Parveen Rafiq screamed from her rooftop, “I have killed my daughter. I have saved my honour. She will never shame me again.”
In the room below lay the charred body of 18-year-old Zeenat. Neighbours in the narrow alley who saw the smoke and heard screams rushed to Rafiq’s home, but the door was bolted from within. Zeenat was dead. Her mother had choked her, and while the girl was still alive she doused with kerosene and set her on fire.
Zeenat’s crime was to marry a childhood friend she loved, defying her widowed mother’s pressure for an arranged marriage and, in the mind of her mother and many of her neighbours, tarnishing her family’s honour.
Her death on June 8 was the latest in a series of increasingly gruesome “honour” killings in Pakistan, which has one of the highest rates of such killings in the world.
In one case, a mother slit the throat of her pregnant daughter who had married a man she loved. In the city of Abbottabad, a teenage girl who helped a friend elope was tortured, injected with poison and then strapped to the seat of a vehicle and set on fire. A jirga, or council of local elders, ordered her killing as a message to others.
The brutality and rapid succession of killings horrified many Pakistanis. The numbers of such killings have been climbing. Last year, 1,096 women and 88 men were killed in “honour” crimes in Pakistan, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. In 2014, the number was 1,005 women, including 82 children, up from 869 women a year earlier. The true numbers are believed to be higher, with many cases going unreported, activists say.
Some human rights and women’s rights activists believe the rise in numbers and brutality reflects an older generation digging in against creeping change.
Over the years, more women have been going to school and working outside the home, and social media have helped women raise their voices. More than 70% of Pakistan’s 180 million people are under 30, and some are challenging traditions to an unprecedented degree.
“The old order of misogyny and extremism is falling apart, is really crumbling,” says Marvi Sermid, a women’s rights activist.
Centuries of tradition in Pakistan tie the idea of a woman as an untouched commodity to a family’s honour. Traditions have been further strengthened by governments that often curried the support of religious hard-liners with legislation enshrining the old ways.
Those who kill for “honour” are almost never punished in Pakistan. A law based on Islamic Shariah allows the family of a victim to forgive a killer, and in these cases the killers are almost always family. So other relatives give their forgiveness, unwilling to see loved ones jailed.
Still, outrage over recent killings and other violence against women has fuelled an outcry against the establishment. One target has been the Council of Islamic Ideology, a body of conservative Muslim clerics that advises the government to ensure laws don’t stray from Shariah.
When the government proposed a law aimed at protecting women against violence, the council in May put forward an alternative allowing men to “lightly beat” their wives.
Young people replied with a Twitter campaign with the mocking hashtag #TryBeatingMeLightly. On TV talk shows, guests denounced the council as misogynist and out of touch. Some lawmakers called for it to be disbanded.
The outcry appears to be having an effect. The council in June decreed that honour killings are un-Islamic.
Meanwhile, police and prosecutors have found a way around the forgiveness loophole. Rafiq and one of her sons suspected of helping in Zeenat’s killing have been detained and face charges under the anti-terrorism law, which defines any act that causes general panic as terrorism.
Zeenat’s death underscores the social traditions that underpin “honour” crimes.
For months, neighbours said, her mother complained about her two elder daughters, who married men of their own choice.
Zeenat was Rafiq’s last chance to save her honour. She planned an arranged marriage for Zeenat with a member of their own social caste, the Rajput, which is said to be descended from kings.
But Zeenat had her heart set on a childhood friend, a 20-year-old motorcycle mechanic named Hassan Khan who lived nearby in their crowded Lahore shantytown.
“We were in love,” Khan said, his voice barely a whisper.
He showed a collection of selfies on his phone that Zeenat had put together to the rhythm of their favorite song, an Urdu pop tune called “You Made Me Your Lover.” As the music played, Zeenat in the photos struck different poses, always smiling, her black hair falling past her shoulders.
She loved taking selfies, music and poetry, he said. She had memorised the Quran and taught it to local children.
Zeenat and her mother fought about Khan, and Zeenat told him her mother beat her. Khan said Zeenat pleaded with him to marry her.
In May, they finally did, marrying at a courthouse. Zeenat moved into Khan’s home.
A few days later, Zeenat’s mother and uncle came, begging her to come home, just for a few days. They said they would arrange a proper wedding for her and Khan, which would save their honor by showing neighbors she didn’t elope. Zeenat’s uncle promised she would be safe.
Khan’s elders eventually agreed that Zeenat would go with her mother.
At first, it seemed Zeenat’s mother had accepted their marriage, Khan said.
But on the fourth day, Zeenat called him, afraid. Her mother was yelling at her threateningly.
“I told her to not worry. It was just two more days and she would be back home with me.”
The next morning, she was dead.
Neighbor women outside Rafiq’s home all agreed that the mother was driven to kill Zeenat, and she should go free.
“Daughters are duty-bound to maintain the honor of the family,” said Muneeba Bibi. “It’s better to have no children than to have a daughter who brings you shame.”
Zeenat’s killing was “a good lesson for all the girls here to protect the family honor,” she said.
The little girls playing in the alleys all knew Zeenat was killed by her mother. But they weren’t sure why. All they knew was she had done something very bad.
“She was strangled and then they burned her,” said 11-year-old Sameera. “When I think about it I get scared.”
In the home he briefly shared with Zeenat, Khan showed a poem she had written on a tissue paper.
“I love you. I kiss you
I love you. I miss you
I take your name with every breath
I see you in every dream
I want to see you all the time”
Khan refolded the fragile tissue and returned it to his wallet.
“I want her hanged,” he said of Zeenat’s mother. “She has to be punished. This is the only way this will stop.”