The circumstance, in and of itself, is awful without taking a few things into consideration. One, this is an act referred to as an “honor killing”. Two, it is not uncommon in the region where this same young woman was executed. In fact, in Pakistan alone there are over 1,000 honor killings each year, though some estimates are as high as 3-4,000. Three, this is a very common practice in fundamentalist Islamic circles. And four, it is a ritual carried out to ensure that those left alive have a place in paradise in the afterlife.
Honor killings are done when shame has been brought onto a family. Human Rights Watch defines it as
acts of vengeance, usually death, committed by male family members against female family members, who are held to have brought dishonor upon the family. A woman can be targeted by (individuals within) her family for a variety of reasons, including: refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, being the victim of a sexual assault, seeking a divorce—even from an abusive husband—or (allegedly) committing adultery. The mere perception that a woman has behaved in a way that “dishonors” her family is sufficient to trigger an attack on her life.
And therein lies the most crucial point; it is predominantly an act of the men in the family against the women. Or against women in general. In a culture that still practices the antiquated ritual of arranged marriage, where a bride price is paid, women are typically seen as being at fault for seeking a divorce. So the shame is brought on by the women, not the husbands who likely put their wives in a circumstance where they may feel it necessary to seek one. Even when women are raped because they are “damaged goods” and virginity is a necessity of the marriage arrangement, she risks being murdered to restore honor to her family. And though men may be victims of honor killings, more so when charged with homosexuality, it is an act almost unanimously carried out against women.A larger issue in this is the laws of the country where these happen. In France, the Napoleonic Code of 1810 permitted men to murder unfaithful wives but did not permit women to murder their unfaithful husbands. Penal code 324 was copied by Middle Eastern Arab countries. And while the law was abolished in France in the 1970’s, other Arab countries enacted laws similar to it. Pakistan is supposed to treat honor killings as murders, but they have historically been ignored, underreported, or are supported by the individual law enforcement officials who are supposed to uphold the law.
So what drives the practice? What continues its success in the Middle East, and especially in Islamic circles? Fear of the afterlife. In a culture where women are honored for their submissiveness, as wives and mothers, and those expectations are shared by their community, and specifically their families, breaking outside of that cultural norm of Islamic law leads to dishonor. And if there is dishonor on one, dishonor is brought to the family. That means their expectations for the afterlife, specifically one of punishment and suffering, is shared by the family. Ultimately, what one person does that causes dishonor is viewed as an infection that spreads to, and affects, the entire community. So even if it is not the individual’s acts that bring punishment in the afterlife, others will carry out dishonorable acts due to the first, and it is believed to have the ability to infect others who will end up with punishment for eternity. And this is all thanks to irrational belief in the afterlife, thanks to religion.
Were it not for Islam, for religion, the estimates of 1,000-4,000 lives could be saved in Pakistan alone. Were it not for the acceptance, the tolerance of belief, women would not have acid thrown in their faces, LGBT individuals would not be thrown from buildings, mobs wouldn’t mutilate and burn people often accused with no evidence. All being said, is the unfounded comfort of believing we will end up in paradise after our expiration worth the death of thousands of other people?
For more on this subject, check out After Life: Solving Science and Religion’s Great Disagreement available today from Ockham Publishing.