Samia was killed by her own family.



The bullet which killed the murderer lodged in the wall.


Lawyer Hina Jilani witnessed the murder and has fought to have the family convicted.


The law firm where Samia was murdered.
Samia Sarwar
Samia Sarwar sits in the visitor’s chair opposite her lawyer. She had been feeling hopeful, even happy. But now she is beginning to wonder. Where is her mother?

“She does not even go to see if her daughter is alive.”

Samia Sarwar
Killed: Aged 29

Samia’s lawyer Hina Jilani looks again at the clock. It is almost six. If Samia’s mother does not arrive soon, she will have to leave and close the office. Most of the staff have already gone home. The meeting was booked for several hours ago. 

The reason for the meeting is that Samia’s mother is bringing the divorce papers for which Samia has been waiting for so long. The 29-year-old mother of two will officially be able to divorce the man who has been abusing her regularly and from whom she separated three years ago.  She will be able to start a new life and marry the man she loves. She may even be awarded custody of her two sons. She has gone through her chances with her lawyer. But everything hangs on the divorce. Her mother has promised to bring the papers, signed by Samia’s husband.

Samia does not dare to meet her father.

For fifteen days Samia has been hiding in the law firm’s women’s shelter. All the time she has been convinced that her father and uncle are on their way, and that they plan to kill her. She has seen every window as a possible point of entry, the doors look as though they are easy to break through and can she really trust the guards at the gate? The staff, who are very fond of the quiet, polite woman, have tried to reassure her. No unauthorised person has ever got into this house at the secret address. But is it really wise of Samia to trust her mother, if her family is so dangerous? Yes, Samia has said. She has met her mother before, at her lawyer’s office. She feels safe. And her mother, Sultana, has promised to come alone. Samia does not dare to meet her father.

Several of the staff leave the law firm but some clients still wait hopefully on the sofas outside Hina Jilan’s closed door. In a car park outside the office on Main Boulevard, three people climb out of a car. They are a middle-aged woman and two men. One of the men is powerfully built and has a beard.

Samia Sarwar knows that her crime is serious and that her behaviour is punishable by death. She has broken the age-old rules which give parents – in the last instance the father – the right to decide over their daughter’s life. It started when she left the man her parents had chosen for her. That was bad enough but, despite everything, her parents had accepted her decision. After the separation her parents took Samia and her two sons into their home.

When Samia realised she had fallen in love with her captain she waited a long time, worried about how her parents would react.

Then things got worse. Samia took her children to their riding lessons. There she met Nadir Mirza, a captain in the army. Gradually they developed feelings for each other. When Samia realised she had fallen in love with her captain she waited a long time, worried about how her parents would react. She wanted to get a divorce and marry her Nadir. When she asked her father, the answer was a blunt no. Never. Not in his family. If she was going to bring the shame of a divorce over her family then she must at least marry someone the family had chosen.  Not a simple army captain. Never ‘for love’. The family’s honour was at stake. And Samia knew what her family was capable of if their honour was threatened.

Another middle-aged couple have joined the three people outside the office. The new arrivals appear nervous. The guards at the gate have finished for the day and gone home. The guests choose the entrance on the left. They know where it is.

Samia’s family is no uneducated clan family. On the contrary, Samia’s father, Ghulam Sarwar Khan, has a university degree in English, is a businessman, and president of the  North West Frontier Province Chamber of Commerce. Her mother Sultana is a doctor. Samia herself went to the best British schools in Peshawar and dreamed of an academic career. But then she was given away in marriage, as is the custom in Pakistan, to her cousin.

Lawyer Hina Jilani checks her diary one more time. Yes, the meeting was booked for 4 o’clock, during normal office hours. Now she will need to leave shortly. She looks inquiringly at Samia, who is sitting on the other side of the desk, with her back to the door.  

Samia understood that her father’s ‘no’ was not a matter for discussion. But she cannot get Captain Nadir out of her head. He wanted to take her to Lahore. The rest will surely sort itself out, he said. Samia was not so convinced.

Samia’s brother said she had cast a stain on the family’s honour.

What changed her mind was the abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother when her parents were away, on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Samia’s brother said she had cast a stain on the family’s honour. So she packed a few clothes and left. She left her sons in her parents’ house. When Samia disappeared, her brother contacted her parents in Saudi Arabia and they hurried home.

The five visitors climb the forty-nine steps to the law firm’s office. They pass two gleaming signs which say “Asma Jahangir, Supreme Court Lawyer”. “Hina Jilani, Supreme Court Lawyer”.  At first they all walk normally, but as they approach the office door the woman who is Samia’s mother begins to limp. She has hurt her foot, she says, and leans against the bearded man for support. The armed police guard outside the entrance, Basharat Aziz, allows the group to pass through.

