After social media star Qandeel Baloch was murdered by her own brother earlier this week, feminist protests erupted across the country. The case has galvanized international attention on the plight of women across Pakistan, a country ranked in the 2015 Global Gender Gap Report as the second lowest in the world in terms of gender equality.
Baloch polarized Pakistani society; condemned as anti-Islamic and celebrated as a feminist icon in equal measure. Hours before she was murdered Baloch posted a message to her 800,000 Facebook followers saying she wished to "inspire" women who are "treated badly and dominated by society." Now, in death, it appears that Baloch may create the legacy she so sought.
Speaking to Reuters, Pakistan's Prime Minister's daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif—who has been leading the administration's efforts on women's rights—said that they would pass the long-awaited honor crimes bill within weeks. The anti-honor crimes legislation was first put before the Pakistani parliament in 2014, but the government failed to implement the bill despite prolonged campaigning from women's rights groups.
"We have finalized the draft law in the light of negotiations," Sharif said. "The final draft will be presented to a committee of joint session of parliament on July 21 for consideration and approval." It is expected to pass into law, with Reuters reporting that Jammat-e-Islami, the largest religious political party in the Pakistani parliament, would not obstruct the bill. On the very same day as Sharif's comments, a judicial fact-finding panel found evidence that police helped to cover up the murder of an Islamabad schoolteacher, burned alive in revenge for refusing a marriage proposal.
The new law would end impunity for those who commit honor crimes. Pakistani law currently enables the relatives of the deceased to pardon a killer—a practice that has its roots in Islamic ideas of forgiveness. As honor killings are commonly carried out within families, this means in effect that the murderers can evade justice. While it is difficult to obtain reliable figures (as the crimes are often never reported), the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan say that nearly 1,100 women died as a result of honor-based violence in 2015.
Baloch's high profile internationally—she was called "Pakistan's Kim Kardashian"—has proved a powerful catalyst for change. Shortly after her death on July 15, authorities registered her murder as a crime against the state, meaning that her relatives could not pardon her brother for killing her.
Omar Waraich, a Pakistan expert at Amnesty International, is confident that the anti-honor crimes legislation will finally be passed. "The Qandeel Baloch murder has reignited the urgency to deal with the issue of honor-based violence, and end impunity for honor crimes in Pakistan."
Waraich explains that though there is broad support for ending honor crimes within most sections of Pakistani society, some opposition remains from among the religious right. Honor crimes are actually on the rise, from 869 cases in 2013 to over a thousand last year. "These crimes are more prevalent than have previously been understood," he says, highlighting how Qandeel Baloch lived in a city and was independently wealthy. "What we're seeing is that honor-based violence isn't confined to remote rural areas, but takes place in cities and affects women from a broad range of socio-economic backgrounds."
Waraich explains the law could be passed within a matter of weeks as the political parties that support the bill constitute a majority in the Pakistani parliament. "Whether that triggers a backlash from the religious right will have to be seen," he adds. "I suspect it probably will."
For some, a new law can't come soon enough. But others doubt the progressive credentials of the bill. "By treating 'honor killing' as a special case in itself, it gives the notion legitimacy," argues Madiha Tahir, a women's rights activist based in Pakistan. "It allows the government to determine what are crimes of 'honor' based on the narrow definitions it already has in its law."
She explains that honor-based crimes are rarely just about honor. "They are often tied into economic reasons, social reasons, and other material issues that intersect with misogyny," she argues.
Waraich agrees that the law can only go so far. "We also need to challenge the mindset that sanctions this kind of behaviour. There's a disturbing level of tolerance for honor crimes in Pakistan that needs to be confronted and challenged.
"Only then can women make choices about their lives with the guarantee that their liberty, dignity and personal safety will be protected."