Recently I watched HBO’s premiere of the Oscar-winning documentary A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness about honor killings in Pakistan.
Being born in India and having extremely controlling parents, I have seen a lot. Most attitudes I have encountered in my life are far from progressive. They demand women not leave the house, not have friends or not to be social in any way. Otherwise, you are punished and subjected to the worse kind of emotional assault and physical pain “I gave you life, I can take it away as well,” is a threat I am very familiar with. These same threats I heard last night on the movie. The main character Saba’s father proudly proclaimed them when she married against his will. Then in an outrage, he and an uncle shot Saba and threw her in the river leaving her to die there alone. But she survived.
I left India 15 years ago, and I wish more had changed than has. Although Saba’s case happened in Pakistan, make no mistake that events like this transpire in other parts of the world. They have for decades and will continue to happen every day in the life of innocent women and girls whose only crime is to have a male friend.
In the Name of Honor
I was 13 or maybe 14 and had a boyfriend – my first love, the love of my life. We met seldom so this particular evening I was very excited to see him. We were walking on the street – not holding hands, not in any physical proximity – only walking and talking like two friends would.
Suddenly, I looked sideways and saw my father’s car racing towards me at full speed. I froze not knowing what to do. My father knocked me over with his white Maruti van. I lay on the street with my knee badly bruised and bleeding while he got out of the car and started beating my boyfriend. Luckily, I wasn’t seriously hurt but he almost went to the same extent Saba’s father did.
Why did he do that? Well, he was trying to protect his honor. It was not acceptable to him that I talked to a male friend in the presence of “society”. What would they think of him, letting him run his women loose like that? Mind you, the entire incident, for him, had nothing to do with what he did to me and how he hurt me but how I went against his will and hurt his feelings. That day, I stopped believing that my father could protect me. I lost all faith in him and his love for me. And of course, I never got over it. I don’t think I ever will.
My crime was talking to someone who did not belong to my gender and could have the propensity to take away my father’s “honor.” And for my father, protecting his honor came above everything else. Even above that daughter he claims, even today, to love more than anyone else.
Saba’s story made me want to bawl as I saw my own experiences and those of thousands of others who are yet to come face to face with their fathers’ wrath. Our society is a dim, hopeless place that not only denies women basic freedom, including to roam safely in public spaces, but also honors those fathers who commit such horrendous acts against their daughters. No one speaks a word, no one stands with us. We are left with our trauma to deal with the ugly scars these “parents” throw on us, and to hear that we do not deserve to be loved because we did not abide by their rules.
Saba was forced to forgive those who almost killed her. She did not want to but she had to. Why? Because our society does not give women rights to make up their own mind either. She is the only one who knows what she went through in that river and how she made it out and sought help. Yet, no one asked her what she wanted to do. They all wanted sulah(reconciliation) and for Saba to realize that her father is the sole bread winner.
What’s Honor Killing?
For those who are unfamiliar with it, honor killings are acts of vengeance, usually murder, committed by male members against female members who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. According to the International Honor Based Violence Research Center, 5,000 honor killings take place throughout the world, with 1,000 each occurring in India and Pakistan alone.
This happens because we believe women are men’s property and daughters have to abide by every rule in the codebook. If not, they are tarnishing the family’s honor and deserve to die.
Our attitude that women are objects, not humans, is wretched. We kill them if they do not listen to us, pour acid on their bodies if they reject us, harass them on the streets if they pass us and then blame them if they complain or fight against us.
That night, after watching Saba I felt hopeless – the fight to changing minds and outlooks is so long; some days it makes me not want to get out of bed. But despite the harrowing battle that lies ahead, the future of our daughters depends on it. I hope Saba has a daughter as she wishes and I hope that little girl can fight her way through building a beautiful life and living the way she wants to – the same wish I have for my little girl.