No Honour in Killing: Making Visible Buried Truth was the theme for a recent exhibition held at the National Art Gallery in Islamabad through April and May 2009. Horrified by the Nasirabad honour killings, Niilofur Farrukh felt that she had to take action in some form. With a career in curating art exhibitions, she decided that she could use art to put across a social message. In cooperation with Nasreen Latif of WAR, Anis Haroon of Aurat Foundation, Kausar Khan of WAF and Uzma Noorani of Panah, she has created a travelling exhibition featuring artwork from local artists and from the diaspora Seminars and interactive sessions with local audiences wherever the exhibition is held add an extra dimension of illumination. Television has also provided coverage in the form of talk shows and panel discussions. In the towns and cities where the exhibition has been held prior to Islamabad, the experience has been an eye opener and shows that ordinary people are ready for social change in spite of resistance from the powers that be.
Aside from the social message, the art on view is striking and original. Some of the pieces, culled from provincial artists collected from various exhibition venues, have a naïve quality, coming as they do from people unexposed to development in the art world. From the major cities come works by graduates from world known art schools, representing not only traditional techniques but also unusual methods such as smoke painting (Riffat Alvi) and fabric panels (Mehr Afroze), while art from the diaspora includes digital prints and videos.
I interviewed Niilofur to ask her about people’s response in areas where the exhibition was held prior to the capital, which included Sukkur, Khairpur and Jamshoro; all cities where honour killing has recently been carried out with impunity. The result is a combination of informal face-to-face conversation with Niilofur while she was in Islamabad for the opening of the exhibition, and additional questions answered over email.
How did the No Honour in Killing project evolve?
Niilofur Farrukh:“The Nasirabad incident disturbed me and I kept thinking of how the issue needs to be kept alive so that there would be justice for the victims. Since I work in the arts, the only way I could do it was through an exhibition to which community dialogue on the issue of honour killing has been added. The participation as well as contribution of local artists wherever the show is held represents their voice on the issue.”
How long did it take to put together the exhibition, and how many people were involved in it?
NF: “I formulated the concept in December 2008. It then took two months to contact artists and take care of logistics before the first show could be held in Hyderabad on 13 February 13, 2009.
There are three active working group members: Nasreen Siddiqi, Coordinator of War Against Rape (WAR,) who is responsible for consultative dialogue with the community; Kausar Khan, who took on the responsibility of organising the funding; and myself.
As the curator, I am responsible for developing the concept, setting up the show in various cities, and so on.”
Stories in the newspapers
From The Guardian, Monday, September 1, 2008:
“Three teenage girls have been buried alive by their tribe in a remote part of Pakistan to punish them for attempting to choose their own husbands, in an “honour” killing case.
After news of the deaths emerged, male politicians from their province, Balochistan, defended the killings in parliament, claiming the practice was part of “our tribal custom”.
The girls, thought to have been aged between 16 and 18, were kidnapped by a group of men from the Umrani tribe. They were driven to a rural area and then injured by being shot. Then, while still alive, they were dragged bleeding to a pit, where they were covered with earth and stones…
However, six weeks after the deaths, no one was arrested amid claims of a cover-up. According to several accounts, Balochistan government vehicles were used to abduct the girls, and the killing was overseen by a tribal chief who is the brother of a provincial minister from the ruling Pakistan People’s party.
Some reports said that two older relatives of the girls had tried to intervene, but they too were shot and buried with the girls while still alive…
…with a presidential election on September 6, one in which Balochistan’s provincial parliament would be strongly relied on to deliver votes, action that would antagonise the region’s politicians was highly unlikely.
In Pakistan’s national parliament, an MP from Baluchistan, Israrullah Zehri, said on Friday that “this action was carried out according to tribal traditions”, a view backed up by some other male lawmakers, who attacked a woman senator who had raised the case.
Umrani, a provincial minister, has admitted that the girls were buried alive but denied the involvement of his brother.
An editorial, published in Pakistani daily The News said: ‘Surely, the government should be seeking the murderers, not protect [them] through some dark conspiracy of silence. The fact the act was ‘kept quiet’ means the government sympathises with such doings.’”
Have you curated shows in the past where art has been used for a social message?
NF: “I curated several shows earlier but the only one with a direct social message was Flags of Peace. This took place at the peak of tension between India and Pakistan. Over a hundred artists from Pakistan and India were invited to create works on fabric which were exhibited at regional peace conferences in Karachi and Lahore.”
How was the present exhibition funded? Was it easy to obtain funding and from what sources did this come?
NF: “For the first three shows, we had no formal funding but were supported by our partners and concerned citizens. ASNA
and WAR took care of the travelling and transport of art works. At Sindh University Fine Arts Department, where the first show was held, the Department hosted us and organised the inauguration. The Sindh Chapter of Women’s Action Forum also helped out with the logistics of community dialogue.
The Islamabad show is being held in collaboration with the National Art Gallery, which is hosting it for six weeks. The Gallery arranged the seminar on the day of the inauguration.
Recently, five months after the show took off, some funding has become available from the SKSW Sister Campaign
. This will be used mainly for transportation of the art works to Karachi, Lahore, Multan and other cities, as well as for the production of the catalogue.”
Where has the exhibition been shown prior to the National Art Gallery, and for how long will the work be on display at each venue? I understand that in Jamshoro and Khairpur the work was displayed for a few days, during which there were interactive activities such as talks and theatre.
NF: “In Hyderabad, it was shown at the Benazir Bhutto Art Gallery of the Fine Arts Department of Sindh University. The show lasted for two days because funding was not available to hold it for longer. The same was true of Khairpur.
