“I Had To:” Inside The Mind Of An ‘Honor’ Killer In Pakistan

In the vast majority of cases, the "honor" killer is a man and the victim is a woman

“As modernity pushes against tradition, Pakistan has seen an increase in the number of women and girls killed in the name of honor: last year, 1,184 people died, only 88 of them men. The year before, the figure was 1005, and in 2013 it was 869, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The true numbers are believed to be higher, because many cases go unreported.”

 

For two months, over the thunder of machines at the steel mill, the men taunted Mubeen Rajhu about his sister. Even now, they laugh at how easy it was to make him lose his temper.

Some people had seen Tasleem in their Lahore slum with a Christian man. She was 18, a good Muslim girl, out in public with a man. Even though the man had converted to Islam out of love for her, this couldn’t be allowed.

“Some guys got to know that his sister was having a relationship,” says Ali Raza, a co-worker at the mill. “They would say: ‘Can’t you do anything? What is the matter with you? You are not a man.'”

Raza can barely contain a smile as he talks about the hours spent needling Rajhu.

“He used to tell us, ‘If you don’t stop, I will kill myself. Stop!'” Raza says.

He raises his voice to compete with the sounds of the coal-powered mill, and workers blackened by its dust gather to listen. They too smile. A few laugh at the memory of Rajhu’s outbursts.

“The guys here told him, . ‘It would be better to kill your sister. It is better than letting her have this relationship,'” Raza says.

Rajhu told them he had bought a pistol, and one day in August he stopped coming to work.

Rajhu discovered that his sister had defied the family and married the Christian. For six days he paced. His rage grew. How could she?

He watched her laughing on the phone, ignoring their mother’s pleas to leave the man.

On the seventh day, he retrieved the pistol from where he had hidden it and walked up to his sister and with one bullet to the head, he killed her.

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For generations now in Pakistan, they’ve called it “honor” killing, carried out in the name of a family’s reputation.

The killers routinely invoke Islam, but rarely can they cite anything other than their belief that Islam doesn’t allow the mixing of sexes. Even Pakistan’s hard-line Islamic Ideology Council, which is hardly known for speaking out to protect women, says the practice defies Islamic tenets.

It doesn’t matter: in slums and far-off villages, away from the cosmopolitan city centers, people live in a world where religion is inextricably tied to culture and tradition, where tribal councils can order women publicly punished, and a family can decide to kill one of its own, even to avenge a wrongdoing committed by someone else.

In the vast majority of cases, the “honor” killer is a man and the victim is a woman.

She is a sister who falls in love with a man not of her family’s choosing. She is a daughter who refuses to agree to an arranged marriage, sometimes to a man old enough to be her father. She is a wife who can no longer stay in an abusive marriage and divorces her husband.

He is a brother, like Rajhu, who cannot bear the taunts of other men brought up as he was, believing that women are subservient and must be kept in the shadows, their worth often measured by the number of sons they can produce. He is a neighbor, like Raza at the plant, who doesn’t think his friend did anything wrong in taking his sister’s life. He is a father, like Tasleem’s, who is angry about her killing not because she is dead, but because her death will reveal her “shame” to other members of the family and beyond.

As modernity pushes against tradition, Pakistan has seen an increase in the number of women and girls killed in the name of honor: last year, 1,184 people died, only 88 of them men. The year before, the figure was 1005, and in 2013 it was 869, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The true numbers are believed to be higher, because many cases go unreported.

The killings have fueled a growing public outrage at the practice, and a chorus of voices saying that there is no honor in killing – only dishonor. They are working to close the legal loophole that lets killers go free.

A proliferation of television channels and newspapers has brought the horrors of girls strangled, burned alive or shot in the head out of the secrecy of the home and into the public.

But for many who have been fighting this kind of killing, it is the mindset of the boy who could kill his sister, or the parent who could kill a daughter, that has to be understood and changed.

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The shackles that Rajhu wears look too heavy for his slender wrists. They make the harsh sound of metal clanking against metal, reverberating in the silence that punctuates his conversation.

For more than a month, he has been held at the police headquarters in Lahore. He tells his story in a sparsely furnished office. His minders have left; he is behind closed doors, out of sight and earshot of police.

Rajhu says he loved his sister, a quiet young woman who had never before rebelled against her family. He gave her a chance, he says; he demanded that she swear on Islam’s holy book, the Quran, that she would never marry the man. Frightened, she swore she wouldn’t.

“I told her I would have no face to show at the mill, to show to my neighbors, so don’t do it. Don’t do it. But she wouldn’t listen,” he says.

Rajhu, who thinks he’s 24 but isn’t sure, occasionally wavers when he tells his story, revealing a hint of remorse. It is brief, however; only when he speaks of her as a child is his voice soft and his gaze somewhere in the distance. He helped raise her, he says, fleetingly seeming to wonder at how things had gotten so out of control.

Toying with the chains that bind his hands, he fidgets as he remembers the taunts. Then his eyes harden and his voice becomes steely. His anger grows as he talks about the day his sister married the Christian. It was the same day their grandmother died.

Tasleem said she was going to buy medicine, and his younger brother was sent with her. They were gone a long time. The next day Rajhu grilled his younger brother, beating him until he confessed that Tasleem had married and he had been a witness.

“He was right there in court when they married,” he says, as if he still can’t believe it.

Tasleem returned to her parents’ home because she wanted them to accept her new husband, Rajhu says.

For one week she stayed, talking every day to her husband, planning their reunion. Rajhu remembered the taunting. His anger grew.

“I could not let it go. It was all I could think about. I had to kill her,” he says. “There was no choice.”

On Aug. 14, Rajhu got his gun. Tasleem was sitting with her mother and her sister on the cracked concrete floor of their family kitchen.

“There was no yelling, no shouting,” he says. “I just shot her dead.”

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