than the obsession with virginity. Women’s lives literally depend on abolishing the notion that sexual virtue is the hallmark of a ‘good’ woman.

The insidious nature of patriarchy places the safety and lives of women at risk, and it warps the minds of men. I won’t insult the women who suffer from the threat of such violence by claiming it hurts men as much it hurts women, but the burden of honour costs men too. It costs them knowing who the women in their lives really are, preventing them from having meaningful relationships. It also impacts on their own quality of life. It is no way for anyone to live, to be suspicious of your own family, viewing them as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals, and to wallow in constant fear of ‘what people will say.’

Honour crimes are on the rise and more than ever, we need to heed the words Hillary Clinton spoke in her 1995 UN address: ‘Women’s rights are human rights,’ because improving the status of women, improves the lives of everyone.