by Asmae Dachan. Journalist and writer.
How far can human barbarism go? What turns a family into a kind of pack? Are customs, traditions, pseudo-cultural or religious beliefs really worth more than a human life? These are questions that emerge like sharp blades in the face of the now almost certain femicide of the young Pakistani-born Saman Abbas. As details emerge on the premeditation of the girl’s murder and on the involvement of multiple family members, including her mother, that of Saman increasingly takes on the contours of a so-called “crime of honor.”
An inhumane, barbaric practice, also banned by the Pakistani law with the 2004 Law on Honor Crimes, the 2011 Act for the Prevention of Practices Against Women and the 2016 Act amending the Criminal Law (offenses in the name of or on the pretext of “honor”) which provided for the introduction of a life sentence for those who commit the crime, and prohibiting the girl’s family to “forgive” the crime.
Unfortunately, however, the crime of honor still exists today, both in the most remote and rural areas, and among migrant families from precisely those areas. Some members of the Abbas family have lived and worked in Italy for over fifteen years, but from what is emerging from the investigations, within the home there was a violent, patriarchal, misogynistic climate, not at all harmonized with the local context. Saman allegedly suffered violence and abuse for years, so much so that the young woman had found the strength and courage to denounce her own family members and was then removed from them. The eighteen-year-old, however, was still somehow hostage to those people, to a controlling father who kept her documents, effectively preventing her from leaving and starting to fully live the life she had chosen. Saman had not yet obtained Italian citizenship and she could not easily have asked for a duplicate of Pakistani documents.
Precisely with the motivation of the delivery of her documents, her family would have set a trap for her, which later turned out to be fatal. It seems that her mother, that same person who kept and nurtured her in her womb for nine months, who gave birth and raised her, would have played an important role in attracting her daughter into her home. What turns a mother and father into executioners? Where does so much hate come from? For days now, so-called canine detectives have also been involved in the research. These animals, thanks to their characteristics, are able to smell human traces and help search, often successfully, for missing persons. Saman was not understood, loved, supported in her choices, and her family seems to have preferred, if her worst hypothesis were really confirmed, to take her life rather than see her free and let her walk the path that she had chosen.
There are those who hypothesize that the motivation for the brutal femicide and the concealment of the corpse of poor Saman is of a religious nature. Endorsing this hypothesis is not only wrong, but it is also very dangerous, because precisely in order to prevent such crimes and remove any pretext from those who make an instrumental and deceptive use of religion, some fundamental concepts must be restored. That is, we need to clear the field of that “gray area” in which people without knowledge and skills in theological subject project foul language about Islam, words that simply make one shudder. It is also necessary to promote, both in the countries of origin and within the various migrant communities, a process of recognition of the value of the secular nature of institutions that subtract religion from the overwhelming power of freely-killing governments and fundamentalist groups that carry out obscurantist and violent propaganda. Saman’s brother would have reported to the investigators some statements made by his uncle and other family members on what the Koran would say on certain issues and it is precisely from those assumptions that we understand how religion, in that closed and unhealthy family environment, has been instrumentalized to justify male chauvinism and a misogynist mentality, to hold hostage and threaten, in particular, women. It should also be emphasized here that Urdu is spoken in Pakistan, while listening to and memorizing the Koran in Arabic. This represents a critical element because Arabic is a language that few people know. In places of worship, imams and teachers explain the meanings of faith in the local language, thus also translating the meanings of the sacred text of Islam. However, it is easy, particularly in the most remote and hostile areas, to fall hostage to “bad teachers,” to people who make the sacred text say what is most functional to a certain narrative. Lacking, even among migrant communities, a sort of “Muslim catechism” in Italian, the mother tongue of the young people who are born and / or grow up in Italy, the only religious concepts that children know are those transmitted by families. Often, however, it is actually about habits, traditions, customs and traditions that are hard to die.
Saman Abbas was allegedly killed by her family for refusing an imposed marriage and for having decided not to respect traditions that she did not feel belonged to her. Forced marriages and the so-called honor killing have been banned by Pakistani law and are considered haram by Islamic doctrine. For Islam, in fact, life belongs to God, who is the only one who gives it and the only one who can take it away. This concept is repeated in various places in the Koran and also in the Sunna, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. A verse that represents an important reference in these terms is number 79 of Surah (chapter) 36 “He Who created them the first time will give them life again. He knows every creation perfectly.” Regarding marriage, the Sunna lists, among its foundations, the principle of “ijiaba wa qubul,” that is, the consent of the two spouses. In the event that the marriage makes the couple unhappy, separation and divorce is permitted. However, there is an abyss between what religion provides and what people’s mentality accepts or rejects.
