Back to Common Ground Archive


Program 0101
January 2, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

UZMA NOORANI: The laws have not been in favor of women. The governments have encouraged these tribal laws and that is a reason that these tribal practices have remained with us. These honor killings have nothing to do with Islam.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, global domestic violence.

GRACIELA LOPEZ: Judges, prosecutors, teachers, psychologists, police-everybody together given a special focus in prevention and early detection of the problem. Violence is a cultural problem.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Domestic violence is a problem in every corner of the globe. And in the US, law enforcement agencies report a surge in domestic violence complaints during the holiday season. In the past year, Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich traveled to Pakistan and Uruguay to examine the unique domestic violence issues facing those two countries. This week we bring you an encore presentation of those reports.

Pakistan has among the highest number of honor killings in the world. That’s when a husband or father kills a woman in his family, claiming he’s protecting family honor. Westerners often think such murders are carried out by poor and uneducated Muslims. But in fact, the killings have nothing to do with the teachings of Islam and are often committed by well-do-do families seeking financial gain. Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from Karachi.

[sound of a police radio call]

EHRLICH: At a police station Anjum Asaf remembers a horrible day last year. The 21-year-old, slightly built Asaf recounts how she was powerless to stop her brother’s plans to murder her sister, all supposedly to defend family honor.

ANJUM ASAF: [via a translator] After our parents passed away our eldest sister asked for an accounting of family finances. My older brother refused, saying, “I’m the man in the house and I don’t have to.” He wanted to sell off the family house. When a real estate agent called, my sister told him that house belonged to all of us. That got my brother very angry and he beat her up on August 9. He was very abusive. He threatened to get rid of her. One day my other sister Charin?? was at home with me. She and our younger brother had an argument. He got a gun and shot her twice.

EHRLICH: The sisters had offended their two brothers’ honor by questioning their expropriation of the inheritance. Experts say honor killings are frequently financially motivated and often carried out by the well-to-do families. The murder was just one of over a thousand so-called “honor killings” in Pakistan last year, thought to be among the highest number in the world. Women were murdered by family members for alleged adultery, refusing an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, or otherwise offending family honor.

[sound of a woman singing Pakistani music]

[sound of a Moslem call to prayer]

EHRLICH: Honor killings are often justified by reference to the Koran, which prohibits sex outside of marriage. Uzma Noorani, head of Women’s Action Forums, says the roots of honor killings are not in Islam, but in ancient culture. A thousand years ago feuding tribes would exact revenge on enemies by killing their women.

UZMA NOORANI: It’s not Islamic custom. It’s a pre-, I should say pre-Islamic-it’s a tribal custom, and it is very old, and it has remained with us. And because I think the laws have not been in favor of women. And we have the tribal laws existing with the judicial system that we have in the country. The governments have encouraged these tribal laws and that is a reason that these tribal practices have remained with us. These honor killings have nothing to do with Islam.

EHRLICH: Honor killings have always been officially illegal, but they are rarely prosecuted. And the number of murders rise or fall depending on government policy. Honor killings declined in the period after Pakistan’s independence from Britain, when the country was ruled by secular governments. Then in the mid-1970s Prime Minister Ali Bhutto, the father of Benazir Bhutto, sought to shore up flagging political support. Noorani says he appealed to right-wing mullahs and landlords by passing repressive anti-women laws.

UZMA NOORANI: Bhutto is the one who started it. In the sense that you see, when people in our country-when mullahs want to hang onto power they go to any length to, you know, they can take any action. It was Bhutto who, when he, you know, was struggling for power, he was the one who succumbed to the mullah lobby. Because you see, they had the street power. And he felt that he had, maybe he could appease them somehow. And that’s when he started. You know, he, the first step he took was he banned all the liquor shops. So actually the mullah lobby, the reason is, I mean, though they have never won a single election in our entire history of Pakistan, yet each government seems to want to please them all the time. I mean, if you ask the government man, nobody is in favor of these fundamentalist groups. Nobody works for them.

