We balanced clumsily on the small pathway in the middle of the fields. In front of us was the modest structure of a mosque we were headed towards. A group of women with water-pots on their heads walked confidently near us on the same path. “Have you come here to see Sahiban’s mosque,” asked one of them as the rest giggled. I nodded my head. Talking and laughing amongst themselves they crossed us.

The historical village of Kheiwa, famous because of its association with the story of the legendary folk lovers Mirza-Sahiban, flanked the main road at a little distance from here. The village is situated in the Jang district of Punjab in Pakistan.

Young love

There was a small courtyard facing the single storey building of the mosque, constructed in bricks. Some of the mosque’s wooden doors were broken while others were missing. The courtyard of the mosque was clean, even though it appeared as if the villagers had abandoned the mosque. We took off our shoes and walked in.

According to the folk legend, Mirza moved to this village as a young boy where he enrolled in a madrassa being run at this particular mosque. It is here that he first laid his eyes upon Sahiban, as they both studied the Quran.

The story of Mirza-Sahiban is one of the most prominent folk stories of Punjab. Standing at that mosque, I could not help myself wonder how cut off is the context of that particular legend from our contemporary Punjab.

That was a time when boys and girls studied together at village madrassa. Without the massive funding that comes from the Gulf states today to preach a particular brand of Islam, these village madrassas were run with the help of the minute contributions of all the village folks. Therefore perhaps it was not possible to run separate classes for boys and girls.

The love between Mirza and Sahiban bloomed for several years following their initial years at this madrassa, however Sahiban’s family had already betrothed her to someone else as a child.

Heroically, on her wedding day Mirza, riding his legendary horse, reached Sahiban’s village and spirited her away before the wedding could take place. When Sahiban’s brothers found out, they chased the couple down and killed them.

Contradictory Pakistan

Whereas the setting of the madrassa comes across as an anomaly today, the fate of the lovers is a part of a long tradition that unfortunately continues to haunt present-day Punjab – honour killing.

It is narrated that for several years Sahiban’s Siyal family started practicing female infanticide to prevent the birth of another Sahiban in their family. This tradition was finally abolished by the British.

The story of Mirza-Sahiban lays bare the contradictions that wrought our society today. On the one hand their story is celebrated in Punjabi folk culture – folk artists sing songs about their love. Theatre artists have immortalised their love story in folk plays, while movie-makers have recreated their stories several times, on both sides of the border. The folk legend is presented as the hallmark of Punjabi culture.

On the other hand it is the same culture that is used as a justification to put to death hundreds of young couples in Punjab, who like Mirza and Sahiban choose each other on their own.

The same people, who in their songs and movies celebrate the love of Mirza and Sahiban, condemn such couples in their own contexts, therefore allowing an environment in which these killings are not just condemned but even celebrated.

In today’s Punjab then how are we to read the story of Mirza-Sahiban? Are they to be shunned or celebrated? Are they our role-models or Sahiban’s brothers, who killed them for what they called the honor of their family?

The legend of Heer-Ranjha

About 30 km from here is the historical city of Jhang where lies the shrine of Mai Heer, interred with her lover Ranjha. Every day hundreds of pilgrims from all over Punjab arrive at her shrine with their supplications.

On the external wall of the shrine lovers have scribbled their names. The shrine of Heer symbolises this uneasy relationship that the people of Punjab have with their folk legends.

Heer, perhaps even more so than Sahiban, is worshipped in the folk tradition. Her devotion for her lover Ranjha, even after her marriage to someone else, is seen as a metaphor for a devotee’s love for God. While on the other hand her pre- and post-marital relationship with Ranjha is interpreted as a blot on the honour of the Siyal family, to which Heer belonged.

Forty-six years ago when the movie Heer-Ranjha was released and being run successfully all over Pakistan the Siyal family forbade the screening of the movie in Jhang. When one unfortunate cinema dared defy their informal orders, it was burned down.

In many villages of Punjab, while males bask in the poetic recitation of Heer by the poet Waris Shah, females are strictly forbidden from listening to these so-called blasphemous words.

To the Punjabi male fantasy Heer is the epitome of female sexuality. Rickshaws, trucks and buses all over the province have her imaginary pictures, in which she looks through a lock of her hair. The name Heer has become synonymous with beauty, fidelity and love on the one hand, while on the other hand she cannot be tolerated as a role model for their daughters, sisters and wives.

It is these same paradoxes that became blatant after the assassination of Qandeel Baloch, the celebrated Pakistani social media celebrity. Her sexually explicit videos and messages were circulated virally across different mediums, prominently by men of all ages.

She became a Punjabi incarnation of their sexual fantasy, which earlier featured white women. She was much more real and in a way accessible than, say, Kim Kardashian.

However, it was this same masculinity that was threatened by Qandeel Baloch’s influence over their daughters and sisters. It is for this reason that her thousands of fans over social media condoned her death at the hands of her brother in the name of honour.

Seeing themselves through the lens of her brother they found justification for her assassination. In this long tradition of honour killing she became one more woman who was acceptable as long as she was confined to the realm of male sexual fantasy. However, this threat needed to be put down as soon as it was realised that she was an actual human being and a member of society.

Haroon Khalid is the author of the books In Search of Shiva: a study of folk religious practices in Pakistan and A White Trail: a journey into the heart of Pakistan’s religious minorities.