Attention Media: There is No ‘HONOUR’ in Killing!

Tasneem Ahmar

Despite efforts to sensitise the media in Pakistan to gender issues, especially violence against women, few news outlets in their efforts to win ratings appear to apply balance. Almost all television channels sensationalised the murder in July 2016 of Qandeel Baloch, a model turned celebrity, by showing explicit photo shoots and interviews. The horror of a young life taken in its prime became farce, and far from inviting sympathy many in the media depicted the murder as a matter of “honour”.

Qandeel Baloch had made headlines for openly expressing her sexuality by uploading photographs of herself in scanty clothing and defying patriarchal mindsets. She wasn’t a criminal but due to her fame the media used even greater insensitivity and disrespect than usual in their portrayal of gender based violence and violence against women and so-called “honour killings”.

Exactly two weeks after Qandeel’s murder, a British woman, Samia Shahid was lured to her ancestral home in Pakistan and killed, allegedly by her father and her first husband. She was said to have maligned the honour of her family by divorcing her allegedly abusive first husband and marrying another man of her choosing. Another Samia, married and the mother of two children, died in April 1999 when she was gunned down at her parent’s behest in Lahore because she wished to free herself from an abusive marriage. The facts clearly pointed to the involvement of several family members, but only the main suspect was charged. Samia’s blood relatives forgave him. The press termed the murder “an act of an individual” and no one was punished by the state.

Innumerable women in Pakistan are killed in the name of so-called “honour”, thus turning victims into criminals who are said to deserve punishment in terms of debatable values and traditions. “Honour killings” are based on the absurd notion that a perpetrator’s female blood relatives must uphold the “honour” of a man.

We hope things are changing regarding punishment for such murders. Due to the decades-long struggle of women activists, a new law dictates that a life sentence will be mandatory for “honour killing” convictions. A death sentence may be commuted to life imprisonment if the victim’s family forgives the killer. The judge will have the discretion to determine whether a murder qualifies as an “honour killing”.

Women are killed in the name of honour in many parts of the world. They are most often described as tribal, feudal, patriarchal acts of saving the honour of the family. In such cultures, women can be said to bring disgrace by simple acts such as applying make-up, talking to a male stranger, or wishing to choose their husbands. Men also become victims of this practice on occasion (if named as the female’s partner) but the majority of those murdered in the name of honour are females aged 10 to 70. Human rights groups in Pakistan say 500-1,000 cases are reported yearly, but many are not.

A critical aspect of this crime is the manner in which it is reported. The style and terminology used by media, particularly social media, when writing and reporting on women’s issues, especially violence against women, is an essential tool in portraying these killings as murder. “We must differentiate between the imaginary, ‘reality-show’ world of Twitterati & Facebookers vs the mainstream print and electronic media although the lines are getting blurred by online bloggers and other armchair activists,” says Tahira Abdullah, an Islamabad-based women’s and human rights activist.

Perhaps a list of tips on how to cover “‘honour killings” would clarify issues. An analysis of the Pakistani media shows a clear dividing line between a relatively sensitised English-language media (with limited presence), and the vernacular and regional-language media that have a huge presence and great influence.

Regarding Qandeel’s murder, what message was conveyed through repeatedly screening a video clip of her taking selfies with a cleric? To express sympathy with a woman who defied patriarchal norms? Few rational observers may agree. Further, the manner of reporting gave the impression that she deserved to die. Was this intentional?

A few voices did empathise with Qandeel, seeing a woman who simply wanted to get the most out of life and had the courage of her convictions. The media’s deliberate or unintended bias against women was apparent through lack of respect for the dead Qandeel, while the cleric received almost no attention even though he was a high public official before this story broke.

There were no investigative stories or talk-show discussions on the deeper issues of misogynist mindsets that were so apparent in most coverage. In some cases gender blindness rather than gender bias was the issue. Often the talk show host or the writer/reporter couldn’t see the difference that terminologies make or the impact of words and phrases and how one constructs a sentence suitably. How much weight is given to whom and why is also important. Finally, it is not the business of journalism to be judgmental.

An example of how style and terminology can change the complexion of a situation is when the word honour is written within inverted commas to denote its lack of authenticity when used as an excuse to kill. According to an article in the Daily News(Egypt) “terminology in the media matters”, and for murders as complex as these, it’s the media’s responsibility to find a name that better fits the crime. Only then will it become easier to work towards a solution.

Al Jazeera for one has decided which they won’t use: “We are always updating our style guidelines to convey a deeper and more authentic understanding of world affairs.” Recent events in Pakistan ignited a healthy debate in Al Jazeera on the term “honour killings” in particular. “Our editors are currently studying alternatives … but ‘misogynistic murder’ is not one of them,” said a spokesperson.

Apart from words, phrases and nuances that alter the essence of a story the media must focus on the perpetrator of a crime, not on the victim. Further, the media must perform their most pertinent task; educating and informing the public that killing/ murder in the name of so-called honour is not condoned by law or morality, and that such killers and murderers deserve severe punishment under the law. Sympathy with victims of violence must be encouraged and perpetrators condemned loudly and clearly.

The media can also push governments to help prevent such crimes by offering effective protection to potential victims, to initiate campaigns that seek to change minds mired in ignorance and to encourage acceptance of women as equal members of society rather than as commodities and repositories of male honour and prestige. To fight misogyny, cultural misrepresentations and patriarchal stereotypes need to be altered, with the burden of transformation lying with the community as a whole.

For media in Pakistan the stakes are very high and they may be expected to take the lead in the struggle against misrepresentation of women’s issues and gender-based violence, especially “honour killings”.

A review of foreign media coverage of such killings (for example in UK) reveals a lack of empathy and knowledge of the issues and explains the phenomenon as a “ghastly way of life”, [a matter of] “culture” and [ignorance of] “western ways”. These headlines, based on stereotypes, shape the way in which honour crimes are understood by many and have led to immigrant communities being seen as regressive and backward, and somehow morally inferior by mainstream public opinion.

A more dangerous conclusion often drawn is that “honour killings” are a part of Islamic society and thus sanctioned by Islam, as most such cases occur in Muslim societies. It is essential, therefore, for media in Pakistan and worldwide to disabuse the public of the notion that honour crimes are sanctioned by Islam. This is clearly possible through gender-balanced reporting containing facts, not assumptions, with the focus always on the perpetrators of crimes, not the victims.


Main image by Voice of America (Wikimedia Commons)


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