KARACHI (Reuters) - Pervez Chachar and his young wife live in the police headquarters in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Their crime? They fell in love and married without their families’ permission.
The newlyweds dare not venture out of the police station as they fear their families will hunt them down and kill them.
“I know they will kill her and I have to protect her,” Chachar said of his wife’s family who are enraged that the young woman chose to marry a man from a rival tribe.
In traditional rural society in Pakistan, getting married without permission is deemed such a serious slight to the “honor” of a family or a tribe that death is seen as fitting retribution.
Rights groups estimate 500 people, most of them women, are killed in the name of “honor” in Pakistan every year, with the majority of victims from poor, rural families often killed by their own relatives.
Shortly after Chachar married Humera Kambo a year ago, the couple fled to Karachi from their home in Sindh province. Humera, too afraid to talk to a reporter, has been abducted by her family and Chachar has been beaten by them.
Still defiant, they fear death if they stray too far from the cramped room next to the police canteen which they share with another young couple in the same position. They have been there for four months and they don’t know when they can safely leave.
Under Pakistani customs still followed in much of the countryside, a man or woman can be declared an outcast for having sexual relations outside marriage, or choosing their own spouse.
The United Nations has estimated that some 5,000 people, mostly women, die every year in so-called honor killings, mostly in South Asia and the Middle East.
Traditionally, people in rural Pakistan have little confidence in, or access to, police and courts in big towns. They solve problems through jirgas, or councils, of village elders.
But the councils are often manipulated by the powerful and become tools for sanctioning violence against the weak, often in the course of a dispute within an extended family over land or some other asset.
Women are the weakest of all in traditional, male-dominated Muslim society so they are often targeted, rights groups say.
“Why does it happen? Because they are always the ones who have no redress, either legally or socially,” Anis Haroon, of the women’s rights group the Aurat Foundation, said of the victims.
“They don’t know anyone, they have no contacts, they have no money to offer the police. And these perpetrators come from the higher status of society,” she said.
Haroon said there could be no hope of change until legislators changed their mindset.
Most educated, urban Pakistanis abhor the violence and former president Pervez Musharraf took small steps to improve the lot of women. But change is painfully slow.
A senator from Baluchistan province provoked outrage late last year when he said the killing of five women, who were reported to have been shot and buried alive in another case of honor killing, was a reflection of tribal traditions.
The senator, Sardar Israrullah Zehri, is now a minister in the federal government.
“It is a very bad sign ... people who are encouraging violence, their membership should be canceled. They should not be allowed to contest elections,” Haroon said.
Orangzeb Magsi, a 32-year-old graduate from a U.S. university, is a leader of one of the most powerful tribes in Baluchistan.
Magsi has dealt with more than 100 cases of “honor” crime in the past four years in his district but thankfully no killings, he says. Only education and time will bring change, he adds.
“On the one hand, you have these centuries old customs and on the other, the government says ‘it’s illegal’,” Magsi said. “Since they are not educated, it’s very difficult to make them understand.”
Nafeesa Shah, a newly elected member of parliament from a rural area of Sindh province, said the jirgas and custom of killing women over honor reflected the failure of the judicial system.
“You had these customs in medieval Europe. You had the lynching of people in America ... These things will only go if you have laws that don’t allow space for it,” Shah said.
Shah, a member of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, said the party’s victory in 2008 elections was a golden opportunity for change.
“It is important now that we, who are in power and can change things, take this as a sign of the times and work toward making laws and improving criminal procedures in a way that deters the offenders from protecting their crimes in the name of honor or customs,” she said.
Editing by Robert Birsel and Megan Goldin