It happened one summer evening last year, in a small flat in northern Moscow. In this two-bedroom dwelling lived the Khachaturyan family; a father and his three teenage daughters, aged 17, 18 and 19 years old. One would have expected it to be a lively household full of sisterly chatter, but this was far from the reality. That evening, their father, 57-year-old Mikhail Khachaturyan, had told the girls to clean the living room. However, when he walked into the room, he felt it was not tidy enough. Angry at his daughters, he took out a can of pepper spray (generally used to ward off assailants) and sprayed their faces with it. Abuse was routine in the household; violent beatings and angry fights were the norm. Their mother, who had fled the family home a few years earlier, said she was regularly beaten by her husband. There was also suspicion of sexual abuse.
The evening of July 27, 2018, was different. The three daughters had had enough. They waited until their father was asleep on his rocking chair, in the same living room that had been the cause of the fight. When he finally did fall asleep, the sisters attacked him with a hammer and a hunting knife. According to reports, the father tried to fight the girls but they overpowered him. Within minutes, he was dead — a demonic presence that had ruled over their lives, installing surveillance cameras so that he could watch over their every move. Days after his death, the sisters were arrested and charged with their father's murder.
Moscow is far away, but the complexities of the situation are not unimaginable in Pakistan. Only this past Ramzan, a news report from Pakpattan illustrates why. Gulzar Ahmed allegedly shot and killed his young daughter because she did not wake him up in time for sehri. The situation is not at all unusual. In Pakistani newspapers, news stories featuring men killing their wives, sisters and daughters are so commonplace that they do not get any mention save the bottoms and sides of inside pages. No one will remember that, in March this year, a man in Karachi's Memon Goth beat his wife and daughter to death because of some argument. The alleged “honour” killing that took place days ago on July 6, where a brother killed his sister, will similarly be forgotten.
The Khachaturyan sisters in Moscow refused to be killed. Crushed by years of abuse, they decided they would not bear it anymore. Everyone agrees that killing abusers is wrong, but there seems to be less of a consensus on whether abuse itself is similarly culpable. Nobody seems to have good answers, only shrugs and nods and expressions of regret. In the US, the “battered woman syndrome” defence permits some women in particular cases to argue that the history of abuse coupled with imminent danger of harm from the abuser's actions created a state of mind in which they had to either kill or be killed. Even these sorts of defences are under attack, if the abuser — as in the case in Moscow — was asleep, then the threat of imminent harm would be very difficult to prove.
No one knows what takes place behind closed doors. In Pakistan, the impermeable nature of these closed doors permits all sorts of cruelties to be enacted on women and girls. Arguments with bosses, bad traffic, a messy living room, less than perfect rotis can all be diverted into rage against women at home.
At the moment, the Khachaturyan sisters are still facing murder charges. Their situation poses an open question — how culpable is a victim who feels that there is no choice but to fight or die?
By arrangement with Dawn...