Honor killing in India
An honor killing or honour killing (also called a customary killing) is the murder of a member of a family or social group by other members, due to the belief of the perpetrators (and potentially the wider community) that the victim has brought dishonour upon the family or community. Honour killings are directed mostly against women and girls. The perceived dishonor is normally the result of one of the following behaviors, or the suspicion of such behaviors:
- dressing in a manner unacceptable to the family or community,
- wanting to terminate or prevent an arranged marriage or desiring to marry by own choice,
- engaging in heterosexual sexual acts outside marriage, or even due to a non-sexual relationship perceived as inappropriate, and
- engaging in homosexual acts. Women and girls are killed at a much higher rate than men.
Recently, there has been a spate of honor killings in the country and this has led the government to decide what laws should be put in place to stop this heinous crime. Also whether the Hindu Marriage Act should be reformed or not is being debated. So what is the definition of honour killing and what leads families to commit this heinous crime so that they can protect their family honour? Is this practice prevalent only in India or is it prevalent in other parts of the world also? What are the misconceptions regarding honour killing and what are the solutions to stop this crime from spreading? These are the questions that society find the answer…
In my opinion Honour killing is defined as a death that is awarded to a woman of the family for marrying against the parent's wishes, having extramarital and premarital relationships, marrying within the same gotra or outside one's caste or marrying a cousin from a different caste. Honour killing is different from the dowry deaths that are also a very common practice in India as, in the case of dowry deaths, the perpetrators of that action claim that they have not been given enough material rewards for accepting the woman into the family. In that case there is a lot of harassment from the in-laws and more times than one, it has been noted that the wife commits suicide rather than being killed by the in-laws, though it has to be said that she has been mentally killed, if not physically. We have had a tradition of honour killing. This tradition was first viewed in its most horrible form during the Partition of the country in between the years 1947 and 1950 when many women were forcefully killed so that family honour could be preserved.
Now, there are various reasons why people or family members decide to kill the daughter in the name of preserving their family honour. The most obvious reason for this practice to continue in India, albeit, at a much faster and almost daily basis, is because of the fact that the caste system continues to be at its rigid best and also because people from the rural areas refuse to change their attitude to marriage. According to them, if any daughter dares to disobey her parents on the issue of marriage and decides to marry a man of her wishes but from another gotra or outside her caste, it would bring disrepute to the family honour and hence they decide to give the ultimate sentence, that is death, to the daughter. Now as has become the norm, the son-in-law is killed as well. Sociologists believe that the reason why honour killings continue to take place is because of the continued rigidity of the caste system. Hence the fear of losing their caste status through which they gain many benefits makes them commit this heinous crime. The other reason why honour killings are taking place is because the mentality of people has not changed and they just cannot accept that marriages can take place in the same gotra or outside one's caste. The root of the cause for the increase in the number of honour killings is because the formal governance has not been able to reach the rural areas and as a result. Thus, this practices continues though it should have been removed by now.
There are various misconceptions regarding the practice of honor killing. The first misconception about honor killing is that this is a practice that is limited to the rural areas. The truth is that it is spread over such a large geographical area that we cannot isolate honor killings to rural areas only, though one has to admit that majority of the killings take place in the rural areas. But it has also been seen recently that even the metropolitan cities like Delhi and Tamil Nadu are not safe from this crime because 5 honor killings were reported from Delhi and in Tamil Nadu; a daughter and son in law were killed due to marriage into the same gotra. So it can be seen clearly that honor killing is not isolated to rural areas but also to urban areas and as already pointed out, it has a very wide geographical spread. The second misconception regarding honor killing is that it has religious roots. Even if a woman commits adultery, there have to be four male witnesses with good behavior and reputation to validate the charge. Furthermore only the State can carry out judicial punishments, but never an individual vigilante. So, we can clearly see that there is no religious backing or religious roots for this heinous crime.
