“Please forgive me if I don’t come back.” Those were the last words 18-year-old Zeenat Bibi said to her husband Hassan Khan before she left with her family in what would turn out to be the last time she was seen alive. “I know now I should’ve done something. But her mother and brother-in-law were nudging her toward the door and promising us they just wanted to reconcile with her. How was I to know this would be the last time I ever saw my wife?”
On June 8, Perveen Bibi set fire to her daughter Zeenat in Lahore after she married a man of her own choice. The brutal “honor killing” shocked an already desensitized country, as people questioned how a mother could justify torturing and murdering her own daughter. But in an interview with Newsweek, Khan says the warning signs were always there—even if he refused to acknowledge them at the time.
“We never wanted to elope. But we had no choice. Zeenat’s family did not want her to marry me and nothing would convince them otherwise. They often beat her, leaving her weeping in her room. Two days before we eloped, Perveen Bibi and her son-in-law Muhammad Zafar strangled Zeenat and left her unconscious. She was convinced she would be killed if she continued to live in that house and we decided to get married immediately.”
One of Zeenat’s maternal aunts, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Newsweek the entire family was aware of Zeenat’s relationship with Hassan. “But none of us knew why Perveen was so against their marriage because she would chastise us for even asking and would tell us to mind our own business.”
Khan says the couple hid at his cousin’s house for two days before moving back home, fearing retaliation from Zeenat’s family. He says her family approached his mother and urged her to allow Zeenat to return home so the families could reconcile and a proper wedding reception could be arranged. “I was naturally suspicious of these claims, but one of her cousins, Mushtaq, assured us he would guarantee her safety if she returned home and waited for a proper wedding. We would never have let her go back if he hadn’t served as guarantor.” The promises proved hollow and will haunt Khan for the rest of his life. “I don’t know if Mushtaq was involved in the murder or was just used by the family to gain access to Zeenat,” he says.
“I learned of her death from her cousin Hamza. He called me: ‘They have killed her.’ I couldn’t believe my ears. I rushed to their house and saw the burnt remains of a body—it was so badly disfigured I couldn’t even tell if it was a person, much less my wife. My family immediately informed the police who shifted her to hospital but she was already dead,” he recalls, breaking down in tears.
Another cousin informed Zeenat’s extended family as news of the tragedy spread through the close-knit neighborhood. “I learned of the tragic incident after my son rushed home and told me ‘Perveen Khala Zeenat nu mar dita’ [Aunt Perveen has killed Zeenat]. I lost consciousness when I heard it. I couldn’t believe my sister could resort to such cruelty to satisfy her own ego,” said Zeenat’s aunt.
The murder was particularly brutal, even in a country where so-called honor killings often include beheadings and hangings. According to initial reports, Zeenat was beaten, strangled and then burned to death while she was slipping in and out of consciousness. Perveen claimed responsibility for the assault immediately, but Khan says he does not believe she was alone—a belief borne out by subsequent statements from Perveen, her son Anees Rafiq and son-in-law Zafar.
“It was only after the body was shifted that the mother ran into the streets shouting that she’d killed Zeenat for marrying against her wishes. I don’t know why she did that; maybe she was just trying to save her son,” he says, adding that the elderly woman continued to hurl abuses at him, blaming him for her daughter’s disobedience, even as she was being charged at the police station. “Police found Zafar hiding under his bed. Anees was found at a relative’s house [a few days later],” he added.
All three accused are currently in police custody and have been charged with murder. Waseem Haider, a police official investigating the case, said: “Our job has actually been fairly straightforward as the mother confessed to the murder. However, we believe she had help and have also taken her son and son-in-law into custody.” Police had also taken Anees’ friends into custody after finding him hiding at their home, but have since released them.
Fairy tale romance
Despite the tragic manner of Zeenat’s death, Khan says he refuses to let the murder taint his memory of their time together. “She was full of joy and had such a beautiful smile. We were just friends in the beginning [as classmates] but both of us realized we loved each other after some time.”
Khan says that contrary to some reports in the media, he had urged his wife to discuss their relationship with her family and convince them to allow their engagement. “But her family found it a matter of great dishonor. The day she told them, she was beaten mercilessly,” he says, adding that both of them were shocked as five of her sisters had also married men of their own choice—including accused Zafar.