Samia met Captain Nadir again, in Lahore, but after just a few days they realised that their secret life could not continue. They had no money and no-one who could, or would, help them against the wishes of Samia’s family. And Samia was afraid. Terrified. Yet another crime – running away from her home with her lover – had been added to her burden of guilt. She sought out lawyer Hina Jilani and begged to be allowed to move into her women’s shelter. Her hands shook with fear as she described her family.  And yet she did not say a bad word against them. She knew she had challenged the family’s concept of honour in a way which was unforgivable.

Once she had been placed in safety, her parents were told that their daughter was staying at a secret address, under the protection of the lawyer sisters Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir. So Samia’s family travelled to Lahore to look for their fugitive daughter.

Inside the law firm’s reception, the group introduce themselves. The staff know that Samia and her lawyer are expecting her mother, but ask the older man, who it will later turn out is Samia’s uncle Younus, to wait in reception. Her mother introduces the taller bearded man as her assistant, and says she needs support to walk on her injured foot.

Both Hina Jilani and Asma Jahangir have been visited by the family and their representatives. On one occasion, for example, a senior representative from the North West Frontier Province came to the office with Samia’s father. Their intention was to frighten the sisters and force them to persuade Samia to return home. The answer was always the same: “That’s Samia’s decision, and she has said no.” But this time Samia has made the fateful decision to trust her mother.

When the door to Hina Jilani’s office opens, Samia rises from her chair and turns towards the door, smiling. “Mother!” she calls out, and takes a few steps towards her mother. As soon as the older woman has sat down her ‘assistant’ produces a gun and fires. The first shot hits Samia in the head, the second in the stomach. Samia falls to the floor, dead.

The first shot hits Samia in the head, the second in the stomach.

Hina Jilani, who is still sitting in her chair, turns the body over to reach the alarm button and narrowly escapes a shot. The other woman in the group of visitors screams, but Samia’s mother says nothing. She does not even go to see if her daughter is alive. She stands up and rushes out into the corridor. She is in a hurry now, and no longer limping.

The part of Pakistan from which Samia Sarwar and her family come is called the North West Frontier Province. It forms the border to Afghanistan and is populated on both sides by the Pashtun ethnic group.  Honour violence is common in all parts of Pakistan, but the Pashtuns are particularly known for their honour culture of revenge. “If you do not react to a pinch with a slap you are not a Pashtun,” says the proverb.   

It is in this clan culture that the background to Islam’s traditional idea of ‘compensation’ for crimes against people is rooted.  In theory, it is possible to stem generation-long clan feuds between different families – “You killed my son now I will kill yours” or “You beat four of ours to death, so we’ll beat five of yours to death” – by the wronged family forgiving the killer. This is often combined with some kind of compensation, sometimes in the form of land or money, sometimes in the form of women.

Shahtaj Qizilbash is a legal assistant at Hina Jilani’s and Asma Jahangir’s law firm. Her room is behind reception, next door to the kitchen. It is late and she is hungry. Shahtaj goes to the kichen to get something to eat. She is on her way back towards reception with a potato in her hand when she hears the shots. Samia’s uncle is still standing there, and he too is armed.

The man with the gun runs along the corridor, towards reception and the exit.  Few people are left in the office but those who are there look on, terrified. The uncle threatens them with his weapon. Samia’s mother is hard on the heels of the killer.  

The new laws which were introduced by the dictator Zia ul-Haq at the end of the 1970s were intended to be adapted to the Koran and the prophet Muhammed’s laws and guidelines. The religious punishment laws criminalise acts such as murder, theft, blasphemy and adultery. Officially in Pakistan, adultery can lead to a sentence of death by stoning, but in practice that rarely happens. In 1997 new laws were passed under which murder, manslaughter and assault do not come under general prosecution. Instead they become a matter for ‘compensation’. The victim’s family has the right to decide if the punishment shall be revenge according to the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or if the perpetrator shall pay financial compensation - or indeed be pardoned, in other words forgiven.  

The policeman outside the door has heard the shots and walks backwards up half a flight of stairs, so he can watch the door to the law firm’s office. When the bearded man with the gun throws the door open and sees the policeman above him he fires, but misses. The policeman returns fire and Samia’s killer falls down dead. His body slides partway down the stairs. Just at that moment, Samia’s mother and uncle come out onto the landing, but when they see the dead man they turn back towards reception. Hina Jilani gathers everyone – employees and clients – together in the office and pushes them into a room. She then calls the police.

Samia’s uncle catches sight of Shahtaj Qizilbash beside reception. He grabs her arm and pushes her in front of him out through the door. They climb over the dead killer and run down the stairs. Samia’s mother leads the way.  Her uncle keeps a tight grip on Shahtaj and threatens her with his gun.  

Honour killings are not uncommon in Pakistan, but there are no reliable figures. Pakistani media and human rights organisations believe that almost three women a day die in what are known as honour killings. If this is true, it would mean that 1,000 women are murdered every year in the name of honour. The murder is usually carried out by a member of the family, who is usually ‘forgiven’ by the rest of the family.

