Pakistan: where the daily slaughter of women barely makes the news

The stories of murdered women are recorded with grim regularity in one and half inches of a single newspaper column

Pakistani women march on International Women’s Day in Lahore on 8 March 2019.
Pakistani women march on International Women’s Day in Lahore on 8 March 2019. Photograph: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

You can find the news about Pakistan’s war on women buried deep inside the metro pages of Urdu newspapers. I stumbled upon it a few years ago. I noticed that I could pick up my newspaper and almost every day find news about a murdered woman. I thought maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe Karachi is a huge city, these things happen. But it went on and on. It became so routine that I could pick up the paper, open the exact same pages, just like you can bet that you’ll find a crossword or letters to the editor, and it was always there.

Names changed, localities changed, the relationship between the murdered and her murderer changed and of course there were minor variations on how she was killed and where the body was found, but it was always there: single column, one and a half inches. Often the woman wasn’t even named: she was someone’s sister or mother of four, or the girl who ran away with her lover or the girl who refused to marry a suitor. Sometimes the news made it to the front page of the metro section but for that the murder had to be particularly gruesome, or the killer had killed himself after killing the woman, or the victim was very young, or the murderer killed the children along with the mother. That last one usually ends up on the front page if it’s a slow news day.

In Pakistan newspapers have holidays. A few days a year no newspaper is published. I picked up the paper after a day’s gap and went to the same pages, hoping that the killers had taken a day off, but instead there were not one but two women murdered, their stories lumped together in the same single column, one- and-a-half-inch display to save space.

In 2016 more than 1,100 women were killed in Pakistan; the year before that more than a thousand. These figures are compiled from police and newspaper reports and we are still working on compiling the last two years’ figures. It’s safe to say that there are many more cases which are not reported to the police or by the newspapers. Since most murders happen within the family, even if the family doesn’t collude in the actual murder, they are usually there to protect the perpetrator.

There are many ways of killing a woman. You can stab them, shoot them, strangle them, drown them, explode the gas stove and make it look like a kitchen accident. Some women do survive because their killers didn’t use enough force or they were just plain lucky. Khadija Siddiqui, a student, survived 27 stabbing wounds in her face and neck. Her ex-boyfriend who had carried out the attack in a very public space was out on bail a few months later. Khadija managed to make it to the front pageof the metro section and even to some TV shows because she had her 27 wounds to show and had the courage to fight off all the threats and shame piled on her.

There are many ways to get away with murdering a woman. It used to be easier: the killer could claim that it was an honour killing; the woman had brought shame to the family. The police were understanding, judges lenient, and the law itself provided loopholes by calling it murder of passion. You could get away with a couple of years in jail. Or if the killer was influential, (and even within a poor family, the male killer is influential, his life worth a lot more than that of the murdered woman) the victim’s family could forgive the killer. Now laws are a bit more stringent but that hasn’t slowed down the killings.


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