Traditions, customs and conventions take over and change from country to country. Many Arab, African and Asian societies, for example, look scornfully at divorced women and stigmatize them. Many men also use divorce as a weapon against women, effectively holding them hostage to their choices. Precisely in the gap between rights and customs, in the difference in mentality between generations raised in different contexts and eras, the suffering of many young people, in particular of many girls, writes. Specifically in Pakistan, marriage is preceded by the mangni ceremony, the engagement, during which the wedding date is established. There are culturally fascinating rituals, such as mehndi, a party of women only where henna is applied and dances surrounded by yellow flowers and the baraat, the procession of the groom’s family towards the bride’s house. Here the nikah-naam is signed, or the marriage document, which also indicates the amount of the meher, a cash gift that the groom pays to the bride. The spouses must express their consent in front of the quadi, the religious authority and after the formula of qabool Kiya, or the acceptance and signature, the celebrations continue, moving, the next day, to the groom’s house. Forced marriages skip all these steps, taking away from spouses, especially brides who often have no voice, both the joy of choice and that of starting a life of love.
Today the children of migrants who grow up in Italy acquire from school a sense of legality and rights that makes them aware of being free individuals, of being able to make decisions about their own lives. Their new awareness often clashes with the need to please families, who show condescension when you have ideas and desires different from those that the parents imagine. In reality, this generation gap also concerns young people with a secular or atheist sensibility who grow up in closed contexts, strongly linked to traditions. The presence in many countries of the world of clandestine clinics for the practice of abortion or for the surgical reconstruction of the hymen show that in certain contexts it seems more important to save appearances than to live according to one’s own sensitivity and choices. Sometimes it becomes a matter of survival, because girls who have lost their virginity or are pregnant without being married risk their own lives. But no one pays too much attention to the boys; the fault is always and only attributed to women.
This also applies to marriages between people of different faiths. Islam provides for a patrilineal transmission of the faith, so a man can marry a woman of a different faith, but a woman cannot. In many countries the struggle of women, also supported by human rights movements, has brought about significant changes in family codes, eliminating this limitation. Morocco was a forerunner in these terms, with the approval of Mudawana, the Moroccan Code of Personal Status, or the law on family law approved in 2004. It introduces important innovations in the institution of marriage such as the abolition of the wali, that is the guardian of the bride and the proclamation of equality between the spouses. Tunisia also introduced important reforms with the entry into force of the new Constitution in 2014, which guarantees, among other things, equality between men and women and the abolition, introduced in 2017, of the ban on women from marrying non-Muslim men.
In most Islamic countries, however, this is not the case and often migrant communities also respect this precept and want their daughters to marry only with Muslims. The conversion of the would-be spouse should be real, that is, after a vocation and a course of studies that lead the person to embrace the Islamic faith and then obtain a certificate of Islam issued by an imam. This document is required by the embassies of the countries of origin for the registration of marriages and children. Even when the would-be spouses are not so tied to the faith, in order to obtain the clearance from the embassy of reference of the bride or from the local authorities, if the wedding is celebrated in a Muslim country, the groom must still obtain an Islamic document, which it is often released even though there is no real conversion.
Saman, according to the reconstructions of the investigators, needed her documents in order to leave with the boy she loved. She wanted to live out in the open, without being imposed upon a man she did not want and without accepting hypocritical actions to please “others” and keep up appearances. Every day there are girls who denounce violence within families, who fight both hypocrisy and male chauvinism. In a world where religion and politics are separated, where those who believe can stick to their values and dictate as they want, and those who do not believe can live according to their conscience, much suffering would be saved and many lives would certainly be saved. For this to happen, however, a substantial cultural reform is needed that starts from the ground up. This, however, will hardly arrive, even in the most closed and hostile contexts of the world. Saman also experienced this clash—on her very skin. She is the adopted daughter of a secular and lawful state, the blood daughter of a country where liberticidal and misogynistic laws still exist. She had chosen to abandon the blood family and be embraced by the “adopted” family, Italy. Instead, the parental home was for her a sort of no-man’s land, a death trap between walls for which the only law in force was the law of hatred. Looking at the photos of the young woman, her big eyes projected towards the future, which will never open again, one can only choose to carry on her struggle, that of the freedom of young women, that of liberation from all forms of moral blackmail and taxation. It is very important to work in schools, which are always the first observatory, the first citizenship laboratory, a privileged place for listening and sharing. At the same time, we must continue to spread the culture of legality among migrant communities, so that no one can think of exercising their own law and committing crimes and barbarities with impunity. Saman asks for justice.
Ph. © Maria Teneva