EHRLICH: Then, in 1977, General Mohammed Zia Al-Haq overthrew Bhutto and imposed a military dictatorship. He intensified the suppression of women. Zhara Fatima, a leader of the Women’s Foundation, says Pakistanis who tried to protest the anti-women laws, were vilified as advocates of decadent Western-styled women’s liberation.

ZHARA FATIMA: Whenever I met men and when we have a talk on women’s right and women’s liberation, mostly they said that “You are talking about the Western liberation.” And my counter means that, “Okay, let’s see what is in Islam, in religion, what is in our culture, and what is the modern rights, or what you consider the western rights,” and whatever they found that though we have a very liberated religion. Islam is a very liberated religion. And the same rights we can find in the Western world also, of women’s rights. But, due to our cultural barriers, women have no access to get that rights. And they cannot actually, Moslem men-and women also-they cannot differentiate the religion, differentiate between religion and culture. It’s a mix-up of things.

[sound of woman singing Pakistani music]

EHRLICH: While Islam is used as an excuse for the killings, there’s always another motive. Simi Kamal, Chief Executive of Rasta Development Consultants, has extensively surveyed women in rural Pakistan. Among wealthy landowning families, she says, women are considered commodities to be bartered. A father will arrange a daughter’s marriage, for example, in order to secure land from the groom’s family. If the daughter refuses the marriage, says Kamal, she could ruin her family’s fortune and be killed in the name of honor.

SIMI KAMAL: These honor killings are the most prevalent in those parts of societies where there are either big lands involved or a lot of power through tribal ties. And so women become part of the whole system of power and the exchange of power. I have not come across of a case of honor killing in a very poor family or in a family of a sharecropper. The poor family will not kill their daughter, for that reason. Honor killing is limited to certain classes of society. I think the more powerful people are within that system, the more likely are these things to happen.

EHRLICH: Kamal says she used to think that the number of honor killings would recede as the level of formal education improved, but attending university doesn’t seem to undercut the intense male chauvinism that leads to honor killings.

[sound of woman singing Pakistani music]

EHRLICH: One of the most outrageous cases in Pakistan took place precisely in such an educated and wealthy family. Samia Imran was a law student in Lahore, in northern Pakistan. Both her parents are university educated. Her father is a wealthy businessman and President of the Chamber of Commerce in the city of Peshawar, near the Afghan border. Women’s rights activist Uzma Noorani picks up the story.

UZMA NOORANI: She had been married for five or six years, I think, and to a cousin of hers. And she had problems right from the beginning with the husband. She had two children from that marriage. And finally when, like, you know, things got real bad and she came to her parents and the parents, you know, she was staying with, in her parents’ house. And this had been going, like she had been living with them for the past three or four years. But the parents would not allow her to divorce her husband. So then she came to Lahore, I think to study law. She joined a law college.

EHRLICH: Noorani says Samia hired two well-known women’s rights attorneys and filed for divorce. They all knew Samia was in danger.

UZMA NOORANI: They offered her shelter at the Institute in Lahore, and while she was there, when the parents learned about this they rushed back, and they immediately contacted the lawyers, and they wanted an appointment with the daughter to see their daughter. She refused. She said, “Look, I don’t want to see them because I know they’ll kill me.” She was afraid of that. She knew that, you know, what the result would be.

EHRLICH: Finally, Samia agreed to meet, but only with her mother. No men were to be present. But when her mother showed up at the office of attorney Hina Jelani, she was accompanied by a man.

UZMA NOORANI: As soon as they walked in he whipped out the gun and he fired, I think, three or four shots. Two of them hit Samia, and she died on the spot. And Hina just narrowly escaped and then they just rushed out and then there was, you know, a big drama. And they rushed out from there. Everybody saw them. I mean, there are so many witnesses to this whole thing, and yet when they went to lodge an FIR they were refused, the first information report. And that you have to do immediately at the police station. And it was after a lot of pressurizing that an FIR was registered.

EHRLICH: The triggerman was killed by a security guard, but the mother and an uncle escaped, kidnapping a legal assistant from the lawyer’s office as a hostage. Incredibly enough, the District Attorney dismissed charges against the mother, the father, and the uncle. They are a rich and powerful family. The authorities instead began to investigate Samia’s two attorneys, Asma Jahangir, and Hina Jelani, for conspiring in the death of their own client.

