Five Pakistani women were beaten, shot and buried alive in the tribal region of Baluchistan on July 13 of this year. The subsequent defence of these ‘honour’ killings from certain members of the Pakistan Senate has shocked the world. Dr Farzana Bari is a university professor and a human rights activist from Islamabad who is leading the outcry against these crimes. She tells of her reaction to the events

It was the Asian Human Rights Commission website that first alerted me to the fact that five women had been buried alive as part of an honour killing in the tribal area of Baluchistan – an atrocity beyond imagination. Within days this tragedy had been reported in the Pakistan national press and almost immediately Baluchistan’s Senator Yasmeen Shah took the case to the senate.

The treatment of these women shocked and angered me – and countless others throughout Pakistan. On top of that, when I heard that Senator Israrullah Zehri and Senator Jan Mohammad Jamali stood up in the senate and attempted to justify the murders as “Baluch tradition” I was in despair. They said that we should not even be discussing Baluch traditions in the senate. Fortunately, they represent a minority mindset. The case has caused a national uproar.

When I realised that the senate was unlikely to take the murders seriously I started to organise. (I’ve long been involved in human rights issues, writing articles and organising public protests.) I sent emails to various NGOs, human rights activists and also to the Women’s Action Forum, calling on them to demonstrate in front of the senate in Islamabad. Although on such short notice I had expected around 100 protesters to come, on the day we had more than three times that number.
I am now working closely with Yasmeen Shah, whom I met for the first time at our demonstration. At our request she is now trying to get someone who believes in human rights to join the special committee that has been set up to investigate this crime. There needs to be an independent voice or the entire process will be biased toward Baluch politics.

These atrocities represent the structural violence against women in Pakistan. They certainly made me realise that enormous steps have to be taken in the judicial and tribal systems, which thrive on gender hierarchies and inequalities. The people who are guardians of these systems take any challenge – particularly from women – as a threat.

I feel that the desire to control women’s lives and their sexuality is far greater in areas where feudal and tribal systems are prevalent. For example, you will not find the same oppression of women in Islamabad, Karachi or Lahore. But where there is a strong tribal or feudal hold you see that women’s sexuality is strictly controlled by the family – and particularly the male members of the family.

I believe that it’s high time we introduce land reforms to do away with the tribal and chiefdom systems. We also need to do away with parallel judicial systems such as jirga and punchyat. It’s the elected representatives of these systems who have huge stakes in maintaining the gender status quo, and there is very little hope for us that they will do anything to protect women. It is not going to be an easy fight.

I believe that the men involved in these honour killings should be arrested and put through the due process of law, but this is not happening in Pakistan. Sadly, the people who inflict this violence on women are getting away with it because they are influential and can manipulate the legal system to escape punishment. And they do.

But I believe we should not let this case go. We have to make sure that the perpetrators are punished. We should also ask for long-term legal changes to be made so that women in this country can expect some protection from the law.

Although I was shocked and very angry to hear about the murder of these five Baluch women, it’s not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. There have been other cases, equally barbaric, that didn’t receive such attention. A few months ago, for instance, there was an incident in southern Punjab – a village woman was accused of having an illegitimate relationship and was stoned to death.

Gender inequality is endemic throughout Pakistan, but its manifestation differs between urban and rural areas, and also between social classes.

At a professional level, I don’t face severe discrimination, but as the head of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, I feel that the university administration, which is run mostly by men, has been unsupportive of my department and at one point even tried to kill it off. Various vice-chancellors along the way have said that gender studies is not a discipline but a mere western cliché with no relevance to Pakistan.

Other bias I have experienced comes as the result of being vocal about gender issues. When members of the militant group Jamai Hafsa took over the children’s library at the Red Mosque in Islamabad and demanded the promulgation of Sharia law, I protested against them. I’ve been very active in the repeal of the Islamic Hudood legislation that requires, for example, a woman who has been raped to procure four male Muslim witnesses to support her case. Without four male Muslim witnesses, she could find herself accused of adultery and stoned to death.

There are fatwas issued against me saying that I should be killed as I am not a Muslim woman. I feel a general sense of insecurity because the people I’m up against are very militant. I feel that at any time they can walk into my home and slit my throat. It is the kind of risk that I have to live with. If I let fear in it will incapacitate me. I have to remain brave, because there are so many risks.

As an activist and a professional, I keep seeing different manifestations of this terrible gender bias – of which the latest is the unfathomable brutality of these Baluchistan honour killings.

• Dr Farzana Bari was interviewed by Saundra Satterlee.