We would like them to approve our choice of partner but it may not happen. What happens many at times is that our parents are not happy with our choice of the person we want to have a relationship with or marry. They will try to reason with us and persuade us. Then they might put restrictions [“you cannot go out” “You will never be able to meet any of us again”] or threaten the partner. And in some cases, they go to the extent of killing.
It is difficult for many of us to even imagine that our own family members would take the extreme step of killing because of what may be considered ‘immoral behaviour’ or wanting to marry a person of your choice. “How dare you even think of marrying a person outside our caste or religion?” It is a matter of shame and social humiliation for the family.
We know that it happens in some form or the other: emotional blackmail, economic or social boycott, now its extreme form has a name – honour killing.
What is it?
According to recent media reports, every year, more than 1000 young Indians become victims of so-called ‘honour killings’. So, what is referred to when speaking of ‘honour killing?’ It is defined as death given to a girl by her family, for one of the following reasons:
– marrying against her parent’s wishes;
– having a premarital or extramarital relationship;
– sagotra marriage (marrying someone from the same gotra, that is the same lineage);
– inter-caste marriage;
– marriage with a cousin from a different caste;
Recently, not only the woman who has engaged in one of those supposedly ‘dishonourable’ activities is murdered by her family, but also the appertaining man.
These are some recent cases of honour killings in India:
In June 2007, Manoj and Babli, who had got married two months earlier despite belonging to the same gotra, were hunted down by the bride’s parents and the local khap panchayat. Although the couple had been given police protection, they were killed by being forced to drink pesticide.
In 2010, Nirupama Pathak, a student of Mass Communication in Delhi, was smothered to death by her mother for wanting to marry her boyfriend who belonged to a different caste.
Also in Delhi in the same year, Kuldeep Singh, son of a rich Rajput landowner was killed for having married a woman from a lower caste.
Honour killings are mostly connected to a woman’s chastity or virginity which in case it is violated means a threat to her family’s status and honour. In countries such as Pakistan and Turkey as well as in many North-African countries women are killed in the name of honour in case they have been raped or are suspected to have had premarital or extramarital sex. Contrary to India (where honour killings are more frequent among Hindu families) and Brazil, most honour killings take place in countries with a Muslim majority as well as among immigrant communities for example in Germany, the UK and France. Statistics showed that in Pakistan, women constituted twice the amount of men who were murdered in the name of honour. In Jordan and Lebanon, more than 70% of the murderers were the women’s brothers
Where in India does it happen?
In India, honour killings are prevalent in the northern regions, especially in the states of Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In contrast, West Bengal has eradicated honour killings for more than a century, and in states of the South as well as in Maharashtra and Gujarat they are extremely rare. A study executed by the National Commission of Women revealed that of the 326 cases of honour killing examined, 72 % were inter-caste marriages, while only 3% accounted of sagotra marriages and inner-caste marriages constituted 15 %. Recently, several honour killings took place in Delhi itself, challenging the belief that these crimes – which are based on people’s traditionalist mindset – are restricted to rural areas.
Although more young people in India are choosing their own partners, parents still prefer to select marriage partners for their children. Young people, especially those selecting partners from a different caste or religion often face disapproval or even hostility from their families and friends. Parents will try to separate the lovers and look for a new, ‘more suitable’ partner. Some might give in after some time when they realize that the relationship is strong and that their child is happy with her/his partner.
Why do families feel so threatened? Being with their caste, community or religion is so important that it is not only part of their social identity but a necessary condition for their social and sometimes economic survival. Some families believe that their honour can only be re-established if they prevent such an unwanted union, by killing the daughter (and, sometimes, her partner) or son.
It is quite remarkable that the main victims of honour killings are young women. If a son falls in love with someone their parents do not approve of or if he has a sexual relationship despite being unmarried, his parents might not be supportive of his behaviour, but boys are less likely to be killed by family members. We can see that in our society, the idea of shame and honour is mainly connected to what women do. That is a clear sign of women’s oppressed status in a patriarchal society.
The term ‘honour killing’ is quite misleading, since we believe that there is no honour in killing a human being. But the notion of honour of those who perpetrate these crimes differs vastly from that of others and the law.
Literature and films, Land – Gold – Women (2009) by Avantika Hari have tried to unravel this complex phenomenon of conflicting emotions within the family in the context of honour killings.
Honour killings are done with the support of caste members, panchayats or even the village. No one complains, no one co-operates with the police and the killing remains a statistic on record.
There is a demand for a law to specifically deal with honour killings. Then, honour killings would be recognized as murder by the state, meaning that parents or family members who order such a crime can be sentenced to corporal punishment by the court, along with those who actually commit the crime. At present the Supreme Court has granted death sentences to those perpetuating these killings.
However, preventing such crimes would be much better, and so women and men who fear violence by their families should seek help from NGOs and the police for support and protection.
An Initiative of Akshara, a women’s resource centre