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Killing for Honor: How Reputation Became Life and Death Currency in Pakistan

VICE News traveled to a remote part of Pakistan to investigate the murder of a group of youngsters for singing and dancing, and find out how a brutal honor culture was originally about survival.
Dos de las de Kohistán asesinadas tras cantar y aplaudir mientras dos hombres bailaban. Imagen vía VICE News

Saad Zuberi was part of the VICE News team who travelled to Kohistan, a mountainous region in northern Pakistan, to produce The Kohistan Story: Killing for Honor, a film published on Monday. Here, he reflects on his experience and the deadly social mores that kill around 1,000 people in Pakistan each year.

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As a man, travelling through Pakistan on assignments has never posed much of a problem for me. I've filmed in some of the most conservative and backward nooks of the country, often getting people to open up and share some of the most intimate details of their lives as they sit me down for just one more cup of tea. The tea of course, is made with much hospitality by the seemingly invisible women of the house, safely hidden behind closed doors lest I, an outsider, should lay an eye on them and bring their honor into question.


I remember once meeting a Pashtun — an ethnic group from southern Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan — who told me: "A good man is never afraid of battle and conflict, but he is very afraid for his sister's and daughter's honor." And although the people of Kohistan are ethnographically different from Pashtuns, this kind of severity in ideals, especially concerning women, is strikingly similar. In both cultures, any interaction between strange men and women is deemed downright disgraceful.

Killing for Honor was filmed three years after a scandal that led to the alleged honor killing of eight men and women in a remote mountainous village in Kohistan, in the traditional province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. A cellphone video had emerged showing a group of women singing and clapping as two men danced — behavior deemed worthy of a death warrant for them and the relatives.

Watch the VICE News documentary: The Kohistan Story: Killing for Honor:

While doing this story, the producer in me wanted to walk up to every woman I saw on the streets — of which there were very few, mind you — and ask them if things were really as bad for them as the stories of human rights abuses in the region suggest.

But the words of the man I'd met many years ago buzzed in my head. The forceful segregation stopped bothering me a while ago when I realized I'm culturally out of line to expect conservative Pakistani women to openly sit and talk with me, even under the watchful presence of their husbands and fathers. Still, I have to admit that it remains one of the more frustrating aspects of the job — even more so while working on a story about women and their mistreatment in tribal areas.


My personal feelings aside, the circumstances surrounding the case we were following raised some important questions about so-called honor, the culture that breeds it and how important it is to the people who are readily willing to kill their own family members to protect it.

Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success includes a chapter on the "culture of honor" among Scots-Irish who migrated to America, specifically to the Appalachian Mountains. Its analysis can be applied to Kohistan for a nuanced understanding of the region's complex history and culture.

As Gladwell sees it, honor cultures arose in harsh lands among herding peoples as a method of protecting property in the absence of any institutional law enforcement. and have persisted for centuries, with violence in the name of honor becoming a part of the mindset in most patriarchal societies.

Nowak, Gelfand and Borkowski's paper The Evolutionary Basis of Honour Cultures furthers argues the case, using empirical data, that honor cultures develop as a crucial survival strategy in areas with tough environmental conditions, scarce resources and weak institutions.

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The Kohistanis are a tribal people that live in mountains where demarcation of land and property is difficult, putting it at constant risk of being stolen. There is very little government presence, the region has the lowest Human Development Index of all the districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and the literacy rate is less than 12 percent.


With no easy recourse to law enforcement or government, Kohistanis invest more faith in the culture of honor than the culture of law. Inspiring fear and cultivating a reputation for harsh and swift revenge on anyone who transgresses or threatens them increases their security and protects their property.

In most societies, a person defines themselves by what they are in the eyes of their peers. "Honor" may be defined as the currency of this regard. A person who conducts themselves in accordance with the moral standards that are highly coveted by their peers is a honorable person in Kohistan; people learn they must the property and social boundaries of others in order to be accepted and protected.

Since many tribes are essentially huge family lineage oriented groups, important social decisions are also often made authoritatively by male elders, who form jirgas or tribal councils. Respecting the elders' decisions, no matter how unjust or harsh, is required to maintain honor.

At the same time, Kohistan unfortunately is also a highly patriarchal society, so the concept of "property" in these cases goes beyond home, land and physical goods to extends to "their women" as well —making the base philosophy behind the culture of honor decidedly misogynistic. A "honorable" Kohistani must always take care not to needlessly interact with a member of the opposite sex from someone else's family or tribe, in order to avoid violating their social space, and thus honor.