UZMA NOORANI: A very malicious campaign was started against Asmah and Hina for helping the daughter, you know. And the whole thing was reversed and instead of they being, the parents being the accused, they were the accused. They should have been prosecuted. It was Asmah and Hina who were being prosecuted by the, and persecuted by these mullahs and fundamentalist lobbies. And the whole-and the government just sat silently. I mean, that shows that they were supporting them.

EHRLICH: The lack of action by government agencies, and indeed their cooperation in covering up the murders, makes the situation an institutional problem. Jameel Yusaf heads the Citizens Police Liaison Committee, a government-sponsored watchdog agency. He says most police don’t treat women’s complaints seriously, part of a wider problem of lack of police accountability in Pakistan.

JAMEEL YUSAF: Even the men are scared in approaching police stations. So you can well imagine the trauma that a lady, if she gathers the guts and the grit to go into a police station to report it, she is going to go through hell even trying to convince the people that some crime has been committed against her. This is a very sad situation, but it is very much existent. And unfortunately we are not doing anything to change this.

[sound of woman singing Pakistani music]

EHRLICH: Last year women’s and human rights groups began a grassroots campaign to educate the public and strengthen laws against honor killings. Amnesty International held a series of successful press conferences and forums. Uzma Noorani explains.

UZMA NOORANI: It’s only because of women’s groups that this whole thing has come on the agenda. That people are talking about such cases now. Otherwise there were thousands of women being-who are still dying every year in Pakistan, and then, I mean, most of the cases are not even reported. And some of the cases which are reported also, they, there’s no justice that is provided to them. And that’s, our struggle is on, and it will take a long time because all these customary practices take time. We have to bring about awareness and we need the government to take strict measures, to be able to prevent these customs.

EHRLICH: But then in October 1999 the military overthrew the civilian government in Pakistan. Noorani says it was a setback for their campaign.

UZMA NOORANI: We don’t know how we can talk about these issues unless there is a political stability in the country. It’s difficult; it’s always a setback. I mean, I always feel very frustrated, because I feel it’s a setback to the women every time we take a step forward. And when there’s instability in the country, women’s issues are the ones that are put back on the shelves, you know, for a long time. Awareness-raising can continue, you know. That is a process that, you know. But lobbying and pressurizing is something that, with, you have to change your stand because here we are lobbying with the elected government-I mean so-called elected government-and now we don’t know who to lobby with. You see, that will take us a while to understand who we are going to be pressurizing now.

EHRLICH: While there is no elected parliament to lobby, the women’s groups have resumed holding forums in an effort to educate the public and pressure the military regime. Zhara Fatima, of the Women’s Foundation, notes that, while honor killings in Pakistan are horrible crimes, they are but one example of the mistreatment of women common in many countries.

ZHARA FATIMA: Violence against women is not an issue of only Pakistani society. It is an issue of the whole world. Every society, you can say that developed countries, underdeveloped countries, all are suffering from this disease. I said that this disease. If we have an honor killing here, so America has a rape cases, a lot. And wife battering. So, all over the world women are suffering. We have to raise this issue.

[sound of police radio call]

EHRLICH: Back at the police station, Anjum Asaf, whose sister was murdered by her brother, has joined the grassroots efforts against honor killings. Police have arrested her brother and he’s awaiting trial. She says the handling of her sister’s murder will be one indication of how the new regime plans to address the tragedy of honor killings.

ANJUM ASAF: [via a translator] I think women should get the same protection as men. They should have the same rights. Men should not assert their authority over women. This is in our Muslim religion. Women should be given equal rights in our society.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich in Karachi, Pakistan.

[sound of woman singing Pakistani music]

MCHUGH: Uruguay’s domestic violence troubles, next on Common Ground.

MCHUGH: Uruguay has three million people but studies show that nearly half of the women there have experienced domestic violence. For years government authorities of this South American country ignored the issue. But now under pressure from women’s rights groups, Uruguay is taking some steps to address the problem. Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports.

