Fazeelat Bibi, a 20-year-old woman ambles home from work at a brick kiln in Raiwind, an industrial area of Lahore. What should have been a routine journey turned into a terrifying ordeal. Abducted and mutilated by two men furious at her parents’ refusal to marry her to one of them, Fazeelat Bibi, by the end of her detention found herself without ears or nose – all cruelly hacked off.
An anti-terrorism court sentenced the two convicted brothers to life imprisonment, ordered them to pay a fine of Rs. 300,000 each, and an additional Rs. 700,000 compensation to Fazeelat. Here’s the punitive twist, though: the court also ordered the men’s ears and noses cut off too.
As someone who has been born and brought up in the United Kingdom under a secular legal system in which a state has no business dispensing physical punishment of the kind described above to convicts, I initially shuddered at the ATC judge’s sentence. Many western observers may articulate similar feelings into accusations of barbarism and quietly pat their liberal rationalist backs for the separation of religion and state. Indeed that was my initial reaction.
Some may argue that the ATC judgement negates itself by sanctioning as punishment the same method of torture it intends to stop; a case of the court being no wiser than the criminals themselves. Others may add that the judgement is regressive for Pakistan and promotes an ultra-conservative image of the country that it is keen to move away from. However, pick up a copy of the Pakistan Penal Code and you can see in full glory a range of grizzly punishments for criminals. So it should hardly come as a surprise to observers that the ATC court has prescribed such a punishment.
Moreover, we live in a society where disfiguration as a form of punishment is not uncommon against those individuals and families who refuse a rishta or opt for a ‘love’ or ‘free will’ marriage. Fazeelat Bibi’s story isn’t an exception. In January 2007 in Multan, armed men hacked off the ears and nose of a man who contracted a love marriage with a woman of a rival tribe after the husband and his family refused to hand the girl over to the attackers. The victim’s brother and mother were also brutally disfigured. In May 2009 in Jhang, acid was thrown on a girl in retaliation for her father’s refusal to marry her to an influential landlord’s son. These attacks are hardly isolated to select provinces. In a country of 176 million, it’s known, if not officially documented, that thousands of such cases occur all the time.
In that context, the ATC court’s decision to punish Fazeelat’s perpetrators in the same way they tortured her may be harsh, but it sends a powerful message: crimes of ‘honour’ are not acceptable, they are inconsistent with Islam, and the law will be exercised in its full capacity to deter future would-be criminals. It is besides the point that such punishments are rarely prescribed and have never been executed, so to speak. The Lahore High Court, which has final say in the ruling, is unlikely to agree with the ATC’s decision to chop the felons’ ears and noses off.
Yet the ATC’s judgement grasps the full range of Pakistan’s religious and educational realities. Pakistan is an Islamic republic and its inhabitants are Muslim, regardless of sectarian, ethnic or linguistic affiliations. Understandably, then, deterrents must have some sort of Islamic character to be efficient in preventing crime. The ATC’s order is exactly that, a very Islamic deterrent along the lines of the ‘an eye for an eye’ logic that is presented in the Quran. As such, the court’s judgement indicates that the punitive and barbaric acts carried out within under their jurisdiction are neither acceptable to Islam or the Islamic state of Pakistan and cannot be swept under the cultural carpet as a private or community matter.
Another thing to keep in mind is that 64 per cent of Pakistan’s denizens live in rural areas and half of the country’s entire population is classified as illiterate. In this context, the ATC judgement acts as a ‘tangible deterrent’ – a warning to potential criminals who intend to punish a woman who refuses to marry against her will. Losing a body part, macabre as it may be, is less acceptable than the intangible concept of life-imprisonment that can only be experienced in its entirety to be believed. Moreover, individuals can understand what it means to experience total sensory deprivation – particularly if they’re from rural areas of Pakistan’s provinces. If you can’t read or write, then what do you have left besides your senses?
So, should the Lahore High Court pass the ATC ruling?
I’ve always personally believed human life is sacred no matter how reprehensible the act of a perpetrator. However if the shoe was on the other foot, I’m not sure how I would feel. It’s a tricky emotional conundrum only the victim can comprehend. It’s also hard to say whether making an example of the two men will reduce or even stop such attacks. The existing punishments in place for murder and theft are just as punitive as the one passed by the ATC court, but they haven’t exactly wiped out the murder or theft rate.
However, it could be argued that since the penal code hasn’t been exercised in its full capacity, would-be criminals remain ignorant of the ramifications of criminal behaviour like that inflicted against victims such as Fazeelat Bibi. Whatever the outcome of the Lahore High Court decision, the ATC’s decision is welcome as it sets a new precedent against those who value ‘honour’ over life.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.