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In Pakistan's Heartland, A 'Perfect Storm Of Obstacles' To Protecting Women

Mukhtar Mai has fought for justice for the past 14 years. Pakistan's Supreme Court has said it will review its own 2011 decision to uphold the acquittal of five of her attackers.

The home in which Pakistan's social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was strangled to death by her brother has none of the wicked glamour that was her hallmark within her make-believe cyber-world.

She died in a small concrete house, a $100-a-month rental at the end of a cobbled alley inside a half-built housing estate, not far from the central city of Multan. Goats, chickens, street hawkers and kids wander around amid puddles of mud — it is monsoon season — and oceans of trash.

The location of Baloch's death on July 15 seems irrelevant when you consider the magnitude of the underlying issues that caused her to become another entry in a constantly growing list of Pakistani women slaughtered in the name of an obscurantist concept of "honor."

Yet place matters greatly in Baloch's story.

She came from the southern part of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province. The same arcane system of beliefs governs life in large areas of South Asia but it is particularly strong in south Punjab, where the legal system is routinely superseded by age-old feudal traditions. Resistance to change is particularly stubborn there.

'She Crossed The Line'

On the map, south Punjab is in the middle of Pakistan. It is a sweep of flat land, traversed by canals and two of South Asia's great rivers, the Indus and Chenab, feeding an overwhelmingly rural landscape crowded with mango trees, date palms, sugar cane, cotton fields, cattle, camels, Sufi shrines and mud-brick villages.

The towns are chaotic and poor. Many women wear burqas; almost all cover their heads. The faces on display on advertising billboards are nearly all male — mustachioed politicians seeking to bolster their profiles or musclemen promoting the joys of the local gym by posing bare-chested.

Qandeel Baloch — whose real name was Fauzia Azeem — was murdered while she was staying with her family. She had been working in Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, but was back home to celebrate Eid, the Islamic festival that follows the month-long Ramadan fast. She was 26.

The day after her murder, police produced her unrepentant younger brother, Muhammad Waseem, at a press conference. Waseem calmly explained that he had drugged Baloch before throttling her.

Asked why he killed her, he said her internet postings dishonored the family. He was also unhappy about a video shot by Baloch in which she appeared alongside a prominent Islamic cleric, cheekily wearing his hat. It went viral.

Waseem's decision to murder his sister caused outrage in cyberspace and was widely condemned internationally. However, there is no doubt that most of the men from the world into which Baloch was born take a different view.

Shabbir Ahmed, 60, is among a crowd of men sheltering from the intense midday heat beneath the awnings of an outdoor tea-shop in a farming village called Basti Thaar Khan.

"We think that Qandeel's murder is justified," says Ahmed, a landowner with 20 acres. "The point is we are Muslims. There is a limit to everything. She was liberal-minded and crossed the line."

Ghulam Haider, a woodcutter, chimes in: "Everyone here agrees with that." The men around him nod approvingly.

In life, Baloch cast herself as a "one-woman army," a "provocateur" fighting to emancipate women in a repressive society that simultaneously condemned her sensuous videos and selfies while watching them in large numbers. She amassed more than 750,000 Facebook followers and 70,000-plus on Instagram, and her YouTube videos each attracted tens of thousands of views.

In death, Pakistan's progressive minority mourned her and, in a few cases, hailed her as a feminist hero. But many, many Pakistanis did not.

A Voice For Justice

The campaign to end the hundreds of so-called "honor killings" that happen in Pakistan every year has no more prominent voice than Mukhtar Mai. She lives in the village of Meerwala, about 55 miles from where Baloch was killed, where she runs a women's shelter and a school for girls.

In 2002, Mai was gang-raped on the orders of a jirga — an unelected council of local male elders — and then paraded semi-clothed, all as a punishment because her 12-year-old brother was accused of dishonoring a powerful local family.

Ordinarily in such cases, the victim goes away in shame and silence and may even commit suicide. But with the support of her family, Mai, now in her mid-40s, fought back, filed charges and brought her case to the courts.

Her campaign for justice won her international recognition and many awards, including being named Glamour magazine's woman of the year. But 14 years later, her case is still going through Pakistan's justice system. Only one of her 14 attackers has been convicted. In a rare move, the Supreme Court is reviewing its 2011 decision to uphold the acquittal of five others.

Men in south Punjab "consider women their property, and treat them like the slippers on their feet," Mai says.

As for Qandeel Baloch, "Some people say she was doing everything to get popularity," Mai says. "Even if she was, that's her personal matter. Nobody had the right to kill her."

