Samia Sarwar

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Samia Sarwar (1970-6 April 1999) was a Pakistani Pukhtun woman, who was shot dead in her lawyers' office in Lahore in an "honor killing".

Samia Sarwar was a married woman with two children, belonging to an affluent family. She claimed to have suffered marital abuse and left her husband in 1995, moving back in with her parents. While her parents were willing to accept this, they were not willing to support her in gaining a divorce. Four years later, having fallen in love with Nadir Mirza, an army officer, Sarwar ran from home with the intention of seeking a divorce. Samia then sought the help of Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, two sisters who are both well-known human rights lawyers based in Lahore. Shortly afterwards, at a meeting between Samia and her mother at their chambers in Lahore, Samia was shot dead by an assassin hired by her parents. The murder was arranged by Samia's own mother, father and aunt (mother's sister). This was because of the shame they felt she had brought upon the family by eloping with another man, leaving her children and seeking a divorce.


Samia Sarwar was born into an affluent and educated family of Peshawar in Pakistan's Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa province. Her father, Ghulam Sarwar Khan Mohmand, was not just a successful industrialist but also a prominent public figure, being the President of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Chamber of Commerce.[1][2] Her mother, Sultana Sarwar, was a doctor with a successful practice in Peshawar.

Samia had been married several years to a cousin, her mother's sister's son. Later, she fell in love with an army captain named Nadir Mirza. She filed a suit for divorce on the grounds that she was suffering violence and abuse, and sought her family's permission to marry Nadir Mirza. Upon their shocked refusal, she left her children and eloped with Nadir, despite her unfinalized divorce.[3]

From Peshawar in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, the runaway couple escaped to Lahore in Punjab province. There, they stayed for some days at a five-star hotel, befitting Samia's affluent background, while her family grew frantic in Peshawar. However, they soon ran out of money, and Samia contacted some distant relatives to seek a loan. She did this under the assumption that those relatives would be unaware of her elopement, since her family (from a sense of shame) would not have revealed the matter to anyone. However, those relatives reported Samia's whereabouts to her parents.

At this point, Nadir Mirza returned to his work as an army captain in Peshawar, mindful that the Pakistani military took an extremely dim view of their officers cavorting with married women, and that he might even face a court martial. With money running short and no support forthcoming from relatives or others, either of money or shelter, Samia took refuge in Dastak, a shelter for women in Lahore. She particularly chose Dastak because that shelter was run by Asma Jehangir, a prominent women's rights activist and lawyer who had worked a great deal with young women suffering from domestic abuse, marital problems, spousal rape and abuse, etc. At Dastak, Samia knew she would receive not just food and shelter but also free legal counsel.


Samia's mother sought permission to see her at Dastak. She stated that she was intensely worried about her daughter, and that meeting and conversing with Samia may help her and the rest of the family to understand these events and possibly accept Nadir Mirza, if he was still interested in Samia. Based on this understanding, Samia agreed to meet her mother at the offices shared by her two lawyers and mentors, the sisters Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani. She however stipulated that her father and brothers, who she knew were intensely hostile towards her after recent events, should not come to the meeting, and that her mother alone was welcome.

Samia's mother came to the meeting accompanied by a man whom Samia did not recognize. He was there ostensibly to chauffeur Samia's mother and to help that aged and frail lady walk and climb the stairs, since Samia's brothers were forbidden from being there to help her. Once they were in the lawyer's office, the man pulled out a gun and shot Samia dead.[3] Thus, the killing took place at a meeting between Samia and her mother at the office of Samia's mentors and lawyers Asma Jehangir and Hina Jilani, and Samia's mother enabled the murderer to get access to the meeting, by insisting that she had trouble walking and needed assistance.[3]


Nadir Mirza faced an army enquiry and was dismissed "in disgrace" from the army for irresponsible behavior "unbecoming of an army officer." He left the country soon afterwards. He now lives in Britain, and is married with two children.[3]

Despite public protests and demonstrations, nobody received punishment for the crime.[1] This is because the Pakistani penal code recognizes the Islamic practices of Qisas and Diyya, where the next-of-kin of a victim can accept restitution and grant forgiveness to the culprit. In that case, the Pakistani state does not press charges even for otherwise cognizable offences like murder. Samia's father, being her Wali or first-ranking kin, forgave the assassin and also his accomplices (being mother and maternal aunt).

The case put to rest the claim made by people like James Emery, Anthropologist at Metropolitan State College of Denver, USA[4]) that honour killings only occur among rural or uneducated groups. Samia's family was both affluent and educated.

Death threats to women's activists[edit]

The two renowned activists, Hina Jilani and Asma Jehangir, were threatened with death for their defense of Samia. The death threats were issued by a number of religious groups, most notably the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam.[5] Ironically, Ms. Jehangir is also the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings.

Pakistani Senate[edit]

After the murder, Senator Syed Iqbal Haider of the Pakistan Peoples Party, supported by 19 fellow Senators, framed a resolution condemning the practice of 'honour killings.' Iqbal had to amend the wording of the proposed resolution four times, as supporting Senators became fewer. On the day when the bill was to be tabled in the Senate, a majority of that House opposed the introduction, Senator Ajmal Khattak stating that when it is a question of 'honour,' there is no room even for discussion. Chairman Wasim Sajjad (a Rhodes Scholar) ruled that there could be no discussion on the matter. The resolution was not tabled.[6]

In media[edit]

An award winning BBC documentary 'Licence to Kill,' covered Samia and other honour killing cases. It was first broadcast on March 25, 2000 and won the RTS 2001 award for Best TV journalism.

Licence to Kill is the follow-up to 1999's award-winning documentary, 'Murder in Purdah,' on the killing of women in Pakistan. While Murder in Purdah showed how casually women are killed in Pakistan, 'Licence to Kill' shows how state institutions endorse such killings and allow the killers to escape without punishment. Murder in Purdah won the Peabody award for journalism, the George Polk Award for television, the Johns Hopkins University Award and a New York TV medal. Also shown at Cannes Film Festival in May 2000.

Both films were selected for cinema screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London March 2000.[7] The BBC programme notes that "The Pakistan Penal Code, amended in 1990 to embrace Islamic principles, has made it easier for those who kill women to get away with it".