“Her brother-in-law, Zafar, was the one who allegedly masterminded the whole plot. Zeenat would often tell me that he would taunt her mother and ask her why they didn’t just kill her if she refused to listen. He and her sister also eloped, but I guess he didn’t think the same rules applied to us.” Zafar and Anees had been the biggest barriers to the relationship between Khan and Zeenat, he adds.
“One of our neighbors told me that after they took her back home, my brother-in-law [Anees] could be heard shouting: ‘You told everyone I was going to kill you? Just wait till we get inside and I’ll show you cruel I can be.’ And he did.”
A mother no more
Zeenat’s aunt says she has little hope for her sister, claiming she is a proud woman who would rather be executed than admit she was wrong. “She will try to justify her actions,” she says, “but she has opened up to her family. There is no justification for the killing, but she is remorseful.” However, she adds, no one is seeking absolution.
“I met my sister in prison. She told me how she feels,” she says, claiming that Zeenat and Hassan’s “haste” had contributed to the toxic mix of misogyny, ego and rage that had resulted in the 18-year-old’s death. “There was no formal attempt to ask for her hand in marriage. His family shouldn’t have balked at trying to convince Perveen this was a good match—their inaction likely incensed her even more. I am sure it might have taken a few attempts, but Perveen would have agreed to the marriage eventually,” she claims.
But despite maintaining a soft spot for her sister, the aunt admits there is no coming back from what has been done. “Our family has been dishonored not by Zeenat’s actions, but Perveen’s. She thought Hassan wasn’t good enough for her daughter, but this was not the solution—and she realizes this now.”
Narrating Perveen’s personal account, the aunt claims she told her: “I admit I killed my daughter but she’s still alive in my memories and dreams. I know now she didn’t deserve to be killed merely for marrying of her own choice.”
According to the aunt, Perveen was mournful in jail. “I don’t deserve to be a mother. I lost all rights to that title the day I killed her. I will never forget her cries for mercy when I beat her that day… ‘Don’t kill me mother. I am your blood.’”
Perveen claims she lost all sense of herself that day. “Don’t call me a mother. I have nothing left but remorse for what I did to my own flesh and blood, to my own daughter. I raised her for 18 years. I remember her as an infant. But I betrayed her. It doesn’t matter what punishment I get—I’ve punished myself. I forgot she was my daughter. People say mothers are another face of God’s angels. But I was a devil.”
In a telling statement that reveals that Perveen and her son and son-in-law might have been motivated by greed, the accused has admitted that Khan’s employment was a major sticking point in her approval of him. “We were blinded by our rage over her getting married to a mechanic,” she told her sister. “None of us could stomach the thought of Zeenat being married to him. We couldn’t believe our ears when she told us she wanted to get married—she was so young.” Khan also claims that Anees would often visit him to borrow money. “We both come from poor families. But Zeenat’s brother blamed the world for their misfortune, wasting the family’s money on alcohol and drugs. I hoped having a proper job as a motorcycle mechanic would help them see I was a good match for their daughter, but it was not to be.”
While Perveen has told her sister she’s remorseful, her own words do little to inspire sympathy. “I haven’t been able to cry for her. How can I? If I cried, people would taunt me, they’d ask me who I was weeping for. I have no answers for them. I killed her. I’m to blame. How can I feel sorry for something I’m at fault for?” Perveen told her sister during a recent prison visit. “This had nothing to do with Allah. It was my decision. I turned from a mother into a cruel woman who couldn’t see beyond seeking revenge for slights to her wounded pride. And who did I seek this revenge from? My own blood. I know no one will believe me, but I still love my child, my innocent child.”
The family’s statements have raised concerns that they might seek pardons through Pakistan’s controversial qisas and diyat laws, which allow families to agree on blood money, or through loopholes in the legal system that allow relatives to forgive killers of their family members. But the family’s too-little-too-late remorse is meaningless to Khan, who has vowed he will not rest until he’s found justice for his wife.
“If the government would introduce legislation promising harsh punishments for torching women, I’m sure my wife would still be alive,” he says, accusing the state’s inaction on ‘honor killings’ for encouraging such brutality. “I promised my wife when I buried her that I would never forgive her mother, brother or brother-in-law. They didn’t just kill her, they killed my trust in humanity, the blind trust of a daughter in her family. I will not rest until justice has been obtained for my poor wife.”