As news of Baloch's murder zinged around the world. Pakistan's ruling party declared that a proposed law on honor killings that has languished in Parliament for two years is now expected to pass "within weeks."

The bill closes a legal loophole allowing "honor" killers to escape punishment if the victims' families — who are often involved in the crimes — forgive them.

Rights activists welcomed the announcement. Yet there are huge doubts over whether it will make any difference.

The Limits Of Laws

In Pakistan, laws are routinely made and ignored. The legal system is severely overloaded, extremely slow and can be subverted by intimidation or corruption. Communities often resort to informal, parallel systems of justice, especially in rural areas.

Ghulam Haider, the woodcutter in the village of Basti Thaar Khan, says his granddaughter was raped several years ago; he is still waiting for the case to get to court. He's abandoned hope, saying he now wants the issue settled by a jirga.

"I will definitely go to a jirga because the court does not deliver," he says. The family needs a verdict, he says, because they intend to marry off his granddaughter.

Tribal jirgas in south Punjab implement traditional codes regulating inheritance, sexual relations, land disputes and more. Much is settled by negotiation. But they can hand down horrifying punishments, including executing women or giving them away as compensation.

This system is unrelated to Islam and its shariah law; it is built on a notion of kinship and collective honor.

In much of Pakistani society, families by tradition have sovereign rights over their members, says Anatol Lieven, author of Pakistan: A Hard Country.

"In extreme cases — especially those involving so-called female 'honor' — these rights include the right to impose death sentences. State law is held to have no role in these matters," he says. "So far, the state has been too weak to stamp out these practices, especially because many of its own local police have the same culture."

In fact, says Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center, "When it comes to laws against honor killings and other policies meant to protect women, you run into a perfect storm of obstacles" — including the fact that those targeted by such policies "have powerful connections and can easily escape prosecution."

'Feudals Are The Government Here'

Mukhtar Mai is deeply skeptical about the government's new proposed law.

"I do not believe one iota of what they say," she says, "They often say they've made a new law on this or on that. But this is just for the books. They're not actually implemented."

Mai says that in her area, "feudal lords" — big, ancestral landowners with a reputation for treating their laborers and other locals and dependents as property — lie at the root of the problem. They enjoy immense power, consolidated by a network of close relatives in Parliament and other key institutions and reinforced by their own armed men.

"Feudals are the government here," she says.

Mai believes that even if the state-run legal system functioned properly, a new law would bring little relief to the victims of honor-related crimes, as the feudal lords control the local police who collate evidence and have a record of siding with the abusers.

For her, education is the key to changing social attitudes and ending honor crimes against women. This was Mai's goal when she set up a girls' school in 2003. After starting out with just three pupils, her organization now has 1,300 students on the books.

Yet most schools in the area are in disarray and illiteracy rates are very high. Most landowners don't wish to educate the population, she says, "because if people are educated, they will challenge them."

Some landowners have even taken over local schools for use as cattle sheds, she says.

'What Can The Government Do?'

When Qandeel Baloch was murdered, the alarm was raised by a woman called Saba Munir. She lives in the same alley, in the house opposite.

Munir rarely leaves her home; when she does so, she wears a burqa. She speaks with NPR through a grill in her window so that she cannot be seen.

At around 9:45 a.m. on July 16, Baloch's mother arrived in obvious distress and told her what had happened.

"The father was sitting there, bursting into tears," Munir says. "I phoned a local boy and sent him with the father to fetch the police."

Munir didn't know that Qandeel Baloch was a celebrity (she's been waiting for weeks for the cable guy to install her TV), but she saw her in the street from time to time, dressed "like a college girl."

"She seemed happy," says Munir.

She wants Waseem, who's admitted proudly to killing his sister, to be jailed for life for the murder. One particularly disrespectful remark Waseem made at his confessional press conference irks her.

He was asked for his mother's name, and casually replied that he did not know it.

"How is it possible that a child given birth by his mother, brought up in her lap, does not know her name?" she says.

From behind her grilled window, Munir says she really wants to see an end to the honor-related violence against Pakistan's women, which has been going on for centuries. Yet she, too, doubts the government can achieve this.

"The laws followed by our families and castes do not allow information to be given to government," she says. "People sort out matters in jirgas and cover things up. What can the government do?"

Certainly, something needs to be done.

Violent crimes are monitored by Pakistan's Human Rights Commission. It says that since Baloch's murder — just 12 days ago — three more women have also been murdered in the name of honor.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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