Honour killings are not uncommon in Pakistan, but there are no reliable figures. 

Occasionally a man is the victim of an honour killing, but this is less common. Men have better opportunities to escape or to buy their freedom, and it is unusual for a man’s family to let the killer walk free by ‘forgiving’ him.

What made Samia Sarwar’s case unique was that there were a large number of witnesses from outside the family, and two people outside the family were affected – Hina Jalani the lawyer, who was almost shot, and Shahtaj Qizilbash who was abducted.

Out on the street, Samia’s uncle can see that their car, which is parked beside the entrance, is being watched. He pushes Shahtaj and Samia’s mother in front of him out onto the road and stops a rickshaw.  He places Shahtaj between Samia’s mother and himself. Samia’s mother is shaking. The uncle hisses to Shahtaj: “We could have killed her at the shelter, but we wanted to teach those lawyers a lesson.” After that he says nothing else in the rickshaw.

Shahtaj is never really afraid. She does not believe her life is in danger, only that the killers have solved an acute problem by taking her with them.

The other middle-aged couple also disappear from the scene. They turn out to be the parents of Samia’s boyfriend Nadir Mirza, who were forced to come to the office after their daughter was taken hostage.

Even though the laws in Pakistan are officially based on the Koran and on Islam’s view of the family and violence, the view of woman and her rights are older than the prophet. Since time immemorial, women have been regarded as possessions, rather than as people with a value of their own. They can be compared with fields, water resources and domestic animals. The owner – from the start the woman’s father, later her husband, always the family and the clan – have the right to make decisions regarding all their possessions. The woman and the female body are the bearers of the honour of the man and the clan, and must not be squandered. What a woman herself might want is of no interest.  “Do the fields or the crops have a will?” “If you have a dog which goes mad – you shoot it, don’t you?” A woman’s body is part of the regulated trade between men. Her only duty is to defend and maintain her chastity. And to obey.

At Falleti’s Hotel a man is waiting, Samia’s father. Everyone climbs out of the rickshaw. Samia’s uncle says, “It is done.” Her father wonders where the bearded killer is. “He is dead.” “Who is this?” asks her father and points at Shahtaj. “Get rid of her,” he orders, and the uncle pushes Shahtaj into a taxi. They drive somewhere outside the centre of the town. There the uncle orders the taxi to stop, gets out and tells the driver to drive  Shahtaj wherever she wants to go. The taxi driver, who has seen the man threaten Shahtaj with his gun, is scared, but drives her to a crossroads close to the law firm. Then he vanishes into thin air, and the police who investigate the kidnapping never find him.  

When Hina Jilani had pulled herself together she decided to take on Samia Sarwar’s case. It would be the perfect legal case, she thought. It was true that the killer was dead, but the behaviour of Samia’s mother and uncle before and after the murder proved they were involved. There were plenty of witnesses and other victims. It would not be a problem.

Samia’s family began by claiming the killer had acted entirely on his own initiative.

She was wrong. Samia’s family began by claiming the killer had acted entirely on his own initiative, provoked by Hina Jilani, and it was not even certain he intended to shoot Samia. Then they accused Hina Jilani of abducting Samia and having her killed. It went so far that the police threatened to arrest the lawyer.  Witnesses and evidence disappeared, and in the Falleti’s Hotel register, which should have been able to prove that Samia’s father had been there, the pages for that day are missing.

In the end, only Samia’s uncle remained a suspect, and her father, mother and yet-to-be-divorced husband ‘forgave’ him, in the names of Samia’s sons. The Supreme Court ruled that Hina Jilani could not take the case because she was not directly involved. “If no-one else is making a fuss, why are you getting involved?” Honour killings are family matters.

The religious leaders pronounced a fatwa against the women on the grounds that they were infidels and deserved to die.

The Chamber of Commerce in Peshawar, where Samia’s father was the president, joined forces with religious groups and denounced Hina Jilani and her lawyer sister Asma Jahangir. They claimed they should be punished “in accordance with the laws of the clans and Islam” for having led women in Pakistan astray and spread a negative image of the country abroad. The religious leaders pronounced a fatwa against the women on the grounds that they were infidels and deserved to die.

Captain Nadir was discharged from the army on grounds of immorality. He now lives in Great Britain.

One result of Samia Sarwar’s death was that a group of parliamentarians wrote a resolution which would condemn honour killings. The resolution was voted down in August 1999 by 87 votes to 4. Haji Abdul Rehman, one of the senators who voted against the resolution, said: “These murders exist to protect women’s honour. They are a deterrent.  People understand that adultery is a serious crime. It is important that punishment is meted out in order to preserve honour. It creates peace and stability.” Several of the politicians who campaigned against honour violence received death threats, and ever since then, Hina Jilani always has at least one armed guard in her immediate vicinity. 

Karin Alfredsson