Murders and musings —Sarah Humayun

It would mean little to establish in theory whether the murder of the women was justified in terms of tribal tradition or condemnable in terms of the law of the land. If the law could be enforced without hesitation or hindrance in the land, our situation would be very different

As I write this article, I have fresh in my mind a discussion on the murder and alleged live burial of five women in Naseerabad which was on tv. Senators Yasmin Shah and Israrullah Zehri, the two individuals who have taken emblematic positions in the controversy, were part of the programme hosted by Qatrina Hussain. It was at once in the thick of thorny questions.

The murders had been brought to notice by Senator Shah. Senator Zehri had earlier defended the murders as tribal tradition. In the programme, he did not appear to be positively advocating the tradition, but reiterated that it was, nevertheless, tradition. Take it or leave it.

When reminded that he himself had undertaken an oath to uphold the law of the land and not of the tribe, he reminded the moderator in turn of the distance between Balochistan, which he represents, and the rest of the land. When asked how tribal customs fared vis-à-vis the demands of human rights, his riposte was that scant regard was shown to those very rights in the military operations conducted in Balochistan (if I understood him correctly). The implication was that much was being made of this and little of that.

What the Senator said was unconvincing. It was in some respects strictly condemnable. But it was clear that this is an argument that the senator can neither win nor lose. Nor can his opponents.

It would mean little to establish in theory whether the murder of the women was justified in terms of tribal tradition or condemnable in terms of the law of the land. If the law could be enforced without hesitation or hindrance in the land, our situation would be very different. I would be inclined to assume that, in Lahore, most people’s instinctive reaction would be that the murders are intolerable. But enough people have shown discomfort in outrightly condemning them to tell us that these assumptions are a little cavalier.

The hesitation in enforcing the law, what some might call its weakness; the distance between ‘tribal’ and ‘urban’ Pakistan — between a place where tradition is the last word in justice and a place which conforms to, or at least tries to conform to, standards of human rights and constitutional justice — these cannot be wished away by winning an argument. And we all know too well that the tribal can exist in the heart of the urban. In some places it may not be so much a compulsion to act in certain ways as a claim that is open to people to make.

What then can be adequate to finding a ground of common understanding? I certainly cannot hope to offer an answer, but I think it is important to think about this, as well as to protest and to call for action. Justice should be seen to be done, but enough people have watched the enfolding debate with the uneasy sense that Senator Zehri and others are not convinced that anybody else’s justice is justice.

We can of course dismiss it as a case of simple vested interests, but that would be partly to avoid the issue. For it is not by accident that certain interests are vested in certain things. For instance, women’s honour, women’s right to self-disposition, women’s desires.

As I watched the programme, I felt that different sorts of horror were at work. One was a horror that the murdered females were not being acknowledged human: is this not self-evident; how can it not be? Another was sexual horror — how can a man bear to catch his wife in the act? This, offered by Senator Zehri, was specially interesting as there has so been no indication that the women were caught in the act. Three of them, admittedly very young, wanted to marry of their own will, and the two elder women apparently protested their treatment at the hands of their male relatives. There was no ‘wife in the act’. But there was, presumably, a horror of it.

Then there is the whole question of the manner of their death. Were they tortured? Buried alive, as was first held? Were their burial rites performed? Part of effort of the ‘cover-up’ job that is being alleged is to dissociate the murders from their terrible manner, to make them cleaner, as it were. Not burying alive in an effort to bury alive. Not dishonoured even beyond death.

Why, finally, does the question of a woman as a loving, desiring, self-giving creature make people so uncomfortable? Is it because if she can want something, she can also not want it? Is it because a sanitised exchange is better, where desire is not involved?

I am reminded here of two of Shakespeare’s plays, Othello and TheWinter’s Tale, where jealous husbands murder their wives, wives who married them for love, for no very good reason — except perhaps that what they had given they can also take away.

Hermione in the Winter’s Tale is returned to her husband Leontes at the end of the play as a stone statue, which then miraculously comes alive. There has been suffering, there has been repentance. But why, you wonder, stone? Stoning is also a way of punishing adultery, a way that seems shockingly oblivious to pain. And here’s Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations: ‘Could one imagine a stone’s having consciousness? And if anyone can do so — why should that not merely prove that such image-mongery is of no interest to us’.

The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds

Source: Daily times, 4th/Sep/2008

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