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Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Tragedy in the UK & an unhealthy obsession with honor and kinship

Wikipedia describes the concept of kinship as the web of social relationships that forms an important part of lives of most humans in most societies. One can say that is very true and applicable to a society like Pakistan where the sense of kinship is very strong, in fact among the strongest in the world, this could be owing the assumed collective nature of our Asian culture and society. Even western writers and historians have been amazed by the amount of importance given to kinship in our society, how much people value social relationships, be it relationships with  people that they are related to by blood or simply those in the wider community. It is not uncommon to hear people around us very regularly make use of the word 'biradari' which is the Urdu word for community, and how important it is to maintain our position within that biradari.

To get a good idea and understanding of this very kinship concept from an outsider's perspective, I would recommend reading 'Pakistan: A Hard Country'. This book by professor of History at King's College London, Anatol Levien in a way serves as a biography for the great nation of Pakistan. In a lot of those chapters, especially those covering the provinces he has significantly highlighted how important community ties are for Pakistani's especially those with some rural connection. Considering the majority of the population of Pakistan still lives in the country side, and a significant chunk of the urban population having some recent or distant roots in the agrarian backdrop, it is entirely possible that this strong sense of kinship and the issue of honor associated with it has become a reality for not only Pakistani's in urban centers such as Karachi and Lahore, but also in the diaspora.

This is off particular relevance to the United Kingdom, where today more than a million of its citizens are off Pakistani heritage with the number continuously on the rise. Some members of this community have done exceptionally well to prove themselves integrated and worthy parts of a free British society, however at the same time Pakistani's in the United Kingdom also feature in the news for a lot of very wrong reasons.

Very recently British Pakistani's were in the news again. The murder of the 17 year old British Pakistani girl Shefilia Ahmad dating back to 2002-3 has been in thee news all over again, with significant coverage given to it by both the British as well as the Pakistani media. A murder that happened almost a decade ago was brought back to light because this past week, a British court just handed out prison sentences to the parents who had murdered their own child. Based on evidence, testimonials and investigations that had been on going for the last several years, Shefilia was murdered by her parents on account on honor. They believed that she had dishonored the family by refusing to marry a cousin back in Pakistan and for developing a westernized life style while growing up. Her younger sister who is now 23 had testified to the court that she had witnessed the abuse that her sister experienced growing up. It must have certainly taken a great amount of courage for that 23 year old to come out and testify against her parents knowing that by doing so she puts herself at significant risk if the court decides that the parents are found not guilty.

Let us assume for a moment,  that both Shefilia's refusal to marry her cousin as well as her westernized life style was what dishonored her family and brought shame on them. Let us analyse this for a few minutes. Suppose it is the former, her refusal to marry her cousin, what her parents tried to do was force her hand in marriage to a relative back in Pakistan. Not uncommon among Pakistani circles, as there is an unhealthy obsession among Pakistani's to  treat their children like commodities especially with respect to the issue of marriage. Shefilia's refusal or resistance must have upset her parents who were probably deeply concerned about upsetting their relatives back in Pakistan who had asked for their daughter's hand in marriage. The fear of damaged social ties and inability to look at blood relatives in the eye created feelings of being dishonored. The need to maintain such ties are given so much importance by Pakistani adults that they end up treating their children like objects or tools for personal public relations, easily illustrated by the case of Shefilia, where her parents first offered their hand in marriage to a relative, then murdered her in cold blood as if she was an invaluable human life. Take for example the social dilemma in Pakistani societies related to the marriage scenario.  For example you are a Pakistani couple with children, boys and girls of marriage age, and one of your siblings or first cousin approaches you and asks for your children in marriage for their own children, what are you supposed to do? It might seem easy on the surface to say No or to say the option will be considered, but here is how our Pakistani psyche works, even the hint  of refusal in such matters can be taken as a matter of personal insult which carries enough weight to damage the original social relationship, i.e. between the parents and their siblings or cousins. In a way you could say it would create disruption of a social relationship network.

 Assuming it was the latter that brought them shame i.e. Shefilia's westernized lifestyle, let us see why it would be a source of dishonor for her parents considering the family lived in a free western society in the United Kingdom.? Well this also comes down to the whole scenario of kinship, in this case it would be about kinship closer to home i.e. within the Pakistani community in the UK. It is possible that Shefilia's liberal westernized lifestyle attracted too much unwanted attention among other Pakistani parents who were probably concerned that seeing Shefilia their daughters and sons might start demanding similar freedoms and liberty. This would particular be a cause of concern if their trying to raise their children according to the picture perfect that they have off them and one which might be very divergent from what an organic up bringing for them might be. Let us not forget it is also a Pakistani obsession to ensure that our children grow up and develop in their lives according to the picture perfect image that many parents have.

The tragedy of Shefilia's untimely death has brought to highlight a very important issue that is deeply prevalent in our society, one that is damaging and destroying a lot of lives, in some cases prematurely ending it. Shefilia did not deserve to die at the hands of the two people on earth who are supposed to unconditionally love their children till death does them part. Courtesy of British and Pakistani media, we still came to learn about the story of Shefilia and her tragic death, how many more Pakistani youngsters are out there who we never hear about? How many more Pakistani boys and girls living in the diaspora as well as Pakistan's major urban centers have been forcibly married off against their own will all in the name of honor, all the name of maintaining these social relationships, and how many have just ended up as a statistic in the name of honor killings?

We as a society should be truly ashamed of ourselves. 

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