[sounds of a ringing phone, answered by a woman speaking in Spanish]

EHRLICH: Casa de la Mahem??, or “The Woman’s Home,” is one of the few places in Montevideo where abused women can come for help. Anna, who asked that her last name not be used, says her husband had been assaulting her for years. He’s a college-educated businessman.

ANNA: [via a translator] Over many years he subjected many to physical and psychological violence. He would abuse me verbally by telling me I was nothing, that I couldn’t do anything in the world. He continually put me down in front of our children. He was the boss of everything. He resented when I wanted to work and have my own money. In time, he opened a business selling agricultural products. The physical violence began in 1993. I didn’t report him at first. I thought it was our economic situation and when that got better he would change.

EHRLICH: When Anna finally sought help at The Woman’s Home, counselors encouraged her to file a police report as a means of documenting the abuse.

ANNA: [via a translator] I didn’t understand anything about domestic violence. If my husband was violent with a group of men there would be a complaint filed with the police. Now I understand that if a man is violent with his wife it’s important to file a complaint. Otherwise he won’t change.

EHRLICH: Despite her filing a complaint, however, the beatings continued. Eventually Anna forced her husband to leave, and today she lives on her own. A 1997 study showed that an estimated 46 percent of Uruguayan women experienced physical or psychological violence, with 23% of all women reporting severe abuse. According to a recent Public Health Ministry report, if current trends continue domestic violence will become the country’s number two public health problem by the year 2004. Fanny Samuneski, a psychologist with the group Woman Now, says the causes of domestic violence are a complicated mix of economic, social, and psychological factors. Uruguay is undergoing a deep economic recession, which contributes to the problem, says Samuneski.

fanny Samuneski: [via a translator] Yes, unemployment and poverty worsen conditions of life. It’s one cause of domestic violence. Alcoholism is another. But something lies underneath these factors. Yes, men are economically frustrated, but not all frustrated people become violent. Some people become very sad but don’t destroy. Domestic violence happens only when one person resorts to violence and the other can’t stop it. It’s a situation of inequality and lack of power.

EHRLICH: Rates of spousal abuse in Uruguay are particularly high compared to other countries. But that may be because Uruguayan social scientists have done a better job of surveying women. Samuneski says the underlying causes of domestic violence are no different in Uruguay than elsewhere in the Western world.

Samuneski: [via a translator] All Western men have a conception of being macho, of what is masculinity and femininity. I don’t know Eastern societies, but for Western societies the situation is very similar. I include European men. I studied in France and the situation was exactly the same.

EHRLICH: The problem, says Samuneski, is that long after other countries began to combat spousal abuse the Uruguayan government did very little. For example, Uruguay still has a penal code provision that allows charges to be dropped against a rapist of a woman under 18 if she agrees to marry him. While the law is not currently applied, Samuneski says it reflects Uruguay’s historic attitudes towards women.

Samuneski: [via a translator] Uruguay’s civil law is a translation of the Napoleonic Code, which was adopted from Spain. The law holds that the rape of a woman is an attack on the family’s honor and on the honor of the male heads of that family, much more than a violation of the woman’s rights. So the law included the possibility that if the raped woman married the rapist it erased the offense against the family and charges would be dropped.

[A radio announcer speaks in Spanish]

EHRLICH: Every weekday Elena Fonseca hosts a woman’s news and interview program on a popular AM radio station. The show is called “Never On Sunday.”

[The song Never On Sunday plays, followed by a another radio announcer, followed by an English-language rock song with the lyrics, “Today is a winding road”]

EHRLICH: Fonseca and the group of women media activists who run the show often discuss issues of domestic violence. Fonseca says they reach a working-class audience that doesn’t often discuss the issue.

elena Fonseca: Our audience is a popular one. They are half and half, men and women, who hear us, and we are very glad with that kind. Because, I mean, this was a choice we made, not to be in a more elitist radio, where everybody knows what you are talking about. In this place, in this radio, I, we know that are people who have never heard about what we talk.

EHRLICH: Fonseca says for many years the courts and police have simply ignored domestic violence, saying problems of spousal abuse should be resolved at home. She remembers one woman who was violently abused by her husband and who reported him to the police 17 times. Fonseca describes the reaction of the policeman.

