Dishonour and death in India
Eighteen-year-old Maimun, filled with dreams of romantic love, made the mistake of eloping with Idris, who was already married with two children. It was mostly love that blinded her to the consequences of her action, but also the desperate desire to escape marriage to an uncle she loathed. She was dragged back home, and hastily […]
13 Feb 07

Eighteen-year-old Maimun, filled with dreams of romantic love, made the mistake of eloping with Idris, who was already married with two children.

It was mostly love that blinded her to the consequences of her action, but also the desperate desire to escape marriage to an uncle she loathed. She was dragged back home, and hastily and forcibly married to a local lout. On their way to his home after the wedding, he raped her brutally, calling her a whore, invited his friends to do the same, then slit her with a knife from neck to navel and left her for dead. That’s what she deserved for besmirching the honour of her family.

In another part of the country, village goons tied Pribha to an electric pole, beat her black and blue and shaved her head because she had chosen to spend the night with a relative. Nearby, the village of Johri in eastern Uttar Pradesh forbade the marriage of Yashpal’s daughter to a man of her choice because it violated caste norms.

Killing women to redeem honour has no Muslim pedigree in India. These dishonourable killings leap across caste and creed: Hindu, Sikh and Muslim, touchable and ‘untouchable’ are united in their agreement that avenging male honour entails killing one’s own women. Such killings may be carried out in public with the active connivance of village elders and caste panchayats (village councils), or in private by family members alone.

They may take place because women have chosen to love within the faith but not within permissible norms – like Maimun; or because women choose to transgress community and religious boundaries altogether by marrying across caste, community or ethnicity; or if they are audacious enough to commit adultery. Whatever the provocation, what they prove is that there is a patriarchal consensus around the violent ‘resolution’, so to speak, of the troublesome question of women’s sexuality.

Their sexual status – chaste, polluted or impure – is a matter of extreme and stringent control, and any attempt by women to resist it may be punished with death.

Some feminists and women’s groups in India who have been active in bringing all such cases to public and judicial attention, seriously question the use of the term ‘honour killings’ or ‘honour crimes’ to characterise this deadly form of violence against women – and, occasionally, men.

They argue that it obscures the true nature of the crimes by ‘othering’ them, seeing them as characteristic of non-modern societies, aberrant and irrational. They ask, instead, that we see such killings for what they are: violent acts of sexual control and subjugation of women in order to maintain either social and economic disparity, or the legitimate (caste, religious or ethnic) community.

All these stratifications are contingent upon the rigidity of boundaries; maintaining them, in turn, is contingent on endogamy, hence the strict supervision of women’s sexuality. Relationships of choice disrupt this continuity and threaten the political economy of communities. When a high-caste woman marries a Dalit man, for example, and then has the temerity to claim her inheritance, she rocks the boat of inequality and destroys the status quo in every respect.

Purna Sen of Amnesty International has identified six key features of what I shall now call dishonourable killings: patriarchal gender relations that are predicated on controlling and regulating women’s sexuality; the role of women in policing and monitoring women’s behaviour; collective decisions regarding punishment for transgressing boundaries; the potential for women’s participation in such killings; the ability to reclaim honour through enforced compliance or killings; and state and social sanction for such killings that recognise and acknowledge ‘honour’ as acceptable motivation, mitigation and justification.

In Maimun’s case, the marriage arranged by her parents to her uncle had the attraction of monetary gain, as well as conformity to family and social expectations.

When Maimun repudiated both, her mother was the first to react. ‘You infidel!’ she shrieked, ‘you have actually married a man from your own village, from another sub-caste – I will kill you! If they don’t slice you up, I will!’ And when a team of officials from the National Commission for Women went to the village to enquire into the violence, they were surrounded by villagers who shouted, ‘These are our customs, no one can interfere. Neither man nor god.’

In the other two cases above, the decision of the caste panchayat was taken on behalf of the whole village, collectively upholding its ‘honour’. Unlike elected panchayats, which are constitutionally empowered to function as institutions of self-governance, caste panchayats are illegal and unconstitutional.

They act as moral policemen to the communities they ‘govern’ through power that is often hereditary. ‘Office-bearers’ can be corrupt, and caste considerations weigh heavily when ‘justice’ is being dispensed. More important, however, they make for a curious legal conundrum. Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising says that caste panchayats displace the justice-dispensing function of the state and elevate informal or non-state systems of justice into ‘customary’ practice, recognised by law.

Such systems rarely recognise the principle of gender or social equality, and almost inevitably reinforce patriarchal gender relations. Their assumption of adjudicatory power, moreover, is in effect sanctioned by institutions of the state through inaction.

The experience of several activists and women’s groups who have reported dishonourable killings bears this out. The All India Democratic Women’s Association (Aidwa), which has documented killings in the north Indian state of Haryana, says that the police are reluctant to record them because the state machinery and caste panchayats are in cahoots.

Policemen have not set foot in the village of Johri for more than five years; and in Bijnore, when Pribha was being beaten, the beat constable was a mute witness. When AIDWA activists have exposed the killings, the villagers themselves and the panchayats try to cover them up. Post-mortems, which are crucial in establishing that women have been murdered, are never conducted. And in a recent menacing twist, AIDWA activists have been told that they should pay protection money to the local panchayat because their safety is at risk from charged-up villagers and avenging families.

In the rare instance that a case comes up to the National Commission for Women or the National Commission for Human Rights, justice dispensed by the court in favour of the women may easily be reversed by murderous vigilantism.

Maimun, who was left for dead, was discovered by an elderly couple on the road where she had been abandoned. They nursed her back to health and restored her to Idris. The Commission took up her case and successfully fought it in the Supreme Court. Four years later, Maimun was killed by her younger brother who declared that only a dead sister could restore his family’s honour.

Contrary to the image they conjure up of barbaric communities living in the dark ages, these dishonourable killings take place in modern societies, in broad daylight, with the full knowledge of those in charge of upholding the law. They are crimes against the state as much as they are vendettas against particular groups, clans or families.

Yet the state, through acts of omission and commission, and through its tacit endorsement of patriarchal privilege—including the right to kill transgressors—aligns itself with the perpetrators. It would seem that for the state, too, a woman’s body is a man’s property, to dispose of as he will.

Ritu Menon is the founder of the feminist publishing house Women Unlimited and a co-founder of Kali for Women.

By Rohan Jayasekera

Rohan Jayasekera is a journalist, editor and online free expression advocate, tracking human rights, digital media, cultures of change and the conflict zeitgeist.