Saba Maqsood was 18 when her family tried to kill her for marrying a man of her choice — their first attempt at taking her life. Not willing to wait for their third attempt, she has fled the country with her husband and two children.
ISTANBUL/GUJRANWALA — Her family tried to kill her twice — for marrying a man of her choice, and then for talking about surviving the first attempt in an Oscar and Emmy-winning documentary. Aware of their bloodlust driven by a perception of sullied honour, Saba Maqsood was unwilling to stick around for them to try to murder her for a third time.
The young woman, whose story gained international prominence after the acclaim of "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness," has fled Pakistan with her husband, Muhammad Qaiser, a man “unacceptable” to her family.
Saba’s father, Maqsood Ahmed, and her uncle first tried to avenge their “honour” by shooting her and dumping her in a river. Her survival instincts kicked in, and Saba clawed her way back to life.
Her story of perseverance drove the documentary, released in 2015, and the public indictment was another blow to the family’s pride.
“The documentary disturbed my family. It was another setback to their so-called honour,” Saba tells TRT World during a course of interviews. The 21-year-old twice-victim of attempted honour-killing speaks boldly, her hands flying as if to lend support to her rapid, slightly pitchy words.
The concept of honour in Pakistan is driven by patriarchy and the very male-driven sense of honour which is tied to society’s perception of the women of the family.
“In Pakistan, men link their honour to women because they see them [women] as their commodity,” Saima Munir, the national manager of Aurat Foundation, which works for women’s rights in the country, tells TRT World.
“Men consider themselves the lord; can you imagine a society where ‘lords’ allow their subjects to do their own will?”
Even the hint of a relationship or behaviour which can mar a family’s reputation will result in the murder of the woman or girl in question, as it did in Peshawar in September. Honour killings are at times preceded by abduction, rape and torture and men, too, are targeted.
Saba’s family lives in Gujranwala, a district in Pakistan where at least 51 people have been killed over honour between 2011 and 2016, according to the Punjab police. The province of Punjab saw 406 cases of honour killings in 2016, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. That’s 370 women murdered, more than one honour killing for each day of the year.
With their houses a mere 500 metres apart, Qaiser would visit Saba’s house as a neighbour might and over time the two fell in love. Even though his family went through the formal channels to ask for Saba’s hand in marriage, Qaisar was deemed too poor. Maqsood wanted Saba to marry his brother’s relative and so the couple decided to elope in 2014.
That was when her father and uncle tried to kill her the first time.
Saba eventually settled the matter out of court and she thought her new family could live without fear in the same neighbourhood.
Saba says only a handful of people knew about her story initially, “the documentary exposed my family’s actions to the world.”
"A Girl in the River" unravelled the tentative peace between the families.
Saba was seven months pregnant with her second child when the second attempt on her life occurred in late 2016.
“I was standing outside my home when I saw my uncle approach me with a weapon,” Saba recalls. “I ran towards the door, screaming ‘No!' My uncle yelled at me to stop — it was a horrifying sound,” she says.
“He aimed his pistol at me from a short range and fired,” she tells TRT World. “The bullets hit the door and once again I survived.” Recounting her near-death experiences, Saba doesn’t waver from the bravery she has embraced as her identity.
Saba knew living near a family who wanted her dead was not an option. Not when she had two children.
“I asked myself: how long will luck help me when I’m living not so far from my parents’ house?” They shared the same community, walked on the same streets and shopped at the same neighbourhood grocer’s.
A rights group approached the couple and helped them move to another country — the name of the country has been withheld for Saba’s safety.
Had Maqsood expressed regret over trying to kill his daughter, Saba and her family of four might have stayed in Gujranwala.
But Maqsood is anything but penitent.
“I tried to kill my own daughter with my own hands, but she survived. I still have no regret because she deserves that punishment,” Maqsood said, soon after his release from jail.
“I couldn’t even make eye-contact with the people in my neighbourhood after she eloped. But now, I feel relaxed, I feel proud.”
Saba’s mother has mixed feelings.
