Eliminating gynicide

“Zakir Hussain Shah slit the throat of his daughter Sabiha, 18, at Bara Kau in June 2002 because she had ‘dishonoured’ her family. But under Pakistan’s notorious qisas law, heirs [of a murder victim] have powers to pardon a murderer. In this case, Sabiha’s mother and brother [as Sabiha’s heirs] ‘pardoned’ the father and he was freed,” wrote Robert Fisk on 10–09–07 in The crimewave that shames the world, one segment of his multi-part feature on gynicide carried by The Independent.

The next day, in Relatives with blood on their hands, Fisk reported: “Ms. [Hina] Jilani [leader of a women’s protection organization] says . . . ‘There is a law in this country [Pakistan]—it’s always the family that conspires to kill, so if the father or brother kills, the family [of the murdered woman] forgives him and there’s no charge. The law says there can be a ‘compromise’ at any stage without any evidence coming into court. The trial simply stops if there is a compromise [between the murderer and the murdered victim’s family or heirs]. The court has to give its permission for a compromise—but it always gives permission. This means an automatic acquittal.’”

Across a swath of countries from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, it is the same story and it boils down to this: a woman is murdered by a family member who is then ‘pardoned’ by other family members of the victim in their capacity as the heirs and/or family members of the victim. This, of course, implies that these persons are ‘pardoning’ their own family member, perpetuating a barbaric cultural norm of murder with impunity. Thus, the progress of justice is thwarted, sometimes entirely defeated at the very outset, by tribal conventions or even casuistic cultural common law (which, though potent and difficult to dislodge, does not have the force of statutory law).

What would happen, though, if the murder victim and her murderer did not share any common family members? Indeed, we may pose a before-the-fact question: “What would happen if a would-be murderer got to know that he and his intended victim had ceased to share any common family members?” Would the aspirant to murder still proceed with his intended crime if he knew that he could not be bailed out by a casuistic ‘pardon’? It is reasonable to posit that most men would not; criminal penalties are a deterrent to crime. Perhaps just such a deterrent can be knitted together from a few common statutory legal procedures; legal procedures which are so common, so humble, that one can hardly conceive of them as components with which to build a deterrent to one of the most brutish of crimes.

Almost all countries afflicted by gynicide—commonly but repulsively known as ‘honour killings’—have a body of civil law whose most fundamental statutes provide the building-blocks with which to erect a bulwark against would-be gynicide-committers, and if this bulwark fails to obstruct the (potential) murderer, then it converts into the very weapon by which to enable and even impel judicial prosecution of the (actual) murderer and bring him to justice. The process to build this bulwark is outlined, underneath. Properly and speedily executing the process initially may be a challenge but getting it down pat should surely not be much trouble for experienced women’s protection organizations. Such organizations would do well to recruit a set of courageous (male and/or female) volunteers to act as potential guardians, successors and heirs, and as potential husbands for entering into a ‘marriage of protection,’ as elaborated on below. Leaders and staff-members of the organization would be ideally positioned to act in said roles. Volunteers must understand and accept that if a woman associated with them as bequeather, ward, or wife is murdered, they would bear one or another moral duty as outlined underneath.

As the first part of the process, any woman who suspects that she may be a target of gynicide, preferably with the help of a women’s protection organization and lawyers:
(a) Shall sever all ties with her family and all members thereof by: legally disowning her family jointly and family members severally, formally repudiating them, and renouncing all claims and rights to any inheritance.
(b) Shall make out a will in which she explicitly disowns and severs ties with all those who are or could be considered her family members, heirs, and/or successors.
(c) Shall legally change her surname and/or family name.
A woman who takes the foregoing steps no longer has any connection to the family in the eyes of the law, nor can the disowned and repudiated family claim any such connection on any basis that can be entertained in a fair judicial system. The procedure outlined above shall be carried out with legal correctness; it should involve witnesses, executors, notarizations, newspaper announcements, filing of documents with court and governmental registrars, etc.
(d) As the final step, all documents produced during this (first) part of the process shall be delivered to all former members of the woman’s ex-family, preferably by the sheriff’s or police chief’s department or by designates of the judiciary.

As the second part of the process, the woman under threat:
(a) Shall amend her will to name new heirs and successors from any volunteers available for this purpose. In the event of the gynicide of their bequeather, it shall be incumbent upon all such volunteers not to ‘pardon’ and refuse to ‘pardon’ the murderer.
(b) Shall become a legal ward by way of a volunteer being appointed as the woman’s legal guardian. If a woman’s protection organization is involved, this volunteer/guardian should preferably be one of the organization’s leaders. In the event of the gynicide of his/her ward, it shall be incumbent upon this volunteer to file a criminal complaint and press charges.
(c) Shall marry a male volunteer, if brave and honourable (in the true meaning of the term) men have volunteered for such a role. As a man’s wife, the woman is legally recognized as his family member. The man shall have none of the rights of being a husband and, equivalently, none of the duties except one: to be a psychological and legal protective shield. (Either and all of these three clauses may be written into the marriage contract.) Such a marriage may be termed a ‘marriage of protection.’ (Should the woman have a faithful lover of her own choosing, then—of course—she should marry this man, if she has not already done so. This step assumes the absence of such a man.) In the event of the gynicide of his wife, it shall be incumbent upon the husband not to ‘pardon’ the murderer and instead to file a criminal complaint and press charges. (The reader may wonder why a single man would give up his chances of marrying for love by entering into a ‘marriage of protection’ with a threatened woman, or how a married man may even wed such a woman without divorcing his wife. The key lies in the fact that in most countries that are afflicted with gynicide, a man may legally have up to four concurrent wives; however, the majority of men marry, and remain married to, only one woman. This very convenient combination of facts allows most men to shelter up to three women in marriages of protection.)

Thus, the woman gains a new family comprising a guardian, heirs and successors, and/or a husband. This second part of the process too shall be carried out with legal rigour, just as the first part. As a further deterrent, the documents produced during this part of the process may also be delivered to all or selected former members of the woman’s ex-family.

The bulwark against gynicide is now erected and it would cause aspirant murderers to reconsider any criminal intentions or plans because it serves as a double-barrelled deterrent: First, in the event of actual gynicide, if the killer is to walk free, conventions or common law would require that the victim’s heirs and successors ‘pardon’ him. This, of course, they would not do and would refuse to do. Second, the guardian and/or husband, as the sole family member(s), would file a criminal complaint and press charges against the murderer, leading to lengthy imprisonment or even the death penalty itself. Thus, gynicide would cease to be a crime with no punishment. In turn, there would be more hope for the Jilanis of this world and—more importantly—there would be fewer unfortunate, murdered Sabihas.

It would be naive to assume that even rigourous implementation of the above process-based system would bring an end to gynicide in any particular country. It will surely reduce the frequency of the crime but not bring about its demise, at least not in the immediate future. However, if the system is implemented with unrelenting strictness and, as a consequence, several gynicide criminals spend a score-and-a-half years in jail and a few even swing at the end of a rope, then that dawn may one day come when the monstrous crime of gynicide itself finally dies out.

(Companion article to Killing off ‘Honour Killings’)

Copyright © 2010 Kersasp Shekhdar. All Rights Reserved.

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