Mehtab Alam is, by all accounts, a fine upstanding pious man. He’s the sort of eldest son everyone admires. He adored his siblings, brought up his brothers and sisters, taking them back and forth from school. He had to drop out of school himself but now he owns two textile workshops. His neighbour told the media that if one of his siblings was sick and could not eat, he would not eat as well. “He is a quiet, soft-spoken man but would go to any extent to save his family’s honour,” the neighbour told the Times of India.
Last week Mehtab Alam, 29, decapitated his sister Nilofer, 22, with a ceremonial sword, left her bleeding body on the street, and walked into the local thana with her severed head in one hand and the bloody sword in the other and surrendered to the police.
His sister’s crime? The woman, a mother of two, married off at the age of 14, had run away from home to live with an old boyfriend, a rickshaw driver. Mehtab had already beaten up the rickshaw driver once for his earlier liaison with the sister. This time he tracked her down to the man’s house, dragged her out onto the street and killed her. The man’s sister who tried to save Nilofer is in hospital with grievous injuries, her hand almost chopped off.
Now that the initial horror of a man walking down a busy street in the southern outskirts of Kolkata with a severed head has worn off, there is something even more horrific happening. There is a swelling chorus of voices trying to justify the crime of Mehtab Alam. Mehtab, they say, is an honourable man.
“He meted out social justice to his sister… Social and religious mores support his stand,” Rashid told the Hindustan Times. “He followed the model code where a married woman cannot have an affair unless she gets a divorce,” his uncle Samsuddin Mollah told The Times of India. “The act is justified to keep society on the track of religion,” another Ayubnagar resident, Rehman, told the Hindustan Times.
Mehtab Alam’s grisly crime is morphing into a testimonial to how deeply he loved and cared for his family. That he used a sacrificial sword almost imbues the act with the fervour of righteous fire. “What Alam did is according to Shariah but not according to law,” his neighbour Mohammad Yunus Khan said. Mehtab Alam now sits in custody like some 21st century incarnation of the prisoner in Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
But there is nothing brave about what Mehtab Alam did. That he committed his crime on the open street, and then walked calmly to the police station with the severed head instead of just killing his sister secretly and dumping her body in some pond is not proof of his upright moral character like some freedom fighter of yore. His courage is the just the blind conviction of fathers and brothers who confuse love with ownership or at least refuse to see any difference between the two.
So Mohammad Zafar and his wife in Pakistan controlled Kashmir doused their teenaged daughter with acid for turning to look at a boy who drove by on a motorcyle in November 2012. Sanjana Devi and her three-year-old daughter were hacked to pieces and thrown into the Ganga near Patna by her brother who had not forgiven her for marrying a man from a different caste. A Belgian man of Indian origin, Mehtab Singh was arrested in Amritsar in 2010 for allegedly strangling his stepdaughter to death and trying to pass it off as suicide. He opposed her relationship with a lower-caste Indian origin man in Belgium. The dishonour roll is long. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan claims that in 2011, at least 943 women were murdered, nine had their noses chopped off, 47 were set on fire and 38 burned with acid.
“He is the last man to believe that he has committed a medieval, barbaric act,” a police officer told the Times of India about Mehtab Alam. But it happens too often to be dismissed as the "medieval" excesses of Luddite khap councils or Talibanesque village committees. “We are not illiterate people. We are very much educated people,” protested a family member to NDTV defending the two young men accused of the triple honour killing of Kuldeep, his wife Monica and her cousin Shobha in Delhi in 2010. In Kolkata, Rizwanur Rahman’s body was found on the railway tracks, weeks after he married Priyanka Todi, a relationship her rich industrialist family opposed tooth and nail. Then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee demanded a CBI inquiry into the alleged collusion between her father Ashok Todi and the police top brass.
We cannot, in the name of religious or cultural sensitivities, turn our eyes away from what lies at the heart of acts like these. As The Telegraph points out in an editorial:
The crime that is usually referred to as ‘honour killing’ in the subcontinent arises out of an obscure knot of energies held within the traditional family that are profoundly gendered and just as profoundly — though inscrutably— sexual, even when they connect brother and sister, or father and daughter. These energies are necessarily violent, built on potential brutal inequalities of power and agency.
The very word “honour killing” that is being thrown around to describe this horrendous crime, stinks. It carries embedded within the phrase itself, a justification for the crime. Nilofer’s great crime was not that she brought dishonour on her family or abandoned her two children. Her greatest transgression was that she thought, at 22, she could run away to live her own life, even if it was with a man her family did not approve of. But men like her brother, fine upstanding family men, good providers all, consider women like Nilofer as their property. Sometimes they think acid will suffice to stake that claim. Sometimes they brandish the sword. Either way the Nilofers pay the price.
It’s time we stop calling these honour killings. There is no honour in them whatsoever. They are murders and of the worst kind.