Jerome Taylor: Violence is common where state justice is hard to come by


Across swathes of South Asia, and particularly in Pakistan, izzat (honour) and its counterpart sharam (shame) dominate day-to-day life.

The importance placed on upholding a family's standing within the wider community fosters a remarkable sense of belonging that enables relatives to pull together during times of immense difficulty. But it can also lead to astonishing levels of brutality.

Traditional Pakistani custom places enormous emphasis on collective responsibility, which means that the actions of one person can bring shame on an entire family. Divorce, affairs, extra-marital sex and marriage breakdowns are considered shameful acts that threaten the whole community's reputation. Violence is often considered the only way to wipe away this shame.

In Britain we have seen this reality meted out in the form of so-called honour killings, where young people are murdered by the people supposed to love and protect them. Although men are occasionally targeted, often it is women who bear the brunt of the violence.

That is because a woman's izzat is considered much more fragile than a man's. There is a saying used in Pakistan to describe how honour works, which compares a man to a stone and a woman to a sheet of silk. Drop a stone in mud, it is said, and the dirt can be quickly washed away. But a muddied silk sheet is ruined because the stains will remain forever.

Even seemingly minor arguments between families can explode into armed confrontation in what the Pakistani media calls "blood feuds". The areas most associated with blood feuds are the Pashtun tribal regions bordering Pakistan, where complex codes of honour known as "pashtunwali" compel tribe members to revenge one murder with another. Such feuds can pass between generations.

But places like the Punjab are not immune from feuding. Gujrat is a rural backwater of the Punjab where gun ownership is almost as common as in the tribal areas. It may not be geographically far from the provincial capital Lahore, the country's most cosmopolitan and liberal city, but culturally it is a million miles away.

The kidnapping earlier this year of Sahil Saeed, a five-year-old boy from Oldham, shed light on how British Pakistanis are increasingly vulnerable in their own ancestral homeland. They are wealthy compared to locals and are looked at as cash cows by criminal gangs.

What happens now depends on whether the Punjab police convict enough people to prevent a blood feud. In an area of the world where justice is often difficult to obtain through legal channels, it is little wonder that many people stick to an eye-for-an-eye retribution.