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Pakistan moves towards closing loophole that allows honour killing

\'More girls are using technology, mobile phones to talk to men. They want to marry of their own choice, running away from home, but if they\'re caught they get killed. It is a form of control.\'

Published: 01st August 2016 08:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st August 2016 08:30 AM   |  A+A-

The moment Rukhsana Bibi woke up, she knew her father had come to kill her. On a hot summer's night in Pakistan, the newlyweds were sleeping in the courtyard. But it was a noise from inside the ramshackle house that caused her, just 16, in love and pregnant, to wake with a start.

"I shouted 'Younis Younis. Wake up! Men are inside our home,'?" she recalled. "Younis woke up and tried to grab one of them. But two people held him, while another shot two bullets at me. They both hit me in my chest. Younis was resisting, so they shot him too, in the arms, legs and chest. They shot him 11 times."

Four months earlier, Rukhsana had defied her family by eloping with her teenage love. An imam's daughter and a top student who dreamed of becoming a doctor, Rukhsana had waited until the day of her 10th-grade biology exam before running away with the young man from her tribe, fleeing her engagement to her first cousin. They had fled from Mansehra to Peshawar, where they exchanged vows, she still in her school uniform.

The men who tracked her down to her remote home were her father, uncle and cousins, she said - they had come to kill her for dishonouring her family by marrying the man she loved.

"We knew my family were chasing me. We knew they wouldn't leave us alone. This is their law," said Rukhsana. "But because we lived in a remote area, we thought we could remain secret at least for a few years.

"We often discussed being chased. But whenever I said that someone will kill us one day, Younis would tell me not to worry. He said: 'If someone comes, first I will use my body to stop the shooting, and he will have to cross my body to reach you.'?"

As it turned out, Younis did die protecting his young wife, who survived after being rescued by neighbours who heard her screams. Their baby later died just one day after it was born, severely disabled.

Their story is just one of Pakistan's many so-called "honour killings".

Last week, Samia Shahid, a British woman who was visiting her Pakistani family, was found dead with a bruise on her neck. Syed Mukhtair, her second husband, alleges that the family was unhappy with his wife's divorce and remarriage to him, and killed her. The family deny the claims.

A fortnight earlier Qandeel Baloch, a controversial Pakistani celebrity, was choked to death in her sleep by her own brother. He too claimed she had brought shame on their family.

But in Pakistan, between 500 and 1,000 such cases are reported every year. Activists say the number is closer to 12,000. Rooted in tribal traditions, most are triggered by "love marriages".

Activists believe the number of cases is on the rise. "My own sense is that there is even more violence now, the reason being that violence against women is at a reactive stage," said Farzana Bari, a leading Pakistani woman's rights activist.

"More girls are using technology, mobile phones to talk to men. They want to marry of their own choice, running away from home, but if they're caught they get killed. It is a form of control."

Convictions for "honour killings" in Pakistan remain incredibly rare. Ms Bari said she had been working on the subject for 25 years, but has only ever seen two "serious convictions". "In most of these cases the evidence is already so manipulated right from the initial phases that even liberal judges can't convict," she said.

Across the country, there are some signs of progress. Eight years ago, a senator from Balochistan publicly defended the burying alive of three teenage girls in his province, saying it was "our tribal custom" and should not be discussed. Today, politicians would not dare to openly support such killings, said Ms Bari, although they may remain silent to appease deeply conservative voters.

More importantly, within the next few weeks, Pakistan's parliament will vote on a new Bill which will close a loophole that allows victim's family members to legally forgive the murderer - who is often another member of the same family.

Some critics warn that the law change does not go far enough. Other forms of murder in Pakistan will remain "forgiveable", meaning the accused may choose to plead a different motivation, such as a financial or property dispute, in order to avoid prison. The new Bill does not change how police investigate suspected honour crimes.

For women like Rukhsana, any help from the state will be welcomed. Of the five men Rukhsana identified, one was swiftly found innocent by the police, another acquitted due to lack of evidence, and three absconded. Rukhsana and her murdered husband's family say they are too afraid to pursue the case further.

Speaking three years on, she still lives in hiding, receives deaths threats from her own family, and said she was still waiting for justice. "I demand that this tribal law should be abolished," she said. "It ruins dozens of lives, young boys and girls, who also have no happiness or choice of how to spend their own lives.



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