Fonseca: He said, time after time, ‘Oh, lady, you go back home. He was drunk and it will pass, and he’s a good man, and he will, everything will be OK.’ And she said to me, ‘I’m ashamed to go the 18th time. I’m ashamed to go because it’s like as if I was the fool.’

EHRLICH: Women’s organizations have tried to fill in for the lack of governmental action by providing shelters, legal aid, and counseling services for abused women. But the shelters hold only about 50 women for a city of 1.5 million people, says women’s rights leader Dr. Christina Grela.

DR. CHRISTINA GRELA: [via a translator] The government must take charge of its own problem. Nonprofit groups don’t have the resources to provide the needed care. We are all in agreement that the government must address all aspects of domestic violence-prevention, action, and resolution of the problems.

EHRLICH: Over the past few years women’s groups have been able to apply some pressure to the Uruguayan government. Women’s rights activist Fanny Samuneski says they were encouraged by the Year of the Woman conference in Beijing and subsequent international gatherings.

Samuneski: [via a translator] Those conferences have been very helpful because they helped us organize and define specific objectives. We looked at how to apply the questions of the Beijing conference to Uruguay’s situation. We were able to prioritize issues. The conference helped us make domestic violence one of the major issues for Uruguay.

EHRLICH: There are some signs that the government is starting to look more seriously at the problem. The Interior Ministry, in coordination with women’s rights groups, has drafted a new domestic violence law that streamlines procedures for getting court injunctions against abusive men, calls for counseling abusive partners, and allows for stiffer penalties for abusers. Interior Ministry official and Police Inspector Graciela Lopez, who drafted the new law, says it stresses prevention and rehabilitation.

GRACIELA LOPEZ: Judges, prosecutors, teachers, psychologists, police-everybody together given a special focus in prevention and early detection of the problem. Violence is a cultural problem. It sees the possibility to change if you want to change.

EHRLICH: In contrast to the law-and-order approach sometimes advocated in the US, both high-level police officials and women’s rights activists stress education and the need for societal pressure to curb the problem. Fanny Samuneski.

Samuneski: [via a translator] Domestic violence won’t be solved only by tougher penalties. In Uruguay only 5 to 10 percent of domestic violence cases are reported to the police. Of those 5 to 10 percent, only a small fraction get into the judicial system. It’s much more important for the emergency agencies to deal with this problem. There needs to be changes in civil law to protect women and by making it easier to get injunctions. In criminal law we need to rehabilitate the perpetrators. Putting more men in jail won’t solve anything. But if a man won’t stop hitting his wife then he needs to go to jail. But preventative procedures are much more important.

[sound of a marching band]

EHRLICH: On a blustery, windswept day a marching band strides in front of the parliament building, where the proposed anti-domestic violence law is being considered. The law has stirred controversy because it applies to all domestic partners, gay or straight, married or unmarried. Graciela Dufau is a woman’s rights attorney who favors the law.

Graciela Dufau: [via a translator] There is a resistance in this country to understanding the new phenomenon, the new families. There is a formation of new extended families such as homosexual families. There’s a big resistance, a very large conservative sentiment against it. We think this is a violation of democracy and the right to determine one’s own life.

EHRLICH: Glenda Rondan, a member of Uruguay’s lower house, says the legislature will overcome objections by conservative lawmakers, in part because women legislators from all the major parties have united to support the bill. But even if the bill passes, women’s rights activists say Uruguayan society needs to change its attitudes. Radio host Elena Fonseca says she’s beginning to see some of that already.

Fonseca: We have a say that is, “no te me das.” That means, don’t go into a problem that doesn’t belong to you; it’s your neighbor’s problem. And we are starting to lose this behavior. I think now there’s a sort of a consciousness, that is this one, yes it’s increasing, about people to intervene, to say something, to kick the wall, or to do something if you have a neighbor man that are fighting, and you know that she is crying and she is in defense. And then if you do something, you call by phone. Anything that helps.

EHRLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich, in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security

Related Links: