Zakia and Ali grew up on adjacent farms in the remote Afghan mountain province of Bamyan, where the Taliban famously blew up two huge sandstone Buddhas 15 years ago.
They played together as children when they took their families’ sheep to graze on the mountainsides. Strict custom forbade them from having any contact once she reached puberty, but he smuggled her a cellphone and took the unheard step of proposing a love marriage to her parents. However, he was from the Shiite Hazara sect and she was a Sunni Tajik, so her shocked family forbade the union.
The story of their elopement, their life on the run and her family’s efforts to kill her – for the dishonor she supposedly brought them by an unacceptable relationship – is chronicled in “The Lovers: Afghanistan’s Romeo and Juliet, the True Story of How They Defied Their Families and Escaped an Honor Killing,” a fascinating new book by New York Times correspondent Rod Nordland. (Nordland says he never got as much email as he did for his articles on the couple.)
But the story of Zakia and Ali is also a reminder that the practice of “honor killings” continues to thrive in a belt extending from the Mediterranean to Pakistan, mainly in Muslim communities. The book raises thorny moral questions of whether and how outsiders can fight this horrifying practice and whether their intervention makes things better or worse.
There is very little accurate data on the number of honor killings worldwide since they are rarely reported. Women are targeted by family members for offenses like refusing an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, alleged adultery, or even glancing sideways at a strange man. Even rape can be the cause of an honor killing, since the girl or woman is blamed for having brought shame on the family by enticing the rapist.
“The numbers are underreported everywhere and no one thinks police reports are reliable,” says Catherine Warrick, an associate professor of political science at Villanova University who has studied the subject. In 2000, the United Nations estimated that 5,000 women a year were victims, but human-rights groups believe the number could be at least four times higher. In Pakistan alone, such groups estimate the annual number at 3,000 to 4,000, while official statistics put it at 1,000 cases.
The killers usually get away with murder, which only encourages more of them. “Honor killings are not endorsed in Islamic law at all,” says Warrick. However, misinterpretations of sharia, and traditional cultural beliefs, usually back the murderers. So do courts and local police.
According to provisions in civil law, in countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, a woman can be jailed for “immorality.” If a family member hacks her or stabs her to death, that same family can forgive the killer. In other words, if a brother murders his sister for an alleged violation of family honor, his mother and father can “forgive” him and he is home free.
Clearly, there’s little hope for victimized women unless such laws are revised.
Nordland’s book raises the tricky question of whether publicity helps or harms a victim. He learned about Zakia and Ali from Bamyan’s director of women’s affairs, Fatima Kazimi, who sent out a desperate email seeking help.
The local court had suspended Kazimi for placing Zakia in a women’s shelter. Had Nordland not intervened, the young woman’s family probably would have taken her out and killed her. But the subsequent publicity in the Times made Zakia and Ali’s case notorious and ensured that her family could track them. Nordland stepped outside his journalistic role and helped them with cash, but they had to go on the run.
On balance, I’d argue that publicity is a good thing, because it may embarrass a government into taking action.
Take Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy’s “A Girl in the River,” nominated for an Oscar for short subject documentary. The film tells the story of Saba, a 19-year-old Pakistani who was shot in the head by her father for running off to marry her boyfriend. Thrown into the river in a sack, she somehow survived. Obaid’s documentary has provoked Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to vow that Pakistan will eradicate “evil” honor killings.
Of course, Sharif would also need to reform the courts and the police so they would obey any new legislation. But at least it would be a start if he follows through on his promise.
Here are some additional ways outsiders might help:
First, international aid agencies should devise projects that educate men about the value of treating their women properly. A few years ago, I visited Suraya Pakzad, a courageous Pakistani woman who runs women’s shelters in Herat, Afghanistan, and who had organized such classes. She enticed men to participate by combining the classes with a project to deliver water to the community (a project run by Aldo Magazzeni, a Philadelphia-area businessman committed to such causes). This is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking worth supporting.
Second, U.S. officials – who have spent millions promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan – should continue to support Afghan women who risk their lives for these values. Zakia would have been killed had a female official not gotten her into a women’s shelter. But “shelters are 100 percent international-donor funded in Afghanistan,” says Heather Barr of Human Rights Watch. Will the United States and Europe continue to fund them as our attention to Afghanistan wanes?
Finally, the United States should put its visas behind its values. U.S. officials brag about their support for Afghan women, yet the U.S. Embassy in Kabul showed no interest in granting Zakia and Ali humanitarian visas, says Nordland. They are still living in hiding in Bamyan, facing sure death if – no, when – her family finds them. Surely we can do better than that.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.