The Love Affairs of Muhammad Iqbal

Jun 2014

Tuesday, May 27th. A twenty-five year old woman is bludgeoned to death outside the Lahore High Court. Bludgeoning takes a pretty long time so the headline should’ve actually read “fifty men, including several policemen, stand witness as pregnant woman is slowly beaten to death by family members outside the Lahore High Court.” This news pings around the airwaves, Twitter and Facebook. Parallels are made to the rape and hanging of two young girls in India, and even to the shooter in California. The words “honor killing” and the number “869” are thrown around. Eight hundred and sixty nine. Let’s hold on to that one.

Two days later, the press catches up with the husband. “I begged (the police) to help us but they said, this is not our duty,” Muhammed Iqbal tells Reuters. Iqbal may have tried to intervene. He may have been beaten off. In photographs he is seen holding his deceased wife’s shawl, or crouching near a dry rectangle in the ground, marked with clean white lime-washed stones and a slightly larger headstone. He may have suffered injuries, but we don’t see them. The victim does, however, report having a broken heart.

He wants us to know he loved her.

Meet Muhammad Iqbal, 45, resident of Punjab’s rural heartland. Married at an unspecified age to one Ayesha Bibi, with whom he had three boys. The eldest, Aurangzeb, is currently 22, so let’s say our hero was 23 when he got married. When he was around forty he met a woman visiting her family’s lands, which lay adjacent to his. The woman’s name is Farzana, but it might be also Parveen. Farzana/Parveen must have been no more than twenty when she met Iqbal: a few years older than his eldest son. Let’s assume Ayesha, mother of three, is unhappy that her 40 year old husband is having an affair with a 20 year old.

Would he have left Ayesha, or simply made her a second wife? Was she jealous, desperate, petty, bitchy, or simply afraid of being left penniless and divorced? Who knows, because like all good rural heartland tales, the women die before anyone can get their side of the story.

“I was going to see Farzana and she stood in my way and said she wouldn’t let me go… I held her by the neck and just meant to push her but she died,” he said.

Meet Muhammad Iqbal, the tragic hero. Father of three, husband of two, widower, lover, unintentional murderer. After his crime of passion he absconds to Nankana Sahib, where he lives (seeks shelter?) with Farzana’s family, until his son Aurangzeb (whom he abandoned?) is old enough to forgive him for killing his wife. Blood money. Happens all the time in these rural heartlands, the human rights sages tell us. All the time, they tell us, twenty-two, thirteen, and nine-year old boys will look a news reporter dead in the eye and say “I forgave my father for killing my real mother and then God gave me a second mother. Now she is also gone.”

In “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” David Foster Wallace reproduced, verbatim, conversations overheard and interviews conducted with rapists, molesters, with men who slept with women because they were vulnerable, who beat them because they could. Very little context is given, and almost no explanation is given for what the act of monstrosity actually was – the man is a monster, clearly, but what about his friend, the rapporteur? What about Wallace, the conduit and what about us, the readers, in our uncomfortable ability to relate to, sympathize with and finally recoil from in horror? And what about the hideous women: those fornicating, abdicating eight hundred and sixty nine? Who will painstakingly, lovingly craft their stories for mass consumption?

To be fair, Muhammad Iqbal did not kill his second wife. She was killed by her father, brother, possibly a cousin and a female relative too. The media tells us it’s because Farzana married for love. She was engaged, or possibly married, to another cousin, and she had the temerity to marry 40-year-old Muhammad Iqbal for love. “Many conservative families consider it shameful for a woman to fall in love and choose her own husband.”

But why would the woman scream “we’ll give you the money” as they beat her to death? Ah, the dowry. Eight hundred dollars was all her majnuu could cough up, and eight hundred dollars, or eighty thousand, is peanuts in the rural Punjabi heartland. According to the police, this indiscretion on Farzana/Parveen’s part caused 20 relatives to descend on her yards from one of Pakistan’s five high courts, this one happening to be in its second-largest city, where it took them (depending on whose story you believe) three quick blows or fifteen minutes of pounding with bricks and batons to avenge this crime of love and marrying who you want and female empowerment that nevertheless stinks of money, capital, and class.

For the literal-minded, here are some stats, in no particular order. About sixty percent of Pakistan lives on less than $2 a day[1]. Nankana Sahib is the capital of an eponymous district due west of Lahore, and was formerly part of Sheikhupura which regularly ranks “High” on the Human Development Index. The good folks at Alif Ailaan tell us that the newly-formed Nankana Sahib district has a primary school enrollment of 63% and a tertiary enrollment of 13%, and ranks 64 out of Pakistan’s 145 districts in education rankings.[2] Farzana’s father, brother, and a handful of cousins have been booked for murder but shouts and murmurs suggest they’ve gotten away with killing her sister too. After all, all it takes is a young man of 22 to look a reporter/judge/representative of the “civilized”, formal state in the eye and say he forgives the killing of this non-subject, non-citizen, private object of the family’s shame and pride who has no business being an individual in the eyes of the state.

