Thursday, November 22, 2012

Social Change in Pakistan, or, Why Honor Killings?

A few years ago Pakistani professor Alif Hasan went to a rural part of Sindh to investigate a rash of "honor killings," that is, when a man kills a female member of his family he thinks has shamed them.
   I asked an elder from the taluka whom I had met in 1983, now much older, “Sahib, did you have honour killings before?”
   He said, “Yes, we used to have one in perhaps ten years. It was a rare occurrence, and we would discuss one for ten years until another happened.”
   “Then why it is happening now with such regularity?”
   He said, “Now, everyone has become shameless, without honour, so honour killings are taking place.”
   I asked, “Why is there no honour today?”
   He responded, “The young people, they’ve gone to the city, and they’ve done all the wrong things. The girls have learned how to read and write, they’ve gone to school, some of them have gone to university as well. They have no morals left, so this is bound to happen.”
   “You mean this is going to continue like this forever?”
   “No, no, it will stop!”
   “How and when will it stop?”
   His reply was educative: “The honour killings will stop when everyone becomes shameless, then it will end.” Then he added, “But I hope that I die before that day.”
So, Hasan says, honor killings are a symptom of social change, from a feudal (his word), rural society to urban capitalism. He then lists other signs of the collapse of feudalism:
This collapse is also heralded by the advances in women’s education. According to 2006 figures, fully 72 percent of the University of Karachi student body is today female. Among medical students, 87 percent are women, and the figure for architecture and planning is as high as 92 percent. In fact, our vice chancellor was so concerned that he suggested a quota for men. I used to teach a class with one boy and 15 girls. That has changed a little now as we have tried to even it out. But the reason is simply that women do better on the entrance tests. There’s no other reason for it. In 1971, I started working in low-income settlements in Karachi, and a decade later I joined the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). The settlements that we worked in at that time were primarily working-class, and when we went over we were met by older men who were mostly illiterate. They spoke to us in very formal, feudal language – janaab, huzoor, sahib, miyan, “We are all your children and need your protection,” and all that. At that time, in the 1980s, the women hardly worked. Things are entirely different when you go to the OPP today; it’s not what you would call a shanty settlement. It’s mostly the younger generation who will meet you, and they will address you as ‘uncle’ rather than ‘sahib’. The people you meet are bank managers, school teachers, professionals working in the service sector of Karachi. The additional phenomenon of the past decade has been the growing anarchy linked to the Afghan war, and the further demise of feudal institutions. Spending a week in northern Sindh earlier this year, I was struck by three elements. Firstly, I noticed the immense physical mobility women have gained from the end of feudalism. Nothing can control them or contain them anymore. Secondly, there are protests against the excesses both of the landlords and of the establishment. If the landlord has been harsh, or if the state has not delivered on some demand, the men come out and block the highway. Often it is women who carry out the blockade because the police action against them is not so harsh. Thirdly, the nature of landlord-ship has changed. The landlord is now married to a modern, urban woman, and that heralds significant shifts. When I asked villagers about the difference between the old landlords and the new, the reply was, “The young landlord has married into the city and stays in Karachi. His children never come here either, so we are alright.” The result is that sharecropping has given way to contracting, and this has transformed the society of rural Sindh.
The transition from peasant societies to urban, industrial ones may be the most profound in human history, affecting almost everything we do. The speed and power of this transition is what has made modern life so bewildering for so many people around the world.

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