Pakistan: Crimes of Honor and Questions on Powers of Panchayat "Courts"
TWENTY-year-old Saima was electrocuted to death Friday in Bahawalpur district on the orders of a panchayat comprised of her father and three uncles, because she had eloped with a man of her choosing. That same week, Najma Bibi was paraded around her village in Khanewal district with her hair chopped off and face blackened in accordance with a panchayat`s orders, after her in-laws accused her of having illicit relations.
In a trend that is nothing short of shameful for Pakistan, informal “courts” are continuing to hand out judgments against women in the name of honor despite having no legal mandate, the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan said in an editorial.
In addition to the fact that they have never had legal authority (except for a semi-official status in the tribal areas), the Sindh High Court proactively declared them to be unconstitutional.
As for a woman’s right to marry a person of her choice, relevant in Saima’s case, numerous court judgments have upheld it and consent is considered vital in an Islamic marriage. Aside from violating human rights, then, these are blatantly extrajudicial actions that cannot go unpunished in any society that claims to value law and order.
The police do seem to have been somewhat active in both cases. That of Saima came to light after the police interrupted her funeral, seized her body and insisted on an autopsy. Three members of the panchayat are in custody. Two panchayat members have been arrested in Najma Bibi`s case, although reportedly there is pressure on her from the police to reach a private settlement. But given the government’s repeated failure to deliver justice in previous instances, and Pakistani society’s tolerance of barefaced discrimination against women, these too will be obstructed through bribery or political pressure or be transformed into “personal” issues to be dealt with between the families.
One also questions the role of the Supreme Court’s Human Rights Cell if incidents like these can continue to take place. Given these circumstances, there is a dire need to treat Saima and Najma Bibi as the wake-up calls they constitute about how vigilante “justice” continues to haunt the women of Pakistan.