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Women and girls are killed each year by members of their own family, often their fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands and cousins – and sometimes mothers and other female relatives. So-called ‘honour killings’ are usually premeditated murders intended to restore a family’s social position by ‘cleansing the shame’ which a woman or girl is said to have brought to her family, by erasing her very existence. Tora is a term used to refer to girls or women who are blamed for adultery. It’s applied to men as well (as tor) and in Pashtun families, the punishment is death.
I live in a rural area. One day I was sat beside the stove preparing lunch. A beggar came and asked for something. I was making chapatti bread so I gave some to her. Then she asked if I had an old school uniform she could pass on to her daughter. I offered her my daughter’s uniform but she refused it. My own daughter had studied at a private school and the beggar needed a uniform for the government school.
I told her that I would buy the new uniform for her. She explained, ‘I am a poor widow and my family doesn’t want my younger daughter to go to school so I don’t want my family to know.’ She wept when she thought that she could tell her daughter she could go to school. I asked her about her elder daughter.
She said, ‘My elder daughter, Chand Bibi was married to her cousin Ibrahim. I didn’t want her to marry him because he was an irritable boy. But I had no power in the family, and I was suffering from depression, so I ended up agreeing to the marriage. The early days of the marriage went well, but Ibrahim’s attitude and behaviour were always unreasonable. He quarrelled with everyone, constantly. He was always enraged. He started venting all of his rage on Chand Bibi. He beat her every time he came home. Chand Bibi became sick of her life. When Ibrahim came home she was always frightened. She tried to hide from him. She would sit in the corner of the room as she was beaten. She couldn’t leave until he had worn himself out. Afterwards she had to do her housework, despite the pain.
Several months of abuse passed but his attitude was unchanged. He had been quarrelling with a neighbour called Ali for several weeks. Whenever Ibrahim came home he plotted how to defeat Ali. One day he came up with an idea. To achieve his aim, he started treating his wife well. He acted gently towards her. He carefully played his role in order to gain her trust. And one day, as she was preparing lunch, he called out to her: ‘Chand Bibi, I would like some cucumber, green onions and radishes with my lunch. Could you gather some?’
‘Why not?’ she thought, going happily into the fields to pluck fresh vegetables. When she had collected enough, she returned. As she was reaching home, Ali emerged from his nearby house. Ibrahim was watching them, unseen. He pushed his wife towards Ali and they collided, falling to the ground together. Ibrahim immediately shouted, calling witnesses to the scene. People gathered round. He told them he had caught them embracing. He pulled out the gun that he always kept near the door and shot them both.
He spoke without any shame; ‘I have killed them in the name of honour. They had been meeting with each other for many days and I had observed them together several times, but I wanted everyone to witness this.’ The beggar said ‘My daughter was innocent. I knew her very well. She was a shy girl and would never have gone out of her home.’
I told her I understood. I said ‘This is due to our culture. We made this culture, and we’re proud of it, and we don’t want to change it. Now you have your second daughter, you don’t want to make any more mistakes. You want to educate her. If you protect her, one day she will protect you. In this culture, we don’t educate girls, so they can’t defend themselves or others. And they lose their lives because of it. We shouldn’t believe that boys will protect us and only educate them, leaving girls so weak they need to be married off to be safe.’
The beggar left, but she remained in my thoughts all day. I kept asking myself why we have maintained these inequalities between boys and girls. Is it society’s fault, or is it ours? It’s something we need to explore and change. Rural women need education and empowerment. Some have no idea of what their rights are nor how to claim them. And that can lead to tragedy.