The nighttime peace and calm of a North Nazimabad neighbourhood was suddenly shattered by the sharp, loud crack of gunshots. Alarmed residents rushed to their windows and doorways to catch a peek just as a man, clad in the traditional shalwar kameez, fled with a pistol dangerously hanging in his hand. By first light, most in the neighbourhood had a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomachs at the fact that two of their beloved community members had just been gunned down by a relative in an "honour killing".
Honour killings, or murders to avenge and restore 'shame', have long been a feature of Pakistan's deeply conservative, traditionalist and tribalistic community. Data recently collected showed that some 2,000 incidents took place across Pakistan in a four-year period, leaving at least 2,500 people dead.
The culture is highly problematic because it leads to fatalities without fear of consequence or retribution, creating a sense of lawlessness in society. More than that, it is a ritual that punishes women more than men, with deaths of the former twice that of the latter.
A host of factors are at play apart from a society that remains unable to break free of archaic and warped traditions, customs and interpretations.
The 'honour killing' in North Nazimabad took place in the Pashtun-dominated neighbourhood of Pahar Gunj Colony -- named such because it is located on a hill that directly overlooks North Nazimabad. The evening after the attack, a Jirga - a traditional tribal assembly of elders - had convened to deliberate on the incident. Despite the presence of multiple eyewitnesses, the Jirga exonerated the killer, citing tribal customs. The killer, having 'regained his honour' in the eyes of his peers, resumed a regular life of 'honour in the community.
The police did not visit the murder scene, much less book the man responsible for a double homicide.
Ameen Plumber*, who witnessed the Pahar Gunj attack, stated that, per his knowledge, a financial dispute was at the heart of the attack.
"The killer, who was jobless, had borrowed money from the relative he murdered," he revealed, adding, "The murder settled the debt."
He said that this pattern isn't unique to Pehar Gunj. Honour killings, traditionally linked to adultery or relationships outside of marriage, are increasingly rooted in land and monetary disputes or tribal feuds.
What are honour killings and Karo-Kari?
The concept of 'honour killing' is found in one form or another across the tribal system of Pakistan.
In Sindh, this concept is largely called "Karo-Kari". Translated from the Sindhi language, it means black/dark male and black/dark female. The term is ascribed to those believed to be involved in adultery or practices which bring 'shame' or 'dishonour' to the family and thus provide the cultural justification used for honour killings.
Irrespective of the names, the practice carries the same grave consequences.
Evidence is often irrelevant, and just the suggestion of being labelled is considered to be equivalent to a death sentence.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), one of the civil society groups attempting to tackle this menace, highlighted the dangerous interplay between archaic traditions and modern-day power struggles.
Sadia Baloch of the HRCP believes that the concept of Karo-Kari is tied to Baloch traditions and customs. She pointed out how most honour killing cases - especially Karo-Kari, are reported from areas near Balochistan, such as Jacobabad, Larkana, Khairpur, Shikarpur, Dadu, and Sukkur. She added that the common thread amongst these areas was that many Baloch tribespeople had settled here in search of better employment opportunities. They continue to adhere to their centuries-old customs and kill their women in the name of honour.
Citing one instance, she pointed to a case from the Jacobabad district of Sindh, which lies at the edge of the provincial borders with Balochistan.
In the incident, Baloch said a man had killed another man over a dispute about fetching water from a well. Later, he intended to kill his wife, but when he couldn't find her, he dragged his 70-year-old mother to the well and murdered her. He later confessed that the dispute was not about fetching water from the well but that he suspected his septuagenarian mother of having an illicit relationship with the man. He confirmed his reasons for killing the man and his mother were tied to 'honour'.
Baloch said that honour killing is not confined to the victim's age. The Jacobabad resident had murdered an adult woman of 70 years of age.
The HRCP official said that there are numerous reports where people have murdered couples for 'honour' who had opted to exercise their Constitutional right to marry of their free will.
Moreover, she said they had recorded multiple instances where women were forced to walk naked through bazaars to redeem honour.
Uptick in killings
Data collected by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan about honour killings and Karo-Kari incidents found that in the four years between 2018-22, some 1,961 incidents were publicly reported in which 2,537 people became victims.
Of the victims, 858 were men, but twice that figure, 1,679 were women. The victims also included minors.
The data found that there has been a gradual increase in the number of cases during this period.
This period also oversaw some 552 cases of Karo-Kari, in which 609 people fell victim, including 241 men and 368 women.
There was a spike in cases and victims during 2020 and 2021, two years when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) induced pandemic lockdowns were in effect.