At the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, which is well equipped to hold a long show, the duration will be six weeks. On average, the show will last for ten days to two weeks at each of the remaining venues, depending on the availability of space. Community dialogues, however, are a part of all the showings.”
Where else do you plan to take the exhibition?
NF: “The work will be shown in Karachi in early August at the VM Gallery. From there, in October, it will go on to the National College of the Arts in Lahore and later to Multan and Bahawalpur. Quetta and Peshawar are also in the pipeline.”
In provincial cities such as Sukkur, Jamshoro and Khairpur, how did people respond to the concept of change, particularly in the case of men? Also, how easy was it to elicit responses from a society that is generally silent?
NF: “In Sukkur, our partners were Indus Resource Centre which hosted the show at Khazana and organised the inauguration and community dialogue. The verandah and arches of Khazana create a very garden-like atmosphere. It was conceived as a multi-purpose space for working women such as bank employees and academics, where they could come and shop and meet, as the city itself is quite conservative. It also arranges activities for children.
In Khairpur, our partners were once again the Indus Resource Centre. This segment was particularly exhausting as it involved an eight-hour journey in a coaster over some very bumpy roads. We put up the exhibition at night, using movable screens as there was no formal exhibition area, and the inaugural session began the next day. This was enormously well attended as the Indus Resource Centre runs schools in the outlying area. There were over five hundred people present, including people from neighbouring villages. When I saw theshamyanas I baulked for a moment! However, this was a very productive session and the mood was responsive and encouraging. Some of the children wrote and performed skits on the theme, which were reflective of repression and violence against women, but they ended on an optimistic note as they find themselves a part of the change in society. As a general rule, I found only people in power hesitant to discuss the issue, although in this case government officials spoke in favour of social reform. In other words, one doesn’t know if this was mere lip service, but there was public endorsement for the idea of social reform. And although Khairpur doesn’t really have an artists’ community, the Indus Resource Centre organised an art competition from which a painting by a local artist on canvas, and one on paper by a student, were selected and are included in the exhibition. They vividly express horror at the brutality meted out to Tasleem Solangi, an eight-month pregnant woman who was thrown in front of a pack of hungry dogs.
At Jamshoro, which is a university town just outside Hyderabad, the inaugural session was predominantly academic and included the Vice Chancellor, faculty and a vocal group of two hundred students who very openly discussed traditions like karo kari and condemned it as retrogressive. The art students who helped me install the show were keen to get support from other Pakistanis to eliminate these practices. There were nazims in the audience and the general response of both faculty and audience was to voice concern and look at ways to bring about social reform.”
Stories in the newspapers
From The News, Thursday, January 01, 2009:
“As many as 179 persons were killed in 141 incidents of honour killing throughout the country in year 2008. According to a study by The News based on the newspaper reports published from January to December 2008, a total of 138 women and 41 men were killed in the name of honour.
The year 2008 also saw two cruel incidents of violence that included the burial of five women alive in Nasirabad district of Balochistan and throwing of Tasleem Solangi, an eight-month pregnant woman, in front of hungry dogs in Khairpur district of Sindh.
Most of such incidents took place in interior Sindh, especially Sukkar, Khairpur and Mirpurkhas. It is, however, astonishing to note that a great number of honour killing incidents also took place in the urban areas of Punjab like Lahore, Sialkot, Gujranwala and one such incident in Rawalpindi.
In most of the cases the close relatives killed their daughters, sisters, wives, nieces and in five of the incidents – their mothers.
Social customs were the most dominant reason in these honour killings. Even abroad such incidents also occurred as a Pakistani family in US strangulated their daughter for not obeying parents for keeping on with the marriage…
Despite government efforts, honour killing incidents remained high in year 2008. According to a newspaper statement, a specialised police unit to control violence against women, in particular the menace of karo kari, has been planned with the help of UNDP. This unit will focus on district of upper Sindh where most of the cases of violence against women were reported.
In another statement published in a newspaper the Sindh Home Minister Dr. Zulfikar Ali Mirza directed the Inspector General Police to take all possible steps to act against those holding Jirgas (courts) in the name of karo kari.
No such efforts till this time seem to be fruitful in this regard where honour will keep on claiming lives.”
Now that we have discussed the social aspect of the exhibition, I would like to know a little about the artwork itself. Some of the work on display is from the diaspora: how different in character or vision do you feel it to be as compared to local artists?
NF: “The local artists who are living in an environment where violence against women has greater urgency deal with the subject with more intensity. The Khairpur artists, despite little exposure to art or formal art training, have done very direct works illustrating the brutal murder of Shazia from a nearby village. Works from the diaspora like The Bloody Girls, the collaborative video piece by Simeen Ishaque and Quin Mathews who are based in America are more conceptual in nature. The same is true of prints by Sylvat Aziz and the miniature by Tazeen Qayum, both from Canada.
As far as the structure of the exhibition is concerned, there is a core exhibition by national artists as well as those from the diaspora, and works by artists from Hyderabad and Khairpur. Islamabad artists’ work includes, among older, established artists, Mobina Zuberi and Fauzia Minallah, and among young or emerging artists Nida Bangash, a young miniaturist; Sana Arjumand, whose paintings express identity and political themes using the female figure, in this case Mukhtar Mai’s portrait set in a card frame as the Queen of Hearts; and Ghania Badar, a ceramicist whose figurative work frequently includes themes of repression.”
Is the work displayed for sale, or is it solely for exhibition?
NF: “The works are not for sale as it’s a non-commercial show. At the end of the show the art works will be returned to the artists.”
 ASNA: a non profit organisation founded by Niilofur Farrukh, Mehr Afroze and Shahnaz Siddiq to further awareness of contemporary arts and its strong links to craft traditions.
 SKSW Sister Campaign: a funding body for gender activism.