“I was stunned when he told me he killed my daughter,” Maqsooda says. “I don’t support what my husband did but she [Saba] did dishonour him in front of everyone.”
Maqsooda says she didn’t want to see Saba move far away but “at least it gives me the satisfaction that she is alive.”
Criminal cases related to honour killings are often settled outside court as the accused killers are often family members who can beg survivors for forgiveness. The few victims — like Saba — who do pursue justice are eventually pressured into dropping charges.
“Everyone was holding me responsible for keeping my father and uncle behind the bars,” Saba says.
People tend to have short-term memories, Saba adds. “They forget the horror and tragedy I went through when I was almost killed a few months ago,” she says.
“It’s a man-made world; women suffer a lot.”
Her uncle and father, who were arrested after the second attempt on her life, were released after Saba left the country.
Prominent Pakistani social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch was killed by her brother, Waseem Baloch, in 2016. In his confession, he proudly says, “She was dishonouring the family name ... I am not ashamed of killing her.” Waseem is facing now trial.
Only watch this Qandeel Baloch music video if you can handle her twerks https://t.co/NKzYu6FayT— The Express Tribune (@etribune) July 12, 2016
Both Qandeel’s murder and the documentary based on Saba's story by the well-respected Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, drew international attention to Pakistan’s honour killing problem, pressuring the Sharif administration to act.
Under new anti-honour killing legislation, which was passed in October 2016, relatives of the victim can only pardon the killer if he or she is sentenced to death. The perpetrator cannot avoid a mandatory 25-year prison sentence.
However, the law seems to have brought little or no respite, activists say.
Munir says current legislation is not sufficient. “Unfortunately Pakistan is a country where two kinds of law work simultaneously — the penal code and Islamic law.”
The Aurat Foundation manager says it is left up to the judge to decide whether a case is compoundable or not, whether the victim can come to a compromise with the perpetrator. The law is not clear, Munir says, “Why does a judge have such discretionary powers?”
The government introduced this law to fix its global image, while it really intends to maintain the status quo, Munir adds.
According to a Human Rights Watch report, over 90 women so far this year have been killed over honour in just one province of Pakistan.
Munir says roughly 188 cases of violence against women have been reported in the first half of 2017, without elaborating whether some or all of these are linked to honour.
A disparity in statistics is quite common. Most organisations track honour killings based on local media reports and cases registered with the police. Women and men tortured or murdered over honour do not always make it to the news cycle and not all crimes are reported due to the stigma attached, the role of a family member, or the inefficiency of the police.
It’s been three years since Saba and Qaiser married. They now have two children, Yasir and Safa Noor.
“My concern is my kids. I wanted to educate them in a society which is free of fear,” Saba says. “I don’t want them to suffer the hardships which we witnessed.”
Qaiser, who has been by Saba’s side throughout her ordeal, agrees with her. “We had no protection in our country. She was attacked twice. I am sure we will be able to take better care of our children here,” the soft-spoken slightly built man says.
For now, the trauma Saba suffered at the hands of her father hit Qaiser hard enough to not adopt the role of the absolute patriarch.
“My first priority will be to provide quality education to my daughter. I don’t want her to go through the pain that we had suffered, Qaiser says, whose deference to Saba as she speaks goes against the archetypal countryside male.
“[My daughter] will be absolutely free to make her own decisions, including marrying the person she wants or loves,” he tells TRT World. “Our sole aim of leaving the country is to give our kids the chance to make their own decisions in an open-minded society.”
Saba is determined to shower her daughter with attention, having grown up in a society where male offspring are favoured. “I want her to be brave like me,” Saba says.
“I want people to remember me as a brave girl. I left my country because I didn’t get justice there. Otherwise, who wants to leave their motherland and loved ones?” she says.
“Today I am living abroad for a cause — for a better education for myself and my children.” Saba does plan to return to Pakistan and “raise my voice for vulnerable women’s issues.”
But no matter where she lives, the scar on her left cheek will remind her of the moment her father pulled the trigger, hoping her death would resurrect his honour.