In the tribal region of Pakistan where Khalida Brohi grew up, girls didn’t typically go to school. Instead, some were forced into marriage at a very young age — and punished by death if they don’t act according to plan.
That’s what happened to Brohi’s 14-year-old cousin, Khadija. Khadija’s family had arranged a marriage for her, but Khadija fell in love with someone else and ran away. Then, Brohi says, “Three men arrived and they took her … to a place where her grave was already dug and she was murdered by my uncle right there.”
Brohi herself would have been betrothed before she was even born had her father not refused to sign the marriage contract. “It saved my life, definitely,” she says of her father’s refusal.
Instead, Brohi became the first girl in her village to go to school. After being exposed to books and ideas — as well as to the suffering of girls and women in her village — Brohi dedicated herself to educating women. She’s launched several nonprofit organizations and speaks out against so-called “honor killings” — in which women are murdered by family members because of a perceived shame. Her new memoir is I Should Have Honor.
On the definition of “honor killing”
An honor killing is defined in many ways, but to me it’s an ego killing. It’s to restore men’s honor. … These days, it’s also used as a business where women are killed and the men are spared and he pays money for his life. So in many cases, if someone wants to pay a big debt, they would target a woman in their family and then call out to a man who has money and say that, “if you don’t pay, we would kill you as well, because we know that you were in a relationship with our sister or this family member.”
On her cousin’s family getting money after Khadija’s murder
This is this is very hard for me to speak about, but when [Khadija] was murdered, the boy’s family had pleaded with them to take money instead of murdering him, and the money would bring food to the table of this family. And the mother would refuse to eat, and because there was nothing else to eat they would force her to have a few bites. And one day she ate from that food, and the next day she said, “I feel a cancer growing in me, because I ate my daughter.”
On exchange marriages, in which each tribe trades a bride to the other in order to establish trust
Exchange marriages are usually very common between two different tribes. … People who don’t know each other and cannot trust each other. A lot of times even in small villages, trade also happens between their own tribes and so do relationships. But when there is a persistent offer … for starting a relationship, then one tribe gives a daughter to the other tribe and demands a daughter in return. This is usually so that the daughter they’ve given is kept happy, and in any given good facilities of life, and if she’s ever beaten in the other tribe, they would beat this daughter.
On how she was nearly in an exchange marriage before she was born
Before I was born, my uncle … who at this time had murdered his own wife, decided that he’s going to marry again and he needed another wife, but the family he was asking that woman from demanded an exchange, and there was no one else to be given, so he asked my father, who was his youngest brother, … to give his first daughter as an exchange. …
This was the first time when [my father] said no. He refused his father, he refused his brother, because he said …, “Before even I hold her in my hands in my arms I cannot make such a decision.” And because of that he disgraced his family and eventually left the family to give us a new life.
On how her father’s education affected the family
It’s shaped the family to become who we are, and to give us the path that we chose, because when he made it to university, he started realizing the injustices even more. He had started thinking about women’s rights and about the position he would one day give to his daughters. At the time of university he discovered that his village not only had given him opportunity to go to school, but at the same time had also made him suffer by putting him through this tragic exchange marriage to a girl he had not met … and at the time my mother was nine and he was 13.
By the time he was about 16 or 17 … he said, “I’m going to marry someone else.” So when he went to college he saw a girl and he was like, “I can’t believe this girl not only goes to school, she likes talking about politics. She reads books.” This was so astonishing to him, and so he decided that he’s going to finally find someone who’s worth him and marry that girl, but when he was about to reach out to the family of that girl to ask for her hand in marriage, he remembered the time when my mother came to him as a bride, that night when he walked into that room, it was a dark room the first night of their marriage, my mother was sitting on a cot decorated like a doll with clothes from someone else, jewelry hanging off of her, her makeup all smeared because she’d been crying, and he remembered how much she was shaking. She was so scared, that 9-year-old girl who only wanted to go back to her mother, and he was like, “That was not her fault. If education is what I love about a woman, I’m going to go and educate her, and I’m sure I would love her.” And so he did. And they fall in love and they were the biggest love story of the village.
On how her father changed the meaning of honor for her
I’m always grateful to him for educating me. But more than that I’m grateful to him for teaching me about honor. When I was very little, he asked me to come and sit next to him and he was like, “Do you know how you will dishonor me?”
And instantly I was so scared, because I’d been hearing all these stories about girls who had dishonored their fathers and the punishments they had received. … I didn’t say anything, and he said, “You would dishonor me by bringing bad grades from school,” he shifted everything for me. …
All my life I had known that honor was associated with men about women: If women went out to the markets they dishonored their fathers. If they studied they dishonored their fathers. If they didn’t wear their scarf, or if they laughed loudly, they dishonored their fathers. But this was new. If I didn’t study hard, or if I didn’t bring good grades I would dishonor him.
And that really, really relieved me it empowered me so much that I worked really hard in the school and when time came for me to speak up against honor killings; when my cousin was murdered, I was ready.
Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Marc Silver adapted it for the Web.