Several op-eds in the last week have twisted themselves into a knot talking about Islamic extremism and tribal conservatism, about rural honor and masculinity. But the thought of Mr. Iqbal being either personally religious or conservative is laughable. He wants us to know he loved her, and that he killed for her. And her family wants us to know she loved him. But I suspect that love is not something women do, but something that is done to them. Love is, as Aisha Sarwari’s great Simone de Beauvior quote reminds us, a source not of life but of mortal danger to women, because only men can really love. Only men can have honor, and suffer the shame of its loss. And therefore eight hundred and sixty nine women over the last year have been objects of honor, shame, love, passion, anger but never once capable of these emotions themselves. The media circus that could descend on Moza Sial in the next few months  to describe with great virtuoso the pain of Mr. Iqbal, his dark past (but really, what can we do about that now?) and will faithfully report his narrative of falling in love, of being in love, the tenderness with which she combed his hair and the loving detail with which he remembers her singing. But we’ll never know about the bad wife, the bitches and the beysharam women who stand in the doorways and escape through the windows, who cheat and steal and fuck, who prevent and entice and precipitate these God-fearing, passionate men from doing what God has enabled them (and only them) to do: love.

Modern citizenship, we are told, is different from pre-modern forms of citizenship because it is no longer inherently exclusive and hierarchal. The laws governing individuals in Athens applied to all citizens, but not to the property of citizens, which included slaves and women. But as Ursala Vogel’s brilliant essay on feminism and citizenship tells us, “long after the abolition of slavery and feudal servitude, after the emancipation of the Jews and the recognition of the civil status of aliens, women, as wives, still lacked some of the basic attributes of autonomous legal agency.”[3] How do we grapple with Punjab’s wealth and education and simultaneously its terrible treatment of women, Ahmedis, Christians and lower castes? How do we explain its dense networks of roads and telecommunications, its plethora of police stations and court houses, and the utter uselessness of the latter to any of the aforementioned? How does a woman get beaten to death in front of a courthouse in the urban heart of parha likha-Punjab: because this isn’t a rural heartland story any more. This isn’t Atticus Finch’s Alabama, or Katra village, India. This is Lahore, second biggest and richest, home of the Nishat linen and Gul Ahmed textiles and Punjab University and ten McDonalds and Aitcheson College and LUMS.

Because like in de Tocqueville’s America, we have “allowed the social inferiority of women to continue,” while raising her on a pedestal, in her incarnation as a mother, a sister, a daughter and a wife. Because liberal conceptions of democracy are impossible without this private sphere where even the poorest, the most ignorant and exploited man is an equal citizen, and therefore free to lord over a woman. The absence of a direct relationship between women and the state means her husband is her protector-wali and her representative, and we offer solutions of morality where “good Muslims” look after and protect their wives on the condition of their obedience, piety and fidelity. The national underclass of women and minorities stems from us, the eyewitnesses and consumers, it stems from the little voice that says, when it sees a woman being bludgeoned to death, “what did she do” and not “stop.” Because for the dozens of men, policemen – citizens – who stood by, intervening would’ve opened another awful possibility: that Farzana “deserved it.” That she did escape a marriage to a cousin, seduce a man and convince him to strangle his wife. Men deserve the due process of law, but women who are at risk of being monstrous are better off dead.

Erum Haider teaches politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. She has formerly written under the pseudonym, Bushra Zaidi.


[1] According to the Human Development Report 2009

[2] Alif Ailaan: http://www.alifailaan.pk

[3] Ursula Vogel, (1994) “Marriage and the Boundaries of Citizenship,” The Condition of Citizenship. Ed. Bart van Steenbergen. Sage Publications.

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5 Responses to The Love Affairs of Muhammad Iqbal

  1. Abid Usman on Jun 2014 at 1:13 AM

    what u say is true diagnosis of this society but your style of writing is at instances dull and dreary

  2. Storage on Jun 2014 at 10:53 PM

    […] — The Love Affairs of Muhammad Iqbal by Erum Haider for Tanqeed (via tanqeedorg) […]

  3. Abdullah on Jun 2014 at 5:54 AM

    This piece is an indictment of the Pakistani culture where women are reminded that safety is within the confines of your home and venturing ‘outside’ will only defame you. This mandate for women to remain indoors where they are denied visibility happens all over Pakistan and is not just contained in the rural heartlands…and sometimes the oppression boils over and takes place in very public places where we are all reluctant witnesses.

  4. iqbal on Aug 2014 at 5:20 AM

    this episode is commom all over the world so in pakistan it doesnt matter

  5. rizwan iqbal on May 2015 at 1:51 PM

    Muhammad iqbal is is hero of pakistan and its common story.

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