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Why Are Pakistani Women Being Burned To Death?

A local resident shows the place where Zeenat Rafiq was allegedly burnt alive by her mother in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on June 8.
A local resident shows the place where Zeenat Rafiq was allegedly burnt alive by her mother in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on June 8.

Zeenat Rafiq, Maria Sadaqat, and Ambreen Riasat didn’t know one another. They had committed no crimes, but the women all met a similar, horrific fate in Pakistan.

They were all burned to death for allegedly violating their family or community’s honor by refusing to marry or marrying their love. None was older than 20. And all were murdered since late April.

The youngest among them, Riasat, 16, was reportedly accused of helping a couple elope from their village in northwestern Pakistan.

Their ordeal has grabbed national and international attention in Pakistan, where more than 1,000 people, mostly women, are estimated to have been killed in the name of honor last year.

Lawmakers and activists are alarmed by the burning incidents and have called on the government to act swiftly.

Senator Sherry Rehman, a former journalist and diplomat, called on Islamabad to pass a set of long-awaited legal reforms to curb violence committed in the name of honor.

"What is the reason for the delay? Three girls have been burnt to death -- this is a scary new trend,” she said, adding that those who would kill in the name of honor have increasing impunity.

“They can see that despite public anger, the hallowed halls of power are turning a blind eye," Rehman said. “It's not as though the law will put an end to it, but the state must put its full force into addressing the issue."

Many Islamist parties in Pakistan have opposed reforms such as a progressive law that granted women greater rights and protection in eastern Punjab Province in February. Instead, they have advocated alternative legal frameworks that have even called for allowing light beating of wives.

Some Pakistani lawmakers want honor killings not to be dealt with under the Qisas and Diyat laws. This allows killings in retribution or allows the heirs of a victim to pardon a convicted murderer in exchange for blood money or without any monetary transaction.

Invoking this law in April, Inayat Khan, the father of 16-year-old Sumaira reportedly pardoned his son Hayat Khan days after he killed his sister in an impoverished neighborhood of the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.

Hayat had even surrendered to police after killing Sumaira on their street for allegedly talking to someone on their doorstep.

Tahir Wasti, an Islamic law scholar at Middlesex University in London, says murder rates have soared more than 100 percent after the Qisas and Diyat laws were introduced in the 1990s.

He told the BBC’s Urdu service that these laws make it very easy for the Wali or heir of a victim to pardon his or her murderer.

“In the case of murders in the name of honor, the Wali (eds: legal guardian of a victim) and the murderer often have emotional or blood ties that make it easier and which often result in pardoning the murderer, and the whole affair ends swiftly,” he said.

Wasti says the law has turned murder into a private matter and thus it is not dealt with as a public issue or a crime against the state.

“We need to change the thinking. Such murders are not private matters,” he said.

With reporting by AFP