With Punjab the most populous province, it was no surprise that most honour killings and Karo-Kari incidents occurred there, with 841 incidents recorded from 2018-2022. There were 1,058 victims, of which 259 were men and 799 were women. There was a near-uniform distribution of attacks.
Sindh recorded 766 cases of honour killing and Karo-Kari with 901 victims, including 348 men and 553 women. Given that the tradition of Karo-Kari takes root in Sindh, most cases of this type of honour killings took place there were Karo-Kari with some 538 incidents recorded with 590 victims, including 234 men and 356 women.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where tribal customs in many areas remain strong, 266 cases of honour killings were recorded with 426 victims. Among them, 189 were men, and 240 were women.
Balochistan reported 83 incidents of honour killings and Karo-Kari, with 138 victims. Among these, there were 56 men and 82 women.
Honour of killings or covering up greed?
Baloch highlighted that not all cases proclaimed to be honour killing are linked to any arbitrary or abstract concept of honour. Rather often, they are tools to escape accountability and further scrutiny of ulterior motives.
Baloch stated that many instances of "honour killing" arise from land or monetary disputes, in which men kill their female family members.
In one case, she said, a man had murdered his five-year-old niece and a 12-year-old boy on suspicion of besmirched honour.
The boy was watering his field while the little girl and her mother were collecting cotton in the same field. After the two minors were found dead, an investigation led to the confession of the girl's uncle of murdering the two. He offered that he killed the two for honour. Eventually, it emerged that the man simply wanted to usurp the farmland which belonged to the boy and that "honour" was a ruse to escape social and legal scrutiny.
State's failed arbitrage over violence
Dr Tauseef Ahmed Khan, an academic and researcher, said that the reasons for such incidents go beyond just notions of honour or greed. He points to accompanying significant contributing factors such as economic uncertainty, illiteracy, and the state's inability to enforce laws as to these tragic incidents.
"Women are viewed as commodities, like land and livestock. This mindset, combined with distorted religious teachings that place the responsibility of modesty solely on women, perpetuates such violence."
Does religion have an impact?
Mufti Muhammad Zubair, a member of the national Islamic body Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), categorically states that traditions and customs of honour killing, such as Karo-Kari, do not fall within Islamic jurisprudence.
"It is completely Haram (forbidden). If someone is found guilty [of committing an honour killing], they can be taken to court," he commented, adding that "Islamic jurisprudence strictly forbids such killings."
Changing trends of honour killing: The urban conundrum
HRCP's Regional Coordinator in Karachi Nida Tanweer told The Friday Times that in the past, most cases of Karo-Kari were reported from rural parts of Sindh or from some of the smaller, less developed urban areas of the province.
Of late, however, there has been an increase in the number of reports received about honour killings from the highly urbanised megalopolis of Karachi.
She pointed to a recent incident reported from the heart of Karachi. In the densely populated middle-income neighbourhood of Gulistan-e-Juhar, a highly educated father killed his daughter and her friend for 'honour'.
"It was unprecedented, as the family was highly educated and as human rights defenders, we were not expecting that such a murder would be reported from the megalopolis of Karachi," she said.
Usually, a case is made that crime persists due to the absence of a law to punish it. Hence, the absence of deterrence serves to promote the crime.
However, Justice (Retired) Majida Rizvi, a former chairperson of the Sindh Human Rights Commission (a government rights entity), told The Friday Times that several laws exist to prevent or prosecute honour killings.
However, she noted that the challenge lies in enforcing these laws. She said that before the law can act, tribal and feudal chieftains convene Jirgas and pass a verdict declaring women as "Kari".
What complicates matters is when some decisions are made by feudal or tribal chiefs who are also part of the government or the parliament.
"There is a need for land reforms and a change in the mindset of the people," she commented.
The former judge noted that this mindset is no longer limited to Pakistan. She pointed to how Pakistan has exported this mindset and attitude along with human resources. Pakistanis who have settled in advanced countries such as England and other European countries have continued their tribal and traditional customs, including murder in the name of honour.
Moreover, she noted that instances where educated individuals kill their children in the name of honour are not as rare as one may believe.
She acknowledged that honour killings are sometimes used as a cover to settle land or monetary disputes.
Justice (retired) Rizvi concluded that the complex interplay of cultural norms, economic disputes, and societal power structures leads to the tragic reality of honour killings in Pakistan. And now abroad.
For meaningful change to occur, she recommended adopting a holistic approach, tackling the subject from the angles of education, economic stability, legal enforcement, and, most importantly, empowering the nation's women.
Only then can the haunting spectre of Karo-Kari be laid to rest.
*Name changed to protect identity