Two sisters, dancing and singing in the rain. One flashes a smile at the camera.
In some places in the world, that would be a cherished home video. But in Pakistan, it is grounds for murder.
16-year-old Noor Basra and her sister Noor Sheza, age 15, were shot and killed by five gunmen in their conservative northern town of Chillas, Pakistan. Their mother was shot as well.
The sisters' only crime is that they were filmed while dancing in the rain around six months ago. Clothed in traditional Pakistani dress, the video depicts Noor Basra and Noor Sheza running around the house, chasing neighborhood children, and happily dancing in the rain. But this simple video apparently went viral in their small town, with people forwarding it to each other via cell phones, commenting on the inappropriateness of girls dancing in public.
The subsequent gossip and the supposed "assault on the honor of the family" led the sisters' step-brother to allegedly plot the honor killing of his two sisters. On June 23, he ordered five gunman to carry out his plan, apparently under the belief that this violent act would restore his family's honor. The brother is currently under police custody, though whether he will be jailed or even charged with a crime remains to be seen.
It may seem ridiculous that such an action would go unpunished, but in Pakistan, honor killings are essentially justified murder. Close to 1,000 honor killings occur every single year, almost always involving men killing female relatives for the sake of preserving honor and tradition. Sometimes, in the case of pre-marital relationships, the men involved are murdered, too. But these cases are most often decided in village tribal councils consisting of elderly patriarchs that are also committed to ensuring that tradition triumphs above all, even if that means gunning down a few teenagers.
Even when the cases are brought to a legal court, around 77% of the assailants are fully acquitted of the charges. Under Pakistani law, any crime can be pardoned by the victim's family, and when the assailant is your relative (as they mostly are in honor killings), the family is pressured into pardoning them. And even if they don't choose to pardon them, the punishment isn't a life in jail, but a simple payment.
That fact belies a much bigger problem that fuels Pakistan's honor killings: Women are still considered property. When they refuse an arranged marriage, or when they fall in love, or even when they just want to dance in the rain, the law allows them to be treated much like a broken TV. If trying to knock some sense into it doesn't work, you can just throw it out. And if someone else breaks it, you can forgive them or you can insist they pay for it, but it's not a big deal.
Tradition is used as an excuse to oppress women across the world, but when the cost of preserving an archaic, discriminatory system is the smiles of two young, innocent teenage girls, how can it possibly be justified?