Written By: Reema Dudekula
Edited By: Clarissa Lilananda
Trigger Warning: This piece deals with topics of abuse, murder, and rape.
Violence against women and their autonomy over monumental decisions that shape their lives is possibly the most persistent forms of gender violence that the global society has witnessed. Such violence is prominent in societies where notions of male superiority and coerced female subordination thrive.
“Honour” crimes are mostly committed against women from exercising control over matters of marriage and love. These crimes are usually concealed, leaving the perpetrators unpunished. Thus, enabling such practices. “Honour killings” are murders of teenage and young adult women by their fathers or male relatives based on codes of morality.
Widespread in India, Pakistan, and the Middle East, women continue to be killed for honour. First and foremost, it is necessary to unpack and clarify the term “honour killings'' because of the implication that these crimes are ‘honourable’ and purported to be culturally significant. These dangerous assumptions can lead to attitudes that, instead of sparking outrage, normalises such practices. Honour – as an idea – is a social construction used to determine ‘norms’, which in turn, is used to commit violence against women.
Statistics on honour killings are limited, with most cases going unreported and the only research available indicating that the ones that are reported get classified as suicides (Reuters, 2017).
In 2018, the National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 30 murders with motives that were filed as “honour killings”.
In India, caste and honour are closely entwined. Inter-caste relationships and marriages pose a threat to the caste hierarchy and for the upkeep of that hierarchy, it is imperative to eradicate them. For instance, journalist Nirupama Pathak was murdered by her own mother for wanting to marry a man of a lower caste, whose baby she was pregnant with. Coming from Haryana, a state in India that is statistically proven to subordinate women from a young age (as it has the highest rate of selective female fetus abortions), such honour killings are usually forgiven by ‘khaps’ – kangaroo courts that even issue warrants for the executions of those who disobey the caste system.
The Dalit community is usually the group that finds itself at the mercy of this harrowing practice. A Dalit organisation named Evidence recorded 187 cases of killings based on caste between 2012 and 2017 in Tamil Nadu alone (Reuters). Dalit men are meted out with the most violent punishments if they marry women of more privileged castes. The gruesome murder of V. Shankar, a 22-year-old Dalit engineering student for marrying Kausalya, a woman from a higher caste marked the second time capital punishment had been awarded for honour killing. Kausalya’s parents had ordered the attack and fortunately, Kausalya survived. Today, she is an active anti-caste activist who fights the deeply entrenched patriarchal practices that haunt India today (Firstpost).
Honour killings are not exclusive only to inter-caste relationships but also inter-faith relationships. ‘Love Jihad’ is the term we usually hear in reference to Hindu-Muslim relationship. Leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have known to instigate fear of the ‘Love Jihad’ movement among Hindu families to grow a stronger rift between Hindus and Muslims which consequently, grows support for Narendra Modi’s desire for a Hindu nationalist state. These radical groups do not fear from using brute violence to achieve these aims.
Despite modernising attitudes towards marriage which sees more among the youth marrying for love rather than obligation, such attitudes persist. In fact, due to waning levels of people who adhere to caste hierarchy, radical groups have taken law into their own hands by doling out ‘punishments’ to those who refuse to abide by it.
‘Honour killing’ cases were taken to the Supreme Court of India after Shakti Vahini v Union of India sparked outrage. On 27th March 2018, a landmark ruling was given. Preventing two consenting adults from marrying would be considered ‘illegal’ and the punitive measures taken against such crimes were laid down. While this ruling has been a long time coming and is monumental, honour killings still persist in India. Caste and honour are political and in countries like India, politics are controlled by men. Hence, women are subjugated and their autonomy is taken from them. Women’s movements have been protesting for laws against honour crimes and campaigning against patriarchal practices, that restrict women from enacting the choices they make.
In Pakistan, the situation is no different. A study done by the European Journal of Public Health deduced that 9 out of 10 victims of honour killings were killed because of extramarital relations. These statistics are obtained from cases that were reported but it is imperative to note that most honour killings are logged as suicides or natural deaths. One of the most infamous honour killings in Pakistan in recent times was of Qandeel Baloch, a social media star who was murdered by her brother for the ‘provocative’ content she had posted online.
MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA (MENA)
Statistics show that the Middle East and Africa are considered the epicentres of honour-based violence. Thus, honour killings. Such violence is, just like in India, intertwined with religion. Radicalised ideas of male superiority are often interwoven into how religion views gender and hence, patriarchal law calls for women to be honourable. For instance, Article 630 of the Iranian Penal Code states that a man who witnesses his wife having coitus with another man is allowed to kill both of them if he is certain that his wife consented to the tryst. If she didn’t consent, the husband has the right to kill the man (Cornell Law School).
Honour killings are predominantly ubiquitous in areas where there is little to no space given to civic activism. Raising awareness against such crimes from within the community means that one is expressing objections against the traditions that bind the community. The fact that institutions in these countries have not adopted zero tolerance towards killing in the name of honour, shows that there are still many that harbour feelings of acceptance. In a survey conducted across MENA to determine the nature of attitudes towards honour killings, 27% of the respondents in Algeria claimed that ‘honour killings’ are acceptable. A report released by the UNFPA stated that individual actions and a desire for change in itself can make significant differences.
The COVID-19 pandemic saw lockdowns being implemented in most countries around the world, which saw a surge in the number of domestic abuse cases worldwide. On top of this, there was an increase in the number of honour killings.
A link can be drawn between socio-economic factors (such as social status, poverty, modernisation, and education) and the deep-seated beliefs that drive one to kill based on ‘honour’.
The Elsevier Public Health Emergency accounted that provinces in Iran where most cases of honour killings were reported, were also the ones with the highest rates of poverty and unemployment. Such heinous crimes of violence against women cannot be excused under any circumstance. However, there is a link between social circumstances and the predisposition of these harmful attitudes towards women.
Additionally, women are not given a platform to subvert the conditions they are coerced to live in. While their outlooks on feminism and equality become increasingly progressive, the patriarchal attitudes of the men intensify. Modernisation threatens tradition and advocates female empowerment and freedom. Hence, to protect archaic traditions, women who desire and act upon their desire to exercise their autonomy must be eradicated. This eradication is done in the name of honour and under the guise of righteousness. Banaz Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurdish 20-year old woman, was murdered by her uncle and father because she divorced her abusive (ex)husband and pursued a relationship with an Iranian man of her choice. Yet again, those complicit in her murder roamed free until her sister, Bekhal Mahmod, aided police in investigations of her sister’s death. Banaz’s father and uncle have been convicted and are serving their sentence in prison. Yet, Bekhal still lives under a new identity and under police protection because she fears falling victim to the same fate that her sister did.
There are organisations like Women Against Violence (WAV) that aim to break the silence surrounding abuse and violence against women. In 1992, a group of Arab women established support groups and shelters for abused women. The Director of the Nazareth-based organisation called Al-Tufula said that “We need to deal with the crime as a crime, without giving any legitimisation in our wording and attitude,” as “women were being murdered for being women.”
Education is an important tool to combat such violence – as it attacks the root of the problem. Instilling attitudes that encourage gender equality from a young age can help contribute to the larger aim of unlearning patriarchal notions of female subservience. This can help restructure young boys’ understanding of consent, respect and gender equality. It is tragic that women’s voices are heard only after they die.
This pattern must stop, for there is no honour in honour killings.