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Because of this vesting of such a socially crucial male interest in women's bodies, men accord themselves complete authority and control over their female family members in order to protect that interest. In Kohistan, just like many other communities still struggling to give their women the place in society they deserve, the concept of honour is a deep-rooted traditional notion modulated by a gender construct according to which women don't just represent, but are a symbolic vessel of, the honor of their family. The men in the family are then considered the protectors of this honor.

Should a girl in the household one day get up and exercise her independence by falling in love, having an affair, denying a forced marriage or, as in the case we examined for our film, simply singing and clapping in the company of men, she disturbs this order, and the men responsible for controlling her can't help but feel threatened. The consequences can be dire for the transgressing women who are then subjected to torture and violence by their own brothers, fathers, and husbands.

Women are not the only victims of honor crimes, however. In at least 30 percent of reported cases in Pakistan, the men, in addition to the women who transgress are subjected to harsh punishment from the society, in order to make an example out of them for future offenders — and that's the price the three innocent brothers of the men who danced in the video had to pay.


The majority of Kohistani tribespeople see this system of "honor" as the most coveted tradition of their society, because it is essentially the very glue,which holds it together and protects it from changing. Once your honor is lost, it's akin to having lost your position and security in society. And that's why hundreds of men and women are murdered each year in its name.

Honor and honor killings are a complicated issue that cut deep into the history of many cultures, irrespective of religion. The practices and codes of these tribal societies are extremely old and entrenched, and in some cases even predate the advent of Islam in the region.

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Islam plays an important role in tribal cultures of this region, which is probably why honor killing is often seen as an "Islamic" practice. Scholars and local people alike, however, seem to derive the concept of honor outside of the sphere of Islam. During the filming of our documentary, even Molvi Mohammad Jawaid, the cleric accused of ordering the murders, denied that there was anything Islamic about honor killing, going out of his way to insist that such an act was neither condoned nor allowed in any of the Abrahamic religions.

Kohistani villages are made up of several familial lineages, each of which has representation on the jirga. For most Kohistanis these tribal councils are the first, and often final, authoritative decision-makers. The government is perceived for multiple reasons as having limited authority in these "frontier" areas, and therefore the federal court system is almost entirely neglected in favour of tribal council arbitration.


In an isolated and conservative society that values its own laws of honor and arbitration above federal laws, Afzal Kohistani, the brother of two of the men killed in the case our film focuses on, has vowed to avenge these deaths legally rather than traditionally. This course that he has chosen is a deplorable offence to many of his people.

The fact that Pakistan's justice system is an erratic mix of cultural, religious, and Western models doesn't help the situation. Under Pakistan's Shariah Law introduced in the late 1970s, the Islamic concept of forgiveness and retribution was introduced.

According to this, a victim (of attempted murder) or their family (if the victim is dead) can accept monetary compensation from the perpetrator in return for forgiveness, or they can decide upon a particular form of retribution. A convicted murderer can then go free and unpunished by the courts because of the settlement. These ordinances place the choice of prosecution wholly in the hands of the victim's family rather than the government, letting go of the idea of premeditated murder as a "crime against the state".

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This presents a major legal obstacle to effective redress of honor crimes in an already lawless region. Additionally, because honor killings are often perpetrated by family members, the "next of kin" who forgive the murderers are often themselves accomplices to the crime. A father who murders his daughter may be forgiven for this crime by her mother, who is his wife.

Ten years ago, Pakistan's then-President Pervez Musharraf signed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2004 into law, stiffening punishments for honor killings and adding the death penalty as the maximum punishment in extreme cases. It was the first piece of legislation passed that officially acknowledged honor killings in Pakistan. However, the bill failed to do anything about the big loopholes like the forgiveness and retribution laws, meaning perpetrators could still escape punishment if they had the finances.

Many activists have since lobbied the legislators for more effective protection of honor crime victims, and last year an Anti-Honor Killing Bill was passed by Pakistan's Senate. But it has yet to pass into law.

Moreover, as we learned making our film, the roots of the honor culture are so deeply embedded that saving its victims would require much more than legislative change. As long as reputation is a currency that can imperil or ensure your survival, and women's bodies are where that currency is supposedly stored, thousands of Pakistani men and women will continue to die in the name of so-called honor.

Follow Saad Zuberi on Twitter: @saadmzuberi

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