From triple talaq to honour killing, 'tradition' is an excuse used to suppress women
From triple talaq to honour killings, sati, johar, infanticide — why are traditions that harm women seen as protective mechanisms?
“She was just a few hours old. I allowed them to feed her the juice of a poisonous plant. They ground the leaves on that grinding stone in the corner. That is how girls have always been sent to their maker in our family.”
I took a deep breath and looked at the verdant green fields around me. The year was 1993. I couldn’t believe that this was happening in 20th century India. The woman in front of me was an agricultural labourer in Madurai and she was telling me about her new born daughter who was killed a couple of weeks ago. She had died within a few hours after she was born.
“We are very poor,” she said defensively, justifying her action. “We cannot afford another daughter. We cannot afford streedhanam (dowry) and seere varasai (the household goods and other gifts given to the bride by her family). Better to send her to heaven than let her suffer.”
She really could not see anything wrong with what she had done. She believed that death was an answer to the miseries life inflicts upon women. No one had ever told her anything different.
Traditionally, death has often been touted as a means of protecting women. In Punjab, infant girls were buried alive in mud pots, in Gujarat they were drowned in milk, in Tamil Nadu they were fed poison. Whole communities believed that killing was a means of protecting women because they symbolised family honour which was more important than life itself.
The director of an NGO fighting female infanticide in Punjab told me: “There is evidence of this even in our Puranas. Remember, even Sita was found buried in a pot by King Janaka.”
Many reasons were given for killing women to save them from a “fate worse than death”. In the violent past, women were pushed into funeral pyres to save them from being raped by marauding armies. Similar justifications were given for female infanticide. Whole villages in Rajasthan and Haryana actually boasted of having no girls in their families over generations.
Today the killing of women for their own protection is not overtly visible. Murderous traditions like sati and female infanticide are banned by law. But society still covertly believes that women need to be kept within bounds for their own protection and that they should be punished if they cross that other mythological symbol of male control: the Lakshman Rekha.
Take for instance honour killings. Some families actually believe that they are protecting their daughter from a fate worse than death by killing her or the person she has chosen to marry.
What fate can be worse than death? Marrying out of gotra or religion or caste or social stature? Young people have always been falling in love across cultures, religions and ethnicity. Who gives society the right to lynch them or families the right to kill them?
In 2007, Manoj and Babli who were neighbours fell in love while still in school. They belonged to the local Jat community and though they were in no way related to each other, the local khaap panchayat headed by Babli’s grandfather declared they were siblings and could not marry because they belonged to the same gotra. When they defied this decree and got married, the khaap ordered they should be killed. They were hounded by Babli’s brother, cousins and uncles, abducted and killed in a gruesome manner.
Manoj’s mother went to court. Three years and 50 hearings later, a Karnal district court gave death sentences to the five people involved in the actual murder and killing of the young couple. Babli’s grandfather, who ordered the killing but was not on the scene when it happened, was found guilty of criminal conspiracy and given a life sentence. This was a watershed judgement because the court recognised honour killing as murder for the first ever time.
But have things changed? According to an NGO which has been tracking honour killings in Tamil Nadu over the past three years, there have been 81 incidents of such deaths across the state. Many of them have been passed off as suicide.
In 2016, Shankar a Dalit youth who was about to graduate from engineering college was hacked to death in broad daylight next to a busy bus stand in Tamil Nadu. His crime? He had married his upper caste college mate Kausalya against her parents’ wishes. He was attacked with machetes and sickles by a gang of five men sent by her father. The hacking happened in full public view before the very eyes of his traumatised 19-year-old wife.
Subsequently Kausalya has spoken out several times about the events leading to the death of her husband.
She was the pampered daughter of a well-to-do family. More loved even than her younger brother. Her parents were very protective and never denied her anything. That was until she fell in love with an “unsuitable” boy.
She fell in love with Shankar when she was 17. He was her senior in engineering college. When her parents found out about it, all hell broke loose. She eloped with him as soon as she turned 18. For one more year, she was hounded by her parents and relatives who even abducted her twice. She was beaten and fed 'magic potions' to make her forget Shankar. When nothing worked, they were forced to let her go back to him.
But they never gave up. Goaded on by the taunts of their community members who said such disobedient daughters should be killed, they sent a gang of five men to hack Shankar to death. Kausalya too was badly injured. She says that everyone in her extended family was involved in the conspiracy… her uncles and aunts and cousins and even perhaps her grandparents who pretended to be on her side.
Kausalya, now 20, has one major aim in life: She wants to see her parents and all those who conspired to kill Shankar hanged. Only that, she says, will send a message to parents that they cannot kill their own children for falling in love.
Maybe she will get justice, but the reality is that such cases rarely end in conviction as close family members are involved. The emotionally and physically traumatised young women are mostly blackmailed or threatened into withdrawing their complaints. That is if they survive the murderous assault. If they die, the death could be passed off as suicide.
Ironically, honour killing was being touted as a traditional protection mechanism for women. Just like triple talaq.
A victim of triple talaq told me recently that her former husband said talaq thrice in quick succession in the middle of the night and before she knew it, she was standing on the street and he had locked the door in her face.
“I was alone on a dark street in the middle of the night,” she said. “Is this what the elders call protection?” She was 20. She got her instant divorce two years ago, but the memory still haunts her… of that night she spent alone on a dangerous city street, shivering in the cold and knocking fruitlessly on the door which would not open.
Life has not been kind to her after that. She is now married to a man much older than her. She is his second wife and is often beaten by the senior wife for minor mistakes. She is bitter. Her parents are old. She is uneducated. Staying married is her only means of “protection”.
Archaic “traditional” methods of protection are no longer valid in vibrant 21st century India where women are free and equal in the eyes of law. In fact they need to be protected from unjust social practices which often stem from outmoded social mores.
In today’s world, protection for a woman does not come from elders who prohibit her from using a cell phone. Or from lynching mobs who hurt and kill in the name of religion. Or from lecherous godmen who exploit in the name of God. Or the moral police who have neither moral nor legal authority.
It can come from the most untraditional sources. For her the much maligned cell phone is her means of protection. A device which can help her communicate with friends, family and the enforcers of law. Protection can come from friends at college or colleagues in the office who actually care for her safety. It can come from her own street smartness and ability to fend for herself. It can come from supportive families and partners.
And most importantly, it can come from the makers and enforcers of the law who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that all citizens are protected and that gender justice always prevails.
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