What can we do to prevent such a thing from happening? Firstly, the mentality of the people has to change. And when we say that the mentality has to change, we mean to say that parents should accept their children's wishes regarding marriage as it is they who have to lead a life with their life partners and if they are not satisfied with their life partner then they will lead a horrible married life which might even end in suicide. Secondly, we need to have stricter laws to tackle these kinds of killings as this is a crime which cannot be pardoned because. Humans do not have the right to write down death sentences of innocent fellow humans.
Every time the term "honour killing" is used, we view the murder of women through the eyes of their killers. By adding the word "honour" to killing, we use the language of those who justify this odious crime on the basis of "honourable" motives. We use the language of their excuses. We must stop doing this.
Linguistic labels matter. The term "honour killing" not only cedes too much power to the perpetrator, but is offensive to survivors and women. Instead, we need to see the crime through the eyes of those attacked, because these acts of gender violence attack something more than women's bodies, something precarious and precious: the challenge by thousands of courageous young women around the world to oppressive patriarchy and stultifying social convention. In this sense, they are an attack on us all.
Take two recent examples. In May, 25-year-old Farzana Parveen was stoned to death by her family in the street outside the Lahore high court. Why? Because she married a man of her own choice. At the time of her death she was pregnant. That was an "honour killing".
This month, also in Pakistan, 18-year-old Saba Maqsood was shot twice by her family, put in a sack and thrown in a canal. Why? Because she married the man she loved. That was an attempted "honour killing". Following Parveen's murder, the UN's human rights commissioner Navi Pillay said, "I do not even wish to use the phrase 'honour killing': there is not the faintest vestige of honour in killing a woman in this way."
These are not isolated incidents. In 2008, the UN population fund estimated that 5,000 women annually are killed in the name of "honour". Subsequently the Council of Europe stated that situation had "worsened" in Europe and elsewhere in recent years.
Although coined by Dutch-Turkish academic Ane Nauta in 1978, it is widely recognised that adding the word "honour" to killing is problematic. Public bodies habitually use the term encased within supposedly sanitising inverted commas or preceded by the words "so-called". Typical is the Association of Chief Police Officers, which while using the term immediately states that of course "there is no honour in the commission of murder in the name of so-called honour".
In its 2009 report, the Council of Europe defined these crimes as those "justified, explained (or mitigated)" by the perpetrator to defend family honour. But it also acknowledged that the term should be treated with "scepticism". Further, the UN states that the term risks "reinforcing discriminatory misperceptions that women embody the 'honour' of the male and the community".
What grates is precisely how the crime is viewed through the lens of the offender. It is true that perpetrators invariably invoke their slighted "honour". But there is a further common feature: this violence seeks to punish women for seeking to exercise independent choice, for defying not only the wishes of their families but social expectation – for daring to be free. That's the heart of the matter, and that's the right lens to view the problem through.
We believe the time is ripe to intensify the search for a new term. On other gender violence issues, we have in recent times changed our use of language. Originally female genital mutilation was called "female circumcision" in the UK (the criminalising statute was the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985). But the term "circumcision" did not adequately reflect society's deprecation of this violent child abuse, and was subsequently altered. Indeed, in this and other crimes of sexual violence the term "victim" is heavily contested by survivors. As FGM activist Leyla Hussein states, "Language is powerful. It's important we use it correctly. Being labelled a 'victim' in itself continues the violation." Words matter.
So what term are we to use instead of "honour killing"? A number of suggestions have previously been advanced. The Canadian Council of Muslim Women suggests "femicide". Perhaps "family femicide" adds the kinship collusion element of the crime. Kofi Annan, while he was UN secretary general, suggested "shame killings" . "Patriarchal killing" is another term that is occasionally used, among others.
We suggest that the new term should reflect the fact that women are being punished because they seek to be free and challenge patriarchy. The term we collectively settle on might not roll off the tongue like "honour killing", but we need one that carries the moral condemnation we feel.
A term like "honour killing" clouds culpability. It cloaks acts of gender violence with one of highest human aspirations – honour. It risks falsely dignifying these deplorable acts with an undeserved varnish of higher motive.
In this struggle, words are indeed weapons. We need to find the right words – the right weapons – to fight this violation. "Honour killing" is